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Ending Dinner on a Sweet Note

Do your kids have dessert every night?  Is it a regular part of your mealtime – or only done as a special treat?  What is your feeling on this?  Is it better when it is thought of as “no big deal” instead of a hugely sought after treat that only occurs on special occasions?  And how is this shaping our children’s eating habits – now and in the future?

I grew up in a household that had dessert every night.  My mom is of the generation that regularly baked homemade pies, cakes, etc. and served them after supper each night.  That lessened to a great degree after I was born, but we still had ice cream or pudding or SOMETHING to cleanse our palate. 

My mom is all about moderation.  She would have a sliver of pie or a small (tiny by today’s standards) bowl of ice cream.  Just enough to end the meal on a sweet note.  She is also the one who had 1 (and just one) glass of wine each night with dinner.   Moderation.  Control.  Discipline.  It is probably why she is still in great physical shape even now that she is in her late eighties.  She learned the secret  — it is not about depriving yourself, but it is not about gluttony either. (Talk about a great message to teach your kids!)

When my kids were little, I stayed far away from desserts.  Sure we’d go out for ice cream cones (sometimes) and the kids had treats, but not on a regular basis.  Then they got older and perhaps more aware of the wonderful world of goodies out there.  It got hotter and hotter where we used to live.  Popsicles after playing in the pool slowly became a regular thing.  Somehow the lid to Pandora's Box had been lifted.

By last summer we were up to having ice cream after dinner — every night.  It was hot, it was summer (a lax time of year) and it became an ace up my sleeve to get them to at least take a BITE of a vegetable.  That’s right – I bribed them.  I did it knowing you are not supposed to, knowing the food experts say that is the WORSE thing you can do.  And you know what?  It worked.  My extremely picky eaters would actual eat their carrots or let a few bites of peas get past their sealed lips.  It was monumental – and what was the trade off?  I gave them a small scoop or two of ice cream (and not the high fat kind – just your basic grocery store variety). 

But now I wonder if I have created a monster.  You see, now there is an EXPECTATION of dessert.  No longer is it a “treat” – it is just what happens at the end of the meal, if you eat your dinner.  I know, I know – another No No.  But I wasn’t going to offer dessert without them eating a well-balanced dinner – my kids could LIVE on carbs and fruit and if they never took a bite of a vegetable or some protein (besides the cheese on pizza) that would be okay by them. 

So I wonder, do I stop buying ice cream, so it is not in the house, so I can’t offer it for dessert?  Do we change the rule (ooh – careful with rules around my son) and say dessert is only offered on the weekends?  The whole “just serve them fruit for dessert” doesn’t work for us because I serve them fruit with dinner – as part of their 5 a day.  So what do I do?

I suppose ice cream is not the WORST thing they could be having.  It’s not like I am offering them cookies or processed junk foods.  When I was a kid, ice cream was actually listed under a serving of Dairy on the 4 Food Groups chart.  I have also switched ice cream brands to Breyers by the way.  Only kind I’ll buy now.  After finally reading the ingredients labels (truly eye opening) I found it to be the healthiest brand by far (and still lower in fat than all those “premium” brands). 

But the bigger issue is what am I teaching them?  Am I ingraining the habit in them of always NEEDING dessert after a meal?  Is it better to have it be only for special occasions (birthdays, celebrations, etc)?  I would lose my bribing ace, which is truly the only way I am getting them to expand their limited repertoire.  But food experts say they will come around eventually.  Maybe I just need to have faith that their stinted taste buds will one day wake up. 

Finally, as child obesity rates climb skyrocket, I realize telling them they can have dessert (more food) once they eat the untouched portion on their plate might just make them overeat.  I tell them to listen to their stomachs and if they are full, they should stop eating – but they also know if they are full, they won’t get dessert (makes sense right? because they are already full) and I know there are times they shovel in those last few bites just to get the good stuff. 

As you can tell, this Zen Mama Wannabe goes around and around with this.  I have seen how well everything in moderation works for my mom.  On the other hand, maybe cutting out nightly desserts (and the expectation of such) is the way to go.  My goal is to raise healthy children and provide them with good eating habits.  Any suggestions?

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2 Responses to “Ending Dinner on a Sweet Note”

  1. LarkLady Says:
    March 13th, 2009 at 11:42 am

    I, too, grew up where dessert after dinner was the expectation. I can even remember one occasion when my dad left the table before eating dinner, upon learning that there was no dessert that night. (He didn’t say so, but the implication to my young mind was that a meal wasn’t complete without dessert.) I’m sure that was exceptional on a whole lot of levels, since my dad was also the epitome of courtesy and it strikes me now as more than a little rude — very, VERY unlike him!

    But desserts also weren’t grand and huge — they were served in modest proportions, and they were sweet without being fo the sticky, gooey variety.

    My husband comes from a family where dessert of a sweet variety was a special occasion sort of thing only; regular dinners might have a fruit and cheese course with a cup of tea to finish with, but cake? pie? Nope. He and I clashed in the early years of our marriage over this, as the net effect was that a sweet dessert was served only on those occasions when you were probably going to overeat in the first place — talk about adding insult to injury!

    So maybe the answer is somewhere in between the two extremes. Not every night… but not only on the big feast occasions, either. Not as a bribe to finish your vegetables, but as a pleasant way to round out a meal, an excuse to linger at the dinner table for just a little while longer, enjoying pleasant conversation.

    But I have to confess I have heard myself say, as I look down on a plate with vegetables that have been more played with than eaten, “Oh, I guess you’re too full for dessert then!” It must be a mom thing — wired into us at the time of childbirth!

  2. callieandbatido Says:
    March 15th, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Ah the desset question. One I think we have all struggled with. I too was served dessert every night and I looked forward to it. I think as a child I saw it as the light at the end of the tunnel when I wasn’t crazy about the meal. I am no longer conviced that having to eat your dinner before getting dessert is a BAD thing. And if it gets a picky eater to try something new, even better!

    I use to subscribe to the philosophy that our bodies know what we need and if we follow our natural eating patterns we will get the nutrition we need. Then I had my youngest daughter. Her natural eating pattern includes carbs and apples. Obviously that wasn’t going to cut it.

    I have come to find that a compromise works best for us. She has to eat her dinner (not all the food on her plate so to speak) but I also give small portions, especially what I know she doesn’t like.

    So give up dessert every night? I say not yet. It’s a nice way to round out a meal and helps encourage kids to eat the foods they aren’t to fond of.

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