Sugar Season: Preparing Your Family For The Sweetest Time Of Year

Tis’ the season for candy corn, pumpkin pie, and candy canes. From Halloween through Christmas, it seems like we’re all faced with a steady stream of sugary treats.

While we all like to indulge a bit this time of year, the holiday season can be a great time to teach our kids (and ourselves) how to enjoy celebrating the holidays without overdoing it on sugar. Easier said than done, right?

Ashely Smith

That’s why The Mom Report called in an expert to help us find that balance.

Ashley Smith is a pediatric registered dietitian, mom of three, and founder of Veggies & Virtue. She is full of brilliant ideas and strategies to help families create healthier eating habits and is here to help you navigate the holiday sugar rush.

As a parent and nutritionist, what do you feel is the most important thing parents need to understand about the amount of sugar their child consumes?

Make the sugar count. In the majority of families out there, our kids are already consuming more than the recommended amount of added sugar. The challenge is, we are often allowing it in unnecessary extras rather than adding it to the foods that we want our kids to eat at all or to eat more of.

By lessening the amount of added sugar we allow our kids to eat on an everyday basis in processed, nutrient-poor foods like fruit snacks, snack cookies, cereal, refined granola bars, and heavily-sweetened yogurts/Go-Gurts, we free up added sugar in their diets to either be added to more nutrient-rich foods (like oatmeal, on almond butter toast, drizzled on plain yogurt, etc.) or reserved for foods that are intended to be sweet (like desserts).

This allows the margin families need to create a healthy diet on the day to day while also allowing desserts and other preferred sweets for kids when and where appropriate (like birthday parties, special occasions, and/or as part of a family’s dessert policy.

What is a healthy sugar philosophy to have in our households?

When we look at the main overarching recommendations for sugar intake, we can get a decent gauge on how much sugar is acceptable within our family’s diets.

  • The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends we consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars based on one’s total caloric intake.

  • The World Health Organization recommends all children and adults reduce their intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories. It further recommends that a further reduction to below 5 percent of total calories may be beneficial.

  • The American Heart Association recommends 100 calories from added sugar per day for anyone. This is the equivalent to 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of added sugar regardless of your age, caloric intake, or activity level.

While the level of specificity here varies, in general I recommend parents look at these with the general summary of a 90:10 food philosophy. This means that 90% of our diets should be made up of nutrient-rich foods our bodies need (like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, dairy, and healthy fats). The remaining 10% is where we can be a bit more liberal and allow occasional intake of foods that offer less nutritional benefit but are often craved and desired.

Since we never want to overly restrict sugar intake (because it can and often does backfire!), especially in kids, this approach allows parents to apply the “10% of total calories” recommendation for added sugar in a way that allows it to be offered consistently enough that kids don’t begin to covet it, while still not going overboard or offering it so often that it crowds out other foods in a family’s diet. For more on Your Child’s Recommended Sugar Intake, visit this article.

On a night like Halloween, parents need to remember that their job is not to be a food police but rather a partner in crime to enjoy the festivities with their child(ren)—food and all.
— Ashley Smith

How can parents avoid sugar overload during the holidays? (especially Halloween!)

I recently shared Four Tips for Managing Sugar Around Halloween that can be found on my post titled, “How to Handle the Halloween Sugar Rush.” While this post is directed at Halloween, the concepts about added sugar can apply to any holiday season.

What is your advice for helping kids and families develop a healthy relationship with sugary treats?

Parents need to evaluate their own relationship with food, including sugar, and see how they are adhering to the 90:10 food philosophy above. So often as adults, we have been conditioned or self-trained ourselves to use food as an emotional token of reward and punishment. We perceive eating healthy to be a punishment and less healthful food, like sugary treats, to be a “reward” we have to earn.

With this type of relationship to food, we quickly begin to shape how our children relate with foods as well with such parenting pitfalls, as shared in this article on treats misuse and sugar abuse. Instead of fostering their neutral relationship with all foods that they are born with, we quickly start to elevate sugary treats (via bribes, rewards, etc.) and put down healthier foods like vegetables (using force, pressure, etc.). This starts to shape how kids see food.

Instead of making sugary treats something “extra-special,” kids and families can begin to adopt a dessert policy that allows for some sugary treats (i.e. 10% or less of their diets) as a normal, neutral part of their diet. By making a consistent, predictable pattern to what, when, and where treats are enjoyed (the parents job in the Division of Responsibility in feeding), kids know that they aren’t off limits but also aren’t an all day, every day type of food either. This takes the pressure off of parents from trying to handle the requests for sugary treats on a day to day basis and instead allows parents to defer to the dessert policy when such requests come. While parents still have the right to be spontaneous with sugary treats and allow for unexpected allowances of such foods, in general this helps parents to matter of factly reply to their child’s requests for sweets with scripts like, “That sounds yummy! Maybe we can bake cookies to have on Friday when we do dessert night.” “Ooooh, I like ice cream too. Maybe we could go out for those this weekend as a family.” “I know you really want cupcakes! I think you might be having them this weekend at your cousin’s birthday party.”

For more ideas on ways create healthy relationships with sugar, visit this article.

What are some ways parents can reduce the amount of sugar in their kid's diet?

Cut added sugar out of the non-essential foods. Foods that parents purchase and assume to be healthy like yogurt, granola, dry cereal, oatmeal packages, bread, and even more savory foods like spaghetti sauce, barbecue sauce, and all can pack an unnecessary amount of added sugar.

I advise parents to:

  1. Start shifting the items they buy to lower sugar alternatives. A drastic switch may get kids to completely refuse the new, lower-sugar option like yogurt or cereal. In order to keep these healthy options as ones your kids still enjoy, try to make smaller, more gradual switches. Some items like spaghetti sauce you may be able to swap out all at once. For other items, like yogurt or cereal, consider the following approach:

    • Buy two containers of yogurt: one that is your family’s current norm and one that is plain. When offering at a meal or snack, mix the two types. It may need to be as slow of a transition as 1 part plain to 3 parts sweetened until you can get your child to learn to like a ratio that favors plain yogurt over sweetened. Once you have achieved this, you can always start to experiment with buying only plain yogurt and adding a drizzle of honey or maple syrup and fresh fruit. Doing that blunt of a switch though may not be well-received by all kid, however, and could backfire on them wanting to eat yogurt (an otherwise healthy food) at all.

  2. Have fruit for dessert. If your family is in the habit of having sugary treats every night, consider reserving such sweets for nights included in your dessert policy. Then, on other nights, enjoy fruit for a sweet finish to the evening.

  3. Use snacks to fill nutritional gaps. While I think snack time can be a great time to offer sweets as part of a family’s dessert policy, kids too often consume a lot of added sugar through snack foods after school or after sports activities (as shared here). Instead, I encourage parents to use snack time to fill in nutritional gaps and to offer foods that their children otherwise might not be getting enough of, or to refuel and rehydrate if after a sporting event. This eliminates a lot of the empty calories of sweet snacks and instead saves such added sugar in the diet for intentional dessert times. For more on healthy snack ideas, visit this article.

  4. Opt for more homemade treats. I also think it is wise to focus on homemade sweets, as shared in this article here. This creates a sense of purpose and requires added effort to consume such sugary treats, compared to the process of just grabbing sweets anytime one wants from a pre-made container that is easily and effortless refilled with each grocery run.

We really appreciate Ashley, a super busy mom of three, for taking the time to share this great information with us!  You can get more of her great tips and tricks on her website Veggies & Virtue and @veggiesandvirtue on Instagram.

Kellie SmithComment