Like every other holiday over the past year, Valentine’s Day is probably going to look a little different this year for our kids. But I think it’s safe to say, they’re still going to get their hands on candy somewhere, somehow. I mean, isn’t that really the only reason kids are excited about this February holiday? It’s all centered around the candy—there aren’t even costumes to pretend to distract them.
While kids’ eyes glow with excitement by the prospect of all that candy, parents everywhere get anxious at just the thought of how much candy and sugar will be offered and eaten by their kids. And yet, even if that’s how you feel (you’re not alone!), communicating these fears to your kids can be detrimental to their relationship with food long-term and do more harm than good.
I don’t usually like to focus on the negatives (I’m a glass half full kind of gal!), but sometimes we’re not even aware that what we’re saying is harmful.
Here are some common phrases you, too, may catch yourself saying and things to say instead:
“You’ve had too much candy; you can’t have any more.”
While this may be true, this language tells your kids that candy is an “off-limit” food. This can make them more obsessive around sweets or, at the very least, desire the candy even more (anyone else see a tantrum in the making?). When we consistently restrict any kind of food, our kids are going to find a way to have it in other places—such as at grandparents’ or friends’ houses—and are usually less able to control themselves when eating it.
Instead, reassure them when candy will be offered again and use language that keeps the candy as something that is neutral. This helps your kids understand that candy will be coming again and it isn’t gone for good, while you stay in control of when it’s being offered.
“Take one more bite and then you can have your candy.”
The classic parent-child negotiating act at the dinner table! As a parent, you’ve already done a great job at providing nutritious and balanced options for your kids to choose to eat on their plates. But now, your kids get to decide whether or not they’re going to eat those foods. We need to show our kids that we trust them to know what their bodies need and be responsible for how their bodies feel after eating. If we pressure them to eat another bite (I know, it doesn’t sound like much!), they may eat past their fullness level in order to get the dessert, which can prevent them from being an intuitive eater later in life.
Using candy as a reward causes our kids to think that the food they’re getting told to eat probably isn’t something they should like as much and also puts candy on a pedestal above the other foods at dinner. Instead, try offering dessert right along with the meal and let your kids decide when they want to eat it.
“Candy is just full of sugar. You shouldn’t be eating that stuff anyway.”
Our kids hear things as black and white. When you say this, they may hear that they’re a bad person for having the “bad” candy. I know that’s not what you’re intending, but your kids don’t! Keep your comments about all foods neutral—telling your kids that a certain food is healthy or unhealthy doesn’t influence them to eat it or not eat it. They just want what tastes good! I don’t blame them.
Instead, try saying something like this: “I love candy, too. We’re not having any right now, but we can have some later with dinner tonight.” Whatever time you have decided to offer it again (whether it’s dinner, snack time, or the next day), make sure to follow through with the promise. This helps your kids trust you and be comforted by the fact that the candy will be offered again when you say it will.
Comments we don’t think twice about can really influence our kids’ perceptions about food and sweets. No need to stress! By offering candy and sweets in moderate amounts on a regular, consistent basis, it will normalize these foods and help your kids continue to be intuitive eaters and grow into adults who have a healthy relationship with food. Now that’s a sweet victory!
Kara Hoerr is a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in family and childhood nutrition. She’s originally from Iowa, but has called Madison home for the past 7 years. When she’s not helping families and individuals end mealtime battles or quit diets for good, she’s usually baking or cooking in her kitchen (she started making sourdough before it was the cool thing to do pre-Covid!), running or biking on the Madison trails, or relaxing with a good book. She never expected to start her own business, but here she is with Kara Hoerr Nutrition. She offers nutrition coaching and online courses to help moms (and dads!) out at the dinner table. To learn more or to set up a free discovery call, email Kara at email@example.com, or find her on Instagram.