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Our Little Ones and Sugar

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By Jack Maypole, Contributing Writer and Goddard School Educational Advisory Board Member

As a pediatrician, we talk a great deal about childrenfood and children’s growth. For the vast majority of children, this is a topic easily broached by asking what their favorite foods are (pizza and tacos reign supreme) and what they like to drink (many say water, actually, and only a few admit they guzzle juice or soda). It is a fun way to start a conversation on a very broad and potentially complicated topic.  

After more than a couple of decades in practice, I get it. Food is love. Food is culture. Food is fun. Food is delicious. As North Americans, our love of food comes with a rather demanding sweet tooth. Along with this inclination comes parents who are rightfully concerned about their children’s sugar intake.  

I want to assure you, however, that many times the concern isn’t necessary – parents are well informed and smart about offering children nutritious foods. However, the lure of sugar is strong in children, and sometimes it’s hard to say no to those precious, pleading faces. While limiting sugar may seem daunting at times because it’s in just about everything, there are two takeaway messages we should remember: 

  1. Children are not destined to turn into cupcakes or refuse to eat anything but tablespoons of sugarno matter what Mary Poppins says. Has anyone verified her medical license?  
  2. We can help children develop healthy habits and reduce the amount of sugar in their dietscreate sugar hacks, if you will  when considering a tasty snack, confection, fine beverage or dessert.   

(Sort of a chew on this, eschew that, right?) 

I’ll channel a chat I have with parents who are concerned about their child’s weight. Ideally, we’ve been having this conversation all the way along: limiting sweet snacks as you are able and encouraging a balanced diet. It sounds easy, but if you ever walk into a supermarket, there are a lot of options competing for (and winning over) children’s taste buds. It is our role as grownups to push back on the siren calls of cupcakes and Sour Patch Kids and to set some limit, somewhere.  

I am not one to say never: never dessert, never candy, never soda. Absolute vows tend to fail absolutely. I am more about saying *sometimes* for sugary foods and drinks versus not allowing them at all. Should one eat ice cream for every meal? No, that is absurd, and children get it. Should one have more than a cup of soda or juice a day? The answer here is no, but it may require some explanation. Having juice or soda sometimes, but not all the time, can be okayas long as a child eats balanced meals overall for the day. 

So, if you are setting up a menu for a few days, how could you swap in some healthy alternatives instead of having frosted sugar bombs for dinner?  

Here are a few ideas:  

Hot days will continue well into September, so it may be handy to have a cool and smart alternative to sugary popsicles. Aren’t 100% juice popsicles better than the alternative because they’re natural? Great try, marketers, but no. Many products have additional sweeteners. One might do better to blend some fresh fruit (mixed berries, say, or mango or peach) and put the mixture in an ice cube tray. Delish.    

Is the snack cabinet full of cookies and tasty, carb-loaded sugary items? The best approach to this category is to limit how much fun food you purchase. If you don’t have it in stock, then they can’t senselessly nosh on it. Instead, put a bowl of fresh fruit that is in season on the kitchen table as appropriate for your children’s ages, including bananasapples, peaches or a small pile of washed berries.  

I might go one step further and help your preschoolers work with a peeler to learn how to peel an apple. Can they peel the whole skin in one go? Probably not, but trying can be a fun challenge. Just be sure to limit their attempts to one bit of fruit at a time so you don’t walk into the kitchen to see a pile of naked fruit. A grownup can slice the fruit into appropriate pieces for rapid consumption. 

Beverages are an area where there is some latitude. I advise parents to avoid buying juice or soda altogether if it is too much of a temptation. (If you do buy OJ, for example, be sure to buy the variety with calcium and vitamin D supplements.) For children over two years old, 2% milk is fine, within reason. For you fans out there, chocolate milk is a SUGARY drink, best considered almost like a soda for all the glucose it has in there. Drinking two or three cups of cow’s milk a day is ideal for growing, but many children take far less than that, taking water instead, I find. Flavored seltzer can be a great option instead of sugary sodas. Sugarfree juices like Crystal Lite and diet sodas are a bit controversial (the longterm effects of the artificial sweeteners remain an area of concern) but may be a reasonable concession for some families. 

Then, there is dessert. “Should we let children eat dessert? I get asked. Yes, in moderation in terms of amount and frequency. For example, if you have a dessert after dinner of blueberries in a bowl of milk, then no problem. If a child has a hankering for a bowl of ice cream and hot fudge every day, I’d think that through, in terms of how that fits with a child’s or family’s profile. For most children, though, having an occasional bowl or cone of ice cream or some other sugary fare is not an issue.  

I will say that I’d encourage children to eat a reasonable portion of their dinner BEFORE they tuck into a sweet aftermeal snack. Some children get overly clever at this sort of meal replacement and push away their plate and eat a double helping of the afterdinner treat 

Bookstores, cookbooks, family filing cabinets and the internet (such as ChopChopFamily.org – Recipes) are full of ideas for balanced meals and less sugary options for our children. I think we all will be more successful if we think holistically about how our children eat across the days and the weeks. Are they eating a balance of protein, fat and some carbs? Are we offering them, to the extent possible, fresh foods and options that are lessoften sweetened or enriched with corn syrup? Once we have an idea of what we want to offer them, it is important to look at one’s cabinets (or secret candy stashes from last Halloween) and understand where all of their calories are coming from. 

Work with your children to understand their favorite foods, and work with them on a Sunday evening to build a menu for the week using their input for some of the entries (let the children take turns choosing a topfive food for dinner one night each week) and build on their choices and preferences. Fried chicken is okay. Fried Oreos may not be.  

With this in mind, we can get back to the basics that make eating together an occasion of love, culture, togetherness and joy, without the sugar high to follow if you are lucky!  

Bon appétit.