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Curbing the Family Sweet Tooth

Jenni Gasparrini - July 06, 2009

It’s a weakness for nearly all of us. Birthdays, Christmas, weekends—almost any occasion can justify sugary indulgence. But you’ll be surprised to find out simple ways you can cut back on sugar.

Sugar easily draws our attention and our taste buds. At family get-togethers, sugar is as common as the relatives who are in attendance. And holidays? You might as well be celebrating sugar as opposed to pilgrims or freedom.

So how do you avoid a sugar monopoly without becoming extreme? Here are some healthy alternatives, with advice from nutritionist Rickelle Richards, to help you decrease the amount of sugar in your children's diet (and your own) without completely avoiding one of life's joys.

Make baked goods smaller. Let's face it - avoiding sugar altogether is nearly impossible, but you can easily lessen the blow. When making your famous brownies or chocolate chip cookies, bring the size down. The flavor, the richness, and the hint of sugar will still remain, just in a smaller quantity. This way when your kids ask for more cookies, you don't have to be the bad guy because you are trying to lessen their sugar intake. Everyone is happy.

Buy natural peanut butter. Natural peanut butter may be a little more expensive, but you'll find that you are paying for health instead of sugar. It does not contain the hydrogenated oils that are found in most peanut butters, and although you have to mix in the natural oils on top, it's healthier and doesn't contain the sugars and starches found in more processed versions. Natural peanut butter still comes in extra crunchy, crunchy, and creamy, so you can satisfy everyone's tastes.

Avoid using sweets and soft drinks as rewards. Rewarding children with treats might seem like a good idea in the moment, but over time it teaches them to crave the reward and view the "work" required to earn it (such as eating all their vegetables) as undesirable. So put away the cookies and candy, and don't forget that soft drinks fall into this category, too, since they are essentially liquid candy. One of the reasons soda may appeal to kids is because they see adults (such as parents, teachers, or coaches) drinking soda and therefore consider it "grown up."

Sugary drinks offer calories but are not nutrient-dense, meaning they have few nutrients per calorie of product consumed. Nutritionist Rickelle Richards says, "Nutritionists become especially concerned about giving young children soda or excess sweetened beverages because often these beverages will displace the consumption of other nutrient-dense foods, thus potentially hindering adequate growth."

Offer sweets once in a while with no strings attached. And when serving soda, try splitting a can between children or between you and your child so they aren't consuming all those empty calories. Soda is often one of the first things adults cut out of their diets when they are trying to lose weight, so it should be one of the first things to be limited in a child's diet, too.

Serve oatmeal for breakfast. Sugar cereals are one of the greatest downfalls for kids. Even adults often can't pull away from that box of Captain Crunch, though it cuts up the inside of their mouths. So how do they expect kids to refrain? Try offering an alternative that is still delicious, but offers half the amount of sugar: oatmeal. Don't think your kids will eat plain oatmeal? Well, it would be a miracle if they did. So try putting fresh or frozen berries on top. Not only does it add some flavor, but it also makes the oatmeal look more colorful and appealing.

Serve "fruit snacks." No, not the snacks packaged in little bags, but the natural snacks packaged in their own skin - apples, pears, strawberries, and oranges. Fruit is colorful, fun, and delicious. "[It] offers a nice array of nutrients and dietary fiber," says Richards. The sugars in fruit are also natural and cause less of a shock to the body's systems. So, instead of cracker mixes covered in fake cheese, cut up little squares of fruit for your kids to munch on. If your they are old enough, give each child a toothpick for them to eat off of. Not only does the toothpick make eating fruit more exciting, but it also eliminates a lot of the mess that comes from finger foods. To sell them on fruit instead of treats, try serving your children Fuji apples - which are sweeter than most - and pineapple to begin with.

Dried fruit is another good snack to serve. Although it may not look appealing, it's a great snack to take to the park, zoo, movies, or any other adventure. You can even try mixing it in with nuts to make it more filling. To help your kids warm up to the idea of dried fruit, try having taste tests with your kids to see if they can tell which fruit is which. Find out what they like and don't like.

Use fresh popcorn as a snack. Movie theater popcorn smothered in butter and salt is not the healthy alternative you're looking for here. Instead, think of bags of freshly popped popcorn. Serve it to children in their lunch instead of cookies and they'll avoid sugar and get whole grains all at the same time. Try making the popcorn at home with an air popper in order to limit the fat. Don't have an air popper? Buy "light" microwavable popcorn. Both options are delicious and are just enough to curb your child's craving for sugar.

Be careful about juices. Juice may seem like the perfect thing to give to your kids on a hot day (or any day), but be sure to check the label for sugar content first - although there are a select few juices out there that are 100 percent juice (such as Juicy Juice), most juices you'll find contain less than 10 percent juice and are mostly sugar.

However, don't count out juice altogether. Juices that are 100 percent fruit juice can be a great way of introducing valuable nutrients into your child's diet. Richards explains that "one hundred percent juice can be a good option for children in obtaining their recommended fruit [servings]." Juice can also be a great alternative to sugary sweets because it often provides just enough sweetness to curb your child's sweet tooth.

"Some studies, however, have linked excess fruit juice consumption to obesity among children," says Richards. "The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that one hundred percent fruit juice not be added to a child's diet until six months of age and recommends no more than four to six fluid ounces [per day] at this age."


As you prepare your meals and snacks, remember that sugar is not horrible, but refined sugars can have their problems. Teach your kids early on that is variety in what they can eat. Richards reminds us that "all foods fit into a healthy diet. It's important to avoid labeling foods as 'good' and 'bad,' but to remember the principles of balance, variety, and moderation. Some foods are more nutrient-dense, so we should eat those more often."

© LDS Living, July/August 2009; Photo by Simona Balint/sxc.hu