Keeping Our Kids Sweet Without All the Sweets!

On the heels of this evening’s story on 60 Minutes about the toxicity of sugar, I thought it would be fitting to reprint this story I recently wrote for my son’s elementary school magazine, due to be published later this week. I figure it’s worth sharing, especially if you do not maintain an absolutely sugar free household. Perhaps someday I will be there, but I’m not now. This article is dedicated to all the other parents out there who are straddling their desire to indulge in the earthly delights of sweets and also maintain the health of themselves and their families.

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One of our biggest daily challenges is to find new and interesting ways to feed our children in a healthy manner. I am lucky that my son loves all different kinds of foods, including vegetables, fruits, meats, cheese and fish. He actually counts broccoli as one of his favorites! Still, I often find myself staring at the refrigerator shelves, wondering what the heck I can conjure up for dinner.

These days, there are a lot of opinions as to what constitutes a healthy diet. Some people espouse a vegetarian or vegan approach, while others focus on fat intake. Some people swear by a high protein diet, while others stick more to lots of whole grains. While I am not a dietician or a nutritionist, I did work in the holistic health field for nearly twenty years, and I have tried to carry a spirit of moderation into my outlook on cooking and eating. Although I know that different diets work for different people, one thing I believe is central to good nutrition is the need to cut down on refined sugars.

It doesn’t take a medical degree to be able to recognize what happens to our kids when we sugar them up. We’ve all lived through enough birthday parties and holidays (especially the big candy fest, Halloween!) to have observed our kids running around like lunatics, only to collapse in tears of frustration hours later when they come down off their sugar high.

The thing we need to recognize is that candy, cake and cookies, while obvious sources of sugar, are not the only culprits. Breakfast cereals, sweetened yogurts and processed fruit snacks and drinks can also be responsible for negatively affecting our kids’ moods and energies… not to mention their ability to focus and be productive in school as well as in their hobbies or other leisure activities. Moreover, we are seeing increasing links between the national rise in sugar intake and corresponding levels of childhood obesity, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

Sadly, like many other substances, sugar is pretty addicting. Unless you want to deal with a major withdrawal reaction, I wouldn’t suggest suddenly banning sugar from your household in one day. (Do the words “cold turkey” mean anything to you?) I recommend a more gradual approach, without fanfare, to help your family, and their palates, slowly adjust to a new way of eating. I’m pretty sure you will find that over time, moods will improve and energy will balance out a little, and as a bonus, you will be helping yourself and your family to maintain a healthier weight and guard against preventable forms of diabetes, heart disease and other inflammatory conditions.

Wanna see if your children are addicted to sugar? Try this simple test. Take a quick look at your daily diet. If you are in the routine of serving something sweet at every single meal, with juice or soda to drink, and dessert to top it off, try eliminating one of those elements. Just one. If you find that your child begins crying and having a tantrum at the suggestion of not serving dessert one night, you might have a bit of a problem.

I realize it may seem pretty radical to eliminate sugar altogether. It takes a lot of concentrated effort. Some have done it, but of course it’s easier for those who have raised their children that way from birth, so their kids have never really had a chance to develop a sweet tooth. While I started out that way, by the age of three, it was no longer possible to keep all sugar away from my son, because there is just so much of it out in the world! Birthday parties and holiday gatherings were the first places he began to sample sugary goodies. It became hard to limit them completely after that, especially since I have a bit of a sweet tooth myself!

Still, I do find that we all do better when we limit the really sugary treats to these special occasions. It makes us all appreciate them more, and I really do perceive a difference in our collective energy. I will share some of the choices I’ve made that seem to have a positive effect. Maybe they will be helpful to you, as well!

1) No soda in the house. I just don’t buy it. We drink flavored seltzer, water, milk, and fresh apple cider or other juices.

2) Candy, ice cream and cookies. Once in a while, I crave some chocolate. I buy it. Same goes for cookies and ice cream. However, I don’t make them regular items on my shopping list, and I go for long stretches without having any in the house.

3) Fresh fruits. I like to make sure there is always some kind of fresh fruit in the house. Our favorites include mangoes, apples, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, oranges and cantaloupe. Whenever possible, I buy at a farmer’s market or choose organic. Personally, I believe locally grown is more important, and most of the local farms are pretty chemical free anyway.

4) Vegetables. I experiment with vegetables all the time. I chop them up small into my spaghetti sauce. I bake them, steam them, stir fry them… I get my son involved in helping me buy and prepare them. They say when it comes to veggies and fruit, you should eat the rainbow – every different color offers different vitamins and other nutrients. We try to mix up the selection every time we go shopping.

5) Shopping and cooking together. The more we share these activities, the more excited my son gets about eating well. Of course it helps that I love to cook, so I’m pretty sure that my enthusiasm has rubbed off on him. However, even if you don’t love spending a Sunday afternoon puttering around in the kitchen, you can still find some easy recipes on the internet that are sure to please the whole family. Things like soups, stews and pasta dishes are fun and easy, not to mention delicious and good for you!

6) Concentrating on the savory instead of the sweet. I get very excited about the prospect of a big tray of lasagna, or a yummy roasted chicken, or some new vegetable dish. The more we focus on the main meal and savory snacks like cheese, pickles, olives, veggies and dips, the less attention we pay to dessert and sweets in general. I think shifting the focus is the first step towards lessening the feelings of deprivation associated with cutting down on sweets.

Some of you may feel that I am preaching to the converted. Fantastic. You don’t need my advice, you’re already there! Some of you may think I am being judgmental or implying that it’s really easy to make these changes. Hardly. It’s a constant balancing act, and I don’t always do as well as I’d like. Luckily, I’ve started to develop headaches whenever I eat too much sugar… and since it’s very hard to eat just a little, I’ve been tending towards not eating it at all, just so I don’t end up feeling crappy.

The more we support each other by serving healthy foods to our kids and their friends when they come over, experimenting with non-sugar options for parties and other gatherings, and sharing recipes with one another, the better we all do as a community. I really believe this is one of the best gifts of having children – the opportunity to do things better for them than we have done for ourselves. And when it comes to sharing healthy meals with them, it’s something that benefits us all!

For more information, here is a great online resource: http://family2table.blogspot.com/ – a wonderful blog focusing on fresh meats & fish, dairy, vegetables, fruits and grains as the mainstay of a healthy, family centered diet by Chef and Mom, Emily Duff.

Photo courtesy of  rick

9 Responses to “Keeping Our Kids Sweet Without All the Sweets!”

  1. Yay, Deb, I love this! It inspires me to keep cooking and keep Leo involved every step of the way. He already loves to help George “peel” carrots for salad – he gets to do it with a spoon or some other dull utensil, but it’s the participation that I think he really loves. Food is fun for us now, and I pray we can keep it that way. I dread sending him off into the sugar-addicted world sometimes, so maybe I can just help shape his palate a bit before then.
    xoxo

    • Thanks Shash!!

      I do think that starting off the first couple of years without sugar had a great effect on curbing Josiah’s sweet tooth. Even now, he wants sweets, but if he doesn’t get them, he manages. Also, I’ve noticed that he can’t consume large quantities at one time. His appetite for them is definitely self-limiting…

      The cooking together thing IS wonderful. I do think it’s the way to go. And it definitely stays fun if you keep it lighthearted. The possibilities are endless, really, once you get started…

  2. I agree. Thank you for writing this. Check out the book and blog ‘Fed Up with School Lunch’ by Ms. Q.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. Excellent article. I recently wrote a book review of Sandra Wu’s ‘Fed Up With School Lunch’ – you can read her book or follow her blog. Very exciting to see parent activists.

    • Thanks for another good resource. I think the more we can get talking about this, the better…
      I try to think of how we associate sweet treats with rewards, and love. It’s tough to transition away from that pattern without people feeling deprived or resentful. Also, you can’t really impose your viewpoint on other parents who may still feel it’s OK to feed their kids sweets. It’s challenging when some kids are eating it in front of others. Class parties, for example, are a real challenge!!

  4. As a family, my wife, two daughters and I have struggled with this. Adding in new (sugar-free) meals is a mind-set that seems to work better than “cutting out” sweets, because it doesn’t imply loss. What I found most remarkable is how other (sugar addicted) people respond to our good choices. Even though it is pretty much common knowledge that process sugar is harmful, people still ridicule those who make a conscious effort to eat less of it (or completely eliminate it from their diet). Refined sugar is so prevalent in the “Standard American Diet” (or S.A.D. for short) that it takes a certain vigilance to avoid it. Thanks for posting this article, Deborah, and fighting the good (healthier, wiser eating habits) fight!

    • Thanks Philip! Yes, I totally agree with the notion of adding, rather than cutting out foods, because feeling deprived just pisses everybody off!! I try to get excited about savory foods, and drive my son in that direction, and I think it’s working. Since making a conscious decision not to allow him to come straight home from school to a big bowl of (albeit slightly) sweetened cereal, but rather to offer him a sandwich, or some leftovers from last night’s dinner, I have noticed him now starting to ask for “savory snacks.” Score one for positive modeling!!

      I think the hardest part is, as you say, when it comes to other people. Snacks served at friends’ houses, and the worst – school parties complete with obligatory cupcakes, juices, etc. are a regular presence, and I don’t have the heart to make my child feel isolated and deprived by insisting that he not be served along with his friends. The best I have been able to do so far is let people know that I prefer he not eat lots of sweets, and offer to bring savory alternatives, such as bagels and cream cheese. I even brought veggie cream cheese once, and a few of the kids LOVED it. I don’t like to get confrontational with people, so I just keep chipping away gradually at the old habits and replace them with new ones along the way, leading by example wherever I can…

      Thanks for commenting!!
      Deborah

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