Is it Ok to Give my Toddler Holiday Treats?
Let’s be honest—it’s pretty fun to watch the expression on a toddler’s face when they taste something sweet – especially during the holidays. Joy and delight are two words that come to mind—and there’s good reason! They taste really good! Not to worry--your little one isn’t going to suddenly turn into a cookie monster the second sugar hits their lips, but it’s important to be aware of how many treats they are eating.
Sweet tastes are familiar at birth. In fact, research shows that we have an innate preference for sweet, even starting in the womb (amniotic fluid is sweet)! Little ones experience relaxation and calmness after tasting something sweet, so it’s no wonder that they trigger positive reactions. Cute smiles aside, feeding a toddler super sweet foods to early or too often can lead to a strong preference for sweets, and desire for a more intense sweetness in foods.
BEFORE 24 MONTHS
It’s not recommended to offer daily treats or desserts with added sugar until at least 24 months (birthday cake is the exception – c’mon, I’m a realist too). Serving homemade “sweets” made without added sugar— perhaps something sweetened with fruit or one of Baby Gourmet’s unsweetened fruit or veggie pouches instead can be a nice alternative to dessert, and just as tasty!
The thing is, once toddlers taste the deliciousness that is a super sweet dessert, they experience a pleasure response in their brain, which includes the release of “happy hormones” (like dopamine), and, not surprisingly, they’ll crave that same feeling again and again. Who wouldn’t?! And once they make that association between a sweet food and that wonderful, fuzzy feeling, they’ll want to keep going back for more!
Recipe: Apple and Banana Mini “cupcakes”
2 cups rolled oats
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
3 ripe bananas, mashed (or 3 Baby Gourmet fruit and Veggie Pouches)
2 peeled, grated apples
1 cup plain yogurt
2 tbsp coconut oil
2 tsp vanilla
- Preheat oven to 375° Line mini muffin tin with paper or silicon liners
- In a large bowl, combine oats, cinnamon, baking powder and salt.
- In a second bowl, mix together banana, apple, yogurt, coconut oil and vanilla.
- Mix the wet and dry ingredients together.
- Transfer mixture to prepared mini muffin tins.
- Bake until golden brown on top. Cool, serve and freeze leftovers!
AFTER 24 MONTHS
It’s ok to introduce the odd treat or dessert after your toddler’s second birthday. Treats will likely be a part of your child’s life no matter what—whether it’s during the holidays, at birthday parties, or at friend or family member’s houses. You can’t really avoid them… nor should you! The keys are to introduce them at the right time, manage them in a healthy way, and teach your toddlers to eat them mindfully long-term.
Randomly offer sweet foods when it makes sense to you and for your family—perhaps once or twice a week, after a family meal, or maybe alongside a healthy snack, for no particular reason. Don’t make them a big deal and try not to restrict them too much either—this could trigger the "get it in while you can" mentality. You don’t want your toddler "saving up" for, or expecting treats, nor do you want them associating treats with a particular day, time, or meal.
Personally, I don’t often offer dessert after a meal – instead I make it really random (maybe a treat is offered mid-day as part of a snack, WITH a meal, or sometimes after a meal. I’ve done this on purpose- I don’t want to make an association with mealtimes and dessert, so that my kids expect it every night. Instead, it’s a surprise and treat when it happens, and it doesn’t affect their intake of food otherwise.
Don’t use treats as a reward or bribe:
Try not to bribe your toddler with treats (“If you’re good in the grocery store, you can have a cookie”) or use treats as a reward (“you were such a good boy at the doctor, would you like a cookie?”). This only increases their desirability and appeal. Much the same, rewarding your toddler with dessert foods because they ate their veggies at dinner is clearly communicating that veggies are to be avoided and desserts are to be desired. This may work VERY well short term (and trust us, we know how tempting it is to use this strategy), but long term, you’re not doing your toddler any favors.
When you stay calm and matter-of-fact when serving and talking about treats and desserts, it puts them on a level playing field with other foods, and takes the excitement down a notch. Treats shouldn’t be used as a reward or bribe, and they should be served with no strings attached.
Decide on an amount that feels right:
There’s no hard and fast rule about how often or how much — this is family-dependent. As mentioned, I suggest serving desserts occasionally, at various times, and without much warning, so that there’s no “saving up” or rushing through the meal to get to it quicker. It’s important that nutrient-dense, whole foods fill precious tummy space first and foremost, and treats are the fun add-on. As the parent, you’re in charge of the meal, snack and treat timing, so without saying too much, you can orchestrate when treats are offered based on how you feel your toddler has eaten otherwise.
In my house, I offer three to four “fun foods” (treats) a week, randomly and without strings attached. Sometimes it’s after dinner, sometimes it’s part of afternoon snack, and occasionally I even serve a small portion with a meal. We don’t make a big deal of them!