Managing Your Child’s Sweet Tooth

“Olivia loves sugar so much that if she had her way, she would live off of gummy bears and popsicles,” her frustrated mother said. “You’re a dietitian – tell me – is that normal?”

Normal? Yes.  Challenging?  Absolutely!

Concerned parents may believe their children are the only ones who seem to have been born with a sweet tooth, but the truth is, we all were.

A preference for sweetness, specifically the taste of lactose in breast milk, is crucial to an infant’s survival.  At the same time, rejecting unfamiliar substances that taste bitter is protective against eating something that could be poisonous.  Unfortunately, some vegetables, especially the leafy green ones, can have a bitter edge to them which could explain why they may be a no-go for your child.

Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center tested solutions of varying sweetness on children and adults.  They found children preferred solutions that were twice as sweet as the most sugary solutions that adults could tolerate.

The good news is when most children reach adulthood, their tastes have changed. This preference shift has led researchers to speculate that while bones are still growing they send hormonal signals to the brain to eat more sugar.  Once bone growth stops, the appetite for extra helpings of sugar tends to slow down as well.

While it’s important to understand that there are biological forces involved in your child’s seemingly insatiable sweet tooth, it’s equally important not to give into his or her desire for sugar overload.

Here are three approaches to gently steer your child to a more balanced diet:

  1. Patterning: Are your kids used to seeing you reach for a handful of cookies when you get home from work or eat a donut as you drive carpool in the morning? Several studies have found that if the parents have a poor diet pattern, the children tend to as well. So, if you want your children to eat more healthfully, you may need to change your own dietary habits first. But, keep in mind that successful patterning is about being a good role model, not about controlling children’s eating habits through bribes, threats, or coercion.
  2. Planning: Another good way to bring balanced, sound nutrition to your family is to plan ahead. That means putting together a weekly menu, creating a shopping list, and sticking to that list at the supermarket. Planning a menu may sound like extra work, but you will actually save time and energy – and probably money — by being prepared. Also, having a weekly menu in place gives children an opportunity to look forward to eating a good dinner, instead of filling up on sugary snacks.
  3. Providing. When you’re planning the menu, keep in mind your child’s taste preferences by providing a touch of sweetness here and there. This will encourage your child’s acceptance of a wider variety of nutritious foods.

Here are some suggestions to work into your menu:

  • Fruit: Because of its natural sweetness from fructose, fruit is an excellent choice as a snack, side dish, salad, or dessert. It’s also a great addition to whole grain muffins, pancakes, and oatmeal.
  • Green salads: With a satisfying crunch and vitamin E, romaine lettuce with just a drizzle of bottled raspberry salad dressing makes a tasty salad. A raw spinach salad with mandarin oranges and dried cranberries is another popular choice.
  • Chicken: Liven up plain baked chicken with a topping of fresh fruit salsa or a fruit glaze. Also, homemade oven-baked chicken fingers are a snap to make in large batches and freeze.  Serve them with honey mustard or a homemade yogurt dip.
  • Yogurt: To boost calcium and potassium intake, choose high-quality, unsweetened yogurt and offer some “fixings” for your child to stir in. Choices could include a few mini-chocolate chips, some chopped fresh fruit, granola, cinnamon, and honey.
  • Carrots and dip: Ever notice that carrots are the first to go on raw vegetable trays? That’s because carrots taste sweeter than many other vegetables.  They are also an excellent source of vitamin A.
  • Sweet potatoes: Mash fresh sweet potatoes with a small amount of milk, butter, and salt. Nothing more is needed except perhaps a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar on top. Or, toss cubed raw sweet potato in canola oil and roast in the oven until the natural sugars caramelize.

A final note: Except in the case of allergies, no foods – including sweets — should be completely eliminated from your child’s diet. But, portion control is key. Setting up two treat days a week and letting your child choose a small candy bar, cupcake, or cookie on those days will help satisfy even the most demanding sweet tooth.


Ellen Stokes, MS, RD, LD is an award-winning video producer, director, and writer in addition to being a registered dietitian. Ellen writes and creates videos about nutrition education, food safety, menu planning, grocery shopping, and healthful cooking on a budget. Ellen has worked with organizations and companies including WebMD, the Partnership for Food Safety Education, and the University of Georgia Food Science Department. Ellen formerly worked for CNN as a writer and producer and teaches food safety and nutrition for Georgia State University. Check her out on Twitter @EllenS_RD.