Most kids are besotted with sugary and processed treats and could quite happily eat them all day long. The question is: Should we let our children indulge in them – especially if it means avoiding a tantrum – and how do we maintain an element of control? Nutritionist Tenielle Maris weighs in.

Studies show that healthy eating habits are often established within early childhood, yet toddlers keep us parents on our toes as they notoriously refuse to eat most foods that haven’t been crumbed or coated in something sugary.

With the number of studies flying around about the ‘evil’ that is sugar, it’s no wonder so many parents go out of their way to avoid the stuff. As parents we know that we need to provide our little ones with the best possible ingredients to assist in optimal growth and development, yet sugary and processed foods end up providing a whole lot of calories without the nutritional benefits.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that children between the ages of two and 18 should consume no more than six teaspoons a day (where 4g = 1 teaspoon), with the World Health Organisation recommending that no more than 5% of your child’s daily calories come from added sugar. It is important to note is that added sugars include table sugar, fructose, syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, nectar, fruit concentrate, crystalline, molasses, agave, honey, coconut sugar (and pretty much any other type of calorific sweetener that can be added to food and drinks).

With the amount of added sugar in a number of ready-made foods, sauces, condiments, salad dressings, cereals and more, children eating a diet high in these foods – and the other usual suspects like sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolates and fizzy drinks – are at risk of developing tooth decay, other nasties like weakened immune systems, and being overweight.

The reality is that sugar is all around us and will eventually be eaten by your child along the way. Making too much of a fuss about anything sugary in your child’s diet can actually backfire, as children naturally become intrigued by the forbidden. In fact, it isn’t a healthy approach to ban any important macronutrient in a child’s diet.

As part of a healthy, balanced diet, sugary sweets have their place in teaching children about balance and are even regarded as helpful in getting children to branch out to try different tastes. That is not to say that parents should give in to every sugary demand from their kids, but rather allow them the chance to indulge at a specific time and place.

Here are some top tips to assist with ensuring you are providing your child with the opportunity to establish a healthy relationship with indulgence in their diet:

Get the family and child minders on board

Although human beings are naturally drawn to sweet tastes, your child’s habits are a direct reflection of your own choices and those portrayed in your home. Ensure that the entire household lives up to the parameters you have put in place when it comes to indulging. If you get everyone on board, your child will gain a clearer understanding of when and where treats are allowed.

With headstrong toddlers, it is crucial to ensure that any parenting is done consistently when it comes to family mealtimes and treats. On this point, parents and other family members need to set the example through the same healthy eating habits, and only indulge in sweet treats at set times or occasions (even if it means your toddler erupting into a full-blown tantrum when she wants a chocolate from the pantry mid-week).

Learn to understand food labels

With the daily sugar limit in mind, it is advised that parents should become aware of the ingredients on food labels of packaged goods and try to limit foods with sugars listed among the first ingredients. This way, if your little one wants a sweet treat you will be able to ensure they aren’t exceeding their daily intake through the hidden sugars in other foods.

Many ‘child-friendly’ foods found on the shelves of your grocery store contain more sugar than you would believe. Even though claims on food packaging may boast only the best, and the most natural ingredients for your child, it does not mean that the item is not crammed with sugar.

Other common names of sugar you should keep a watch-out for include: high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, cane juice, malt, molasses, lactose, honey, ethyl maltol and maltodextrin.

Get creative in the kitchen

Not all sweet treats need to be reserved for special occasions and rather healthy sweet treats can be offered more regularly.

Get creative with things like fruit-sweetened muffins or biscuits, granola bars with dried fruit pieces or date squares. Make your own ‘ice cream’ by throwing a frozen banana and some cocoa powder into a blender or freeze unsweetened, plain yoghurt with fruit purée to create delicious frozen lollies.

With the endless number of healthy recipes at one’s fingertips, there is no excuse not to feed your child’s sweet tooth in tasty and nutritious ways.

Offer a diet rich in variety

Instead of avoiding anything with sugar, it is rather recommended for parents to strive to provide their little ones with a diet rich in variety. Provide your child with a balanced diet made up primarily of whole and unprocessed foods, including a variety of fruit, vegetables, grains, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy and lean cuts of meat (full fat options are recommended up until the age of two for your child’s developmental needs).

By doing so, you’ll ensure that your child is getting in their required daily intake of nutrients despite the ‘empty calories’ they may be eating in the form of sugary treats or other processed foods from time to time.

When treats are given, let your child enjoy them without the guilt

If you find yourself at a birthday party or playdate surrounded by sugary treats at every turn, cut your losses and let your child indulge without hovering over them. Instead of fretting about the amount of sugar they consume, rather offer them a healthy meal when you return home.

You need to keep in mind that allowing worry and anxiety to creep in every time your child looks at something with sugar is not helpful in their journey to establishing a balanced and healthy relationship with food.

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