Let Your Kids Eat As Many Sweets As They Want This Holiday Season
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The winter holidays are a time for indulgence. From Christmas cookies to eggnog, yule logs to gingerbread men, there’s a lot to eat and drink around the holidays. But once the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, most adults vow to turn over a new leaf, to “correct” the “bad” behavior of the holiday season with a hard return to dieting and the gym. Witnessing this annual roller coaster makes a strong impression on kids — and these mixed messages around food and enjoyment can set them up for disordered eating and body image issues down the road.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, says Virginia Sole-Smith, a health journalist and author of the bestselling book Fat Talk: Parenting In The Age Of Diet Culture. “I would think of holidays as a time to enjoy special foods you don’t get to eat often, to be with loved ones, and to focus on this as a time for pleasure and celebration and being together,” says Sole-Smith. “Holiday treats are not something you have to earn, and they’re not something you have to atone for afterwards.”
The good news for parents? Your only job is to model enjoyment and appreciation of holiday treats and to refrain from self-criticism. Don’t limit your kids’ desserts. Don’t force them to eat foods they don’t want to. Let them listen to their bodies and make their own decisions.
“Short-term, they’re not eating a lot of vegetables and they’re eating a lot of cookies,” acknowledges Sole-Smith. But long-term, she says, “They’re building trust and body autonomy, and that serves their health in a lot of really important ways.”
Watching kids forego vegetables and roasted turkey for cookie after cookie can be unsettling for parents, especially if other family members give you grief about your approach. But giving up that control, says Sole-Smith, rather than trying to force your kid to eat the green beans and ham, can make for the most relaxed holiday season yet — all while raising the healthiest kids.
Scenario 1: The Kids Only Want Dessert
During the holiday season, there’s a lot of cookies and other sweets. Do you limit how much your kids can have, especially if they only want to eat dessert?
I don’t. I take the approach of when food is offered, whatever the food is, my kids are in charge of how much they’re going to eat. There’s a lot of good research to support this. If you say to kids, “You have to finish your carrots before you can have the cookies,” there’s a lot of studies showing that kids will eat less of the carrots, they will like the carrots less, they will view the carrots as just a means to an end, and you won’t actually be showing your kids that lots of different foods are delicious in different ways. You’ll be showing them vegetables are this necessary evil you have to suffer through to get what you really want. I try really hard not to put foods in competition with each other like that.
So when dessert is around, my kids are allowed to have as much of it as they want, as long as there’s enough for everyone to share. One kid’s not going to eat the whole plate of cookies and leave none for the rest of us. I’ll ask, “Did everyone get one? If yes, you can have another one,” or, “Check if anyone else wants seconds before you have thirds.”
I think parents get really stressed because there are a lot more treats around during the holiday season. But if you’re consistently taking this approach, you’re going to see your kids regulating on their own terms, which will mean there will be times where they’ll be a little more discerning about which treats they’re really excited to have versus feeling like they have to eat everything because who knows when they’ll get it again? They’ll be more likely to take what they’re really hungry for, what really is going to taste good to them, and leave the rest.
When you’re moving to this way of eating — not restricting treats — is there an adjustment period for kids?
For younger kids, you’re going to see some trial and error with this anyway because they’re learning. A lot of these foods are new to them in the holiday season. If you’re 3, you don’t remember Christmas when you were 2, so Christmas cookies are new and exciting this year. Anytime a food is new and exciting, kids are probably going to want to eat a lot of it right away because there’s the novelty factor and they don’t know that they can trust that the cookies are going to be around for a few days.
You don’t learn how many cookies feel good in your body if you don’t occasionally eat more cookies than feels good in your body.
But in the immediate, it will look like your kids are eating a lot of treats. And if you have previously had a lot of rules around treats and really policed sugar in your house, you’re going to see that even more intensely. But that is a feature, not a bug, in your child. That is your child’s body saying, “This has been previously forbidden. Now we can eat it. Let’s eat as much as we can before it’s forbidden again.” You have to ride that out and rebuild some trust with your child so that your child can think, “I’m not going to be consistently policed around treats. My parents are going to trust me to figure this out on my own.”
And at the end, that doesn’t mean your kids will never eat candy or will get bored by cookies. It just means they will enjoy them and they will move on. It won’t be this fraught, frenetic experience.
How long does this adjustment period take? And are you worried about kids’ health during that time?
Your mileage may vary based on the family’s history around food. With younger kids, it tends to work itself out faster. I’ve interviewed families with 11-year-olds who are still sneaking lots of food and binging when they do get treats because they were restricted until age 9, and it takes a while to undo nine years of restriction. But if you’re dealing with a shorter time frame, it should start to work itself out faster.
I’m not worried about their health during this time because we know that with long-term health issues that are impacted by diet, you need years and years of eating a certain way before you’re going to drive up your cholesterol or mess with your blood sugar levels. Rome is not built in a day. Having a 3-year-old who’s going through a phase of eating a lot of cookies is not setting them up for some kind of long-term health issue.
Short-term, your kid might have a stomach ache because they ate a lot of candy one day. I think parents need to be a little less afraid of that. Obviously stomach aches are not fun, but we tend to catastrophize it instead of saying, “Yeah, our bodies can feel uncomfortable when we get super full, but your body knows what to do and you’ll feel better soon.” Trust that that’s part of the process. You don’t learn how many cookies feel good in your body if you don’t occasionally eat more cookies than feels good in your body.
If kids get excited about the Christmas cookies and don’t eat a lot of veggies or protein during the holiday season, does that make you worry?
No, because, again, nutrition is a long game. They have their whole lives to learn to eat different vegetables. Whether or not they eat vegetables for a week is not going to have any long-term impacts on your child’s growth, their intellectual development, their overall happiness as a person.
If you do want to think big picture, it’s important to remember that what you’re doing by giving them this sense of body autonomy, by trusting them to listen to their own bodies around food, is setting them up for a long-term healthier relationship with food. Over time, this will lead to more varied eating in most cases, so kids will naturally gravitate to different food groups. It’ll also reduce their risk for future eating disorders, which is a really important health priority. In my mind, when we’re thinking about kids’ future health, reducing the risk that they’re going to have one of the deadliest mental health illnesses or the amount of physical impacts that a restrictive eating disorder can have on you, that’s a big piece of the puzzle.
Scenario 2: Your Extended Family Has Its Own Expectations Around Food
When taking this approach at holiday gatherings, how do you deal with other people’s comments about how your kids are eating?
This is so hard. If you know it’s going to be an issue, like you know that your dad always has something to say about your kid’s plate, I would try to do some work in advance. Let them know, “We know that Joey is a cautious eater, but we’re finding he’s doing really well learning to trust food on his own terms, so we’re going to try not to put pressure on him to eat a certain way.” Or you can say, “We’re really finding giving the kids more access to treats reduces a lot of stress for us around the holidays. Can you please follow our lead on this?”
Then if they do still say something in the moment, you can reference back and say, “This is the thing I was talking about. Could you follow our lead here?” It’s not going to result in grandparents or whoever immediately stopping all of their comments and totally changing their attitude. But it sets a boundary you can maintain.
The other piece of it I’ll say is if the comments come up and your child is there to hear them, it matters more what you say than what this other relative said. You have much more influence on your child. So if you take a breezy response, like, “Just try to follow our lead,” or if you didn’t have a chance to do that setup or that doesn’t work, you can say, “We trust their body. We’re not worried about this. It’s not a problem.” Then your kid is at least getting that reinforced.
This is for slightly older kids, but you can say afterwards, “Grandma’s kind of weird about cookies, but I’m really glad you got to enjoy cookies today, and you don’t need to worry about that.” You’re setting up for them like, “I trust you. I’m not worried about this other person. We love them, but they have their own thing and it doesn’t have to change how you feel.”
How do you approach relatives making comments on a child’s body, whether it’s something as innocuous as, “You look great,” or, “You’re getting so big,” or a more pointed comment about something like their weight?
I would probably do some prep work with older kids. I have a 10-year-old, and if I knew we were likely to hear comments about her body, I might say something ahead of time. Otherwise, again, in the moment there’s a couple ways you can go. One option is a pivot. I have daughters, so it’s a lot of, “Oh my God, you’re so pretty.” I’ll be like, “And smart too; ask her what she’s reading,” and just take it in a different direction.
If it’s a more negative comment, you jump in with the, “I trust their body. We’re not worried about this. We think they have a great body.” Again, you advocating for them matters more than the negative comment. You can also do a, “It’s really weird how much we’re talking about kids’ bodies,” kind of thing. And if you feel like it was a really loaded comment, you can unpack it with your kid later.
I’m not going to ruin my own holiday dying on some mountain, trying to get a kid to try a new food.
I think what happens is people make these comments because they don’t know how to talk to kids. In order to talk to them, they comment on what they see. Giving them other things to talk about can help move it along, like, “Ask her about the play she’s in at school.” “Ask her about dance class.” Help them out with other topics.
What do you make of manners, especially grandparents pushing for certain manners?
People often have out-of-line expectations with what a child is capable of. Manners are complicated to teach kids, and I focus on modeling how I want them to behave. I definitely do have certain lines, like no feet on the table is something I’m working on in my house right now, with middling success. But I find neither of my kids is great with a knife yet, and if someone commented on it, I would say, “We’re still learning that, but here, this is how,” and show my child. Explain to the person, “Yep, this is a work in progress over here.”
There’s a difference between manners where your child might be behaving in a way that really impacts other people’s comfort at the meal, like chewing with your mouth open, putting your feet on the table — these are things that are making the meal less pleasant for other people. Then there’s things like maybe the grandparents think that kids should sit at the table the whole time. But that’s not an age-appropriate expectation for a 4-year-old. So say, “We’re going to have her sit to eat, and then she can go play and we can enjoy our meal.” It’s okay to pick and choose which manners you’re going to focus on.
Scenario 3: Your Kid Is Especially Picky Around Holiday Tables
How do you deal with holiday meals if your child is a picky eater, especially if someone else is hosting?
There’s a couple ways you can approach this. I think you can offer to the host, “Thank you so much for having us. Would it be okay if I brought mac and cheese to share?” Because you know your kid will eat mac and cheese. If you feel like that’s not going to land, they don’t want you to show up with a dish, then I would feed your child before you go, have some snacks on hand that you can supplement with if you need to, but don’t plan on this meal being your kid’s main meal of the day. Don’t stress about what they do or don’t eat at the meal.
Holiday treats are not something you have to earn, and they’re not something you have to atone for afterwards.
And they may surprise you. A lot of picky eaters will eat quite differently in a social situation than they do at home. And they may completely not surprise you because also, big food holidays are usually not that much about food for kids, especially younger kids. There’s a lot of new and unfamiliar foods, they’re more interested in playing with their cousins, they’re not even going to stay at the table that long. There were so many Thanksgivings that my kids got through on goldfish and string cheese and it was fine. They had a great time playing with their cousins. I enjoyed my meal. I didn’t stress about the fact that they weren’t trying the Brussels sprouts. We have the rest of our lives for that.
Our big holiday meals are usually buffet style, so I’ll get a plate, walk down the line with my kids, explain what things are, and let them pick what they want on their plate. If they say “nothing,” I’m not going to ruin my own holiday dying on some mountain, trying to get a kid to try a new food. But I’ll make sure they’re aware of what their options are, and if we need to pull out a backup snack, we pull out a backup snack.
In terms of parents modeling behaviors for their kids, what should they be conscious about in terms of food and the holidays?
I would think of holidays as a time to enjoy special foods you don’t get to eat often, to be with loved ones, and to focus on this as a time for pleasure and celebration and being together. Holiday treats are not something you have to earn, and they’re not something you have to atone for afterwards. Try to avoid those comments of, “Diet starts Monday.” Avoid offhand negative food talk, because that does land in kids’ brains and shapes how they relate to food. And if you’re trying to reduce their fixation on treats, you modeling being able to enjoy treats with full permission to eat them is a really powerful way to do that.