Kids eat more sugary foods today than at any other time in our history. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), sugar makes up about 17% of what children consume each day. Why are sugary foods gaining a stronghold in kids’ diets? For one, there’s simply more options available. Also, kids are being introduced to them earlier, cementing a preference for them.
What’s a parent to do? Some parents have unwittingly turned into food cops, policing every morsel of food that enters their child’s mouth. Others feel they’ve been set up to fail. Navigating these foods without controlling them seems super-human.
I get it. As a pediatric dietitian, I’ve seen families struggle with sweets and treats. On the one hand, parents want their kids to enjoy them. On the other hand, they don’t want them to take over the healthy diet they’ve worked hard to establish.
The good news is there’s a way to manage them. A way that will allow your child to enjoy them without ruining his healthy diet or his relationship with you or food.
But first, let’s clarify what constitutes sugar, because many parents are confused.
What is added sugar?
The sugar recommendations for kids and the guidelines put out by health organizations, detail the limits on added sugar. Added sugar is the refined sugar, such as white sugar, brown sugar or agave, that’s added to foods during processing. For example, homemade cookies and quick breads have a cup or two of sugar in the recipe, which makes them sweet. Added sugar is found in candy, cookies, and sweetened beverages like soda and lemonade.
Other foods contain added sugar but aren’t so obvious – they’re hidden. They may be found in mayonnaise, bread, baby food, cereal, crackers, tortillas, sausages, salad dressings, packaged oatmeal, yogurt, and spaghetti sauce, for instance.
Recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA) state that children’s added sugar intake should be less than 6 teaspoons per day (or less than 25 grams). This doesn’t mean the number of teaspoons you actually add to your child’s food. This is the daily added sugar allowance from all food sources, including obvious and hidden sources.
For younger children (under the age of two years), experts from the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) caution against introducing added sugar in the daily diet. If you can hold off on introducing sweets and treats until later, you can get a head start on helping your child develop healthy eating habits.
Reading the ingredient labels on food packages can help you detect added sugar. Words that end with “-ose,” like sucrose or glucose, and ingredients such as honey, molasses, agave, and coconut sugar indicate sources of added sugar.
What Does Not Constitute Added Sugar?
Sometimes parents get confused about sugar, vilifying fruit or milk as sources of sugar. They see the Nutrition Facts Panel and see the word “Sugars” and automatically think it means added sugar. It doesn't. There’s actually a separate line for added sugars, which makes interpreting the labels on food packages much easier.
The nuance is this: Yes, fruit and milk contain sugar, specifically fructose and lactose, but these are not added. They occur naturally. Grapes, banana and watermelon are naturally packaged with sweetness. Nature intended milk to have lactose, and fruit to have fructose as part of the package. Because these foods don’t contain a source of added sugar, you won’t find formal limitations for them in the diets of children.
How to Balance Sweets and Treats
Including sweets and treats in the diets of children is a balancing act. Research informs us that eliminating them altogether or tightly controlling them may drive children to like them more and overindulge when eating them. Alternatively, creating a free-for-all with sweets will likely lead to overeating them. You need to hit the sweet spot - a strategy for including sweets.
Here are some suggestions:
- Use the 90 – 10 Rule. The 90 - 10 rule is based on the idea that 10% of calories in the daily diet come from sugary and fatty foods, or sweets and treats. Essentially, 90% of what kids eat should be nutritious, wholesome foods, leaving the remaining balance for sweets and treats. For most kids, this ends up being one or two sweets and treats per day, on average, and in a normal serving size.
- When do sweets make sense? You can make sweets a part of your everyday life, or not. Some families do well with a petite sweet every day, served alongside a meal or snack. Other families experience more sweets on the weekends due to parties, sports and other family activities, so they pick a day or two during the week for sweets and treats and allow more on the weekends. Figure out the right balance that will work for your family.
- Use naturally sweet foods to curb cravings. How about a bowlful of fruit with a dollop of vanilla yogurt? Or a piece of peanut butter toast with a few carob chips perched on top? The treats in our Sunnie® lunch kits are primarily made with dates, which are a source of natural sugar, not added sugar. While you may find some coconut sugar here and there, we add the least amount for the most flavor.
- Focus on eating enjoyment. Allow your child to enjoy sweets when he has them. No guilt trip. Period. This may damage his relationship with food, and confuse him. After all, sweets do taste good!
- Don’t blame your child (or yourself) if your child likes sweets. Our little ones are human. And they’re wired for a sweet preference (amniotic fluid and breast milk are sweet!). Our larger food environment puts sweets and treats front and center for kids. If they taste them, see them, and smell them, they’ll probably like and want them.
Whether we like it or not, sweets and treats are part of the childhood nutrition experience. We need to help our kids navigate them, and not instill guilt or create unhealthy eating habits.
At Sunnie, we're committed to creating what we call "next generation" sweets, using low glycemic sweeteners or natural sugars. Yes, we include a sweet treat in every lunch pack. But, our nutritionist uses the 90 – 10 Rule to balance all our lunch kits. We focus on natural sources of sweetness and try hard to eliminate added sugar in our treats. Just look at our nutrition panel. You’ll find low sugars (which mostly come from natural sources) and no added sugar.
We know you want to feel good about what you feed your child. And we believe your child should enjoy eating balanced meals, even with a sweet treat.
Jill Castle, MS, RDN