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More and more lately, I'm finding that our 5-year old daughter starts asking for dessert before she's finished her dinner.

Obviously, I'd like to find a way to manage this without it ending in a fit.

My problem with the simple "no dessert until you've finished your dinner" line, is that I've been told by some people I trust that research has shown this sort of setup (requiring the eating of food in order to get a reward) to increase the likelihood of eating disorders later in life.

I would really appreciate being pointed to research that either enforces or disproves that notion.

Thanks so much.

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I like all the answers that say, why even have dessert? That's my initial reaction too, but I didn't post yet another identical answer. If you really have a reason to have dessert (often/always?) then please expand your question. Otherwise, I think the solution pretty clear. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 31 '11 at 7:09
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These are all terrific answers. I'm surprised at the support for the no dessert solution. I'm not against that, and will talk about it with my wife. I think the question reflects the original intent, and that others will find value in seeing the question as is. –  evanmcd Apr 6 '11 at 3:18
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you might want to consider marking one of these as your accepted answer once you've had a chance to implement it and see it's effect. –  cabbey May 9 '11 at 22:13

11 Answers 11

I am going to add an answer to another aspect of your question. Giving dessert after a healthy meal will not give your child an eating disorder. Teaching your child to eat healthy but the fact that they can eat everything in moderation, even treats, will teach them good food choices and allow them to eat everything. (Think about yourself, when you can't have something you want it more). Eating disorders are part self-esteem part depression and only tangentially about the food--keep positive body image in the house and positive outlooks and talk about ALL foods in moderation and that should help ward off eating disorders.

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  1. Make "dessert" a sometimes thing, not an every day thing.

  2. Make "dessert" something that has some nutritional merit, so if they skimp on dinner you won't feel guilty. Fruit and yogurt?

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Mix up the desserts. Sometimes we feed our daughter (now 9yo) ice-cream (rarely) but mainly dessert is fruit or yoghurt (with added fruit). The more insistant she is for dessert, the more likely it is to be fruit. My wife was raised on the idea that dessert is always fruit and our daughter accepts that junk dessert is rare treat. I hate sending her to bed hungry, but if she refuses an apple then I figure she can't be too hungry.

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My oldest is almost 20, so she can decide for herself regarding dessert. My youngest will soon be 3, and it's rare we have dessert in the house.

Most of the time dessert is something that he gets at the grandmother's house. If we have it at home, it's fruit and/or yoghurt, and sometimes we'll have ice cream. I will make an occasional batch of cookies or a cake, but he doesn't eat them.

He knows that the rule is he MUST eat his dinner before he can have any dessert - and it's MOM that decides whether or not he's eaten his dinner, not him. If he wants to just pick one bite of everything, he doesn't get dessert and he knows it. He also knows that his dinner plate will only be left at the table for him for a limited time - once I start doing dishes, it gets cleaned with the rest. If he's hungry later, he can have an apple and some carrot sticks.

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We eat dessert every night. Sometimes it is more elaborate than other times. Sometimes we eat dessert first! On those nights dessert is something I want them to eat anyway, like prunes. :)

Our rule at the table is "good food first". If they don't want to eat, it will be waiting for them when they are hungry. No pressure. There are limits though. Dinner for us lasts about 20-30 minutes. When everyone has had sufficient time to eat, dinner is over. Sometimes my slowpoke is happy to not have to finish his meal. Sometimes he gets it for breakfast. We try not to waste food. Dessert is not served at breakfast; it waits until dinner, after the good food first.

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I agree. We also have dessert everyday and often it is a treat. –  morah hochman Dec 21 '11 at 20:53

Never talk about dessert. Period. Don't remind him that the dessert exists. I've regretted every time I did it.

Some good food tips from the pre-school nutritionist:

  • just talk about the benefits the food will bring to him (stronger, smarter), never make it emotional (I'll be very sad if you don't eat your broccoli). Don't let the Drama enter your dinner table.
  • no main dishes, no snacks
  • hunger is the best seasoning (very hard to put in practice)
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Cancel dessert altogether. When the children learn that food is just a test to pass on the way to dessert, they'll cheat, lie and steal to pass the test.

I know a kid of 8 who'll argue over every single piece on his plate in negotiation, claiming not to be hungry. As soon as dessert appears, he'll eat 700 calories worth of cake. If he gets his nutrition (calories at least) from sweets, why would he bother eating proper food?

If there is no dessert, the child will be hungry, and will then eat.

This actually takes some patience and coping if your child is already used to expecting dessert after each meal. It is certainly doable though.

It also helps not to sit there eating dessert yourself while this is going on.

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Bingo. Dessert for my kid is the same as dessert for me - a special occasion item. And in those special occasions, you can afford to be more lax - as long as they make a reasonable attempt to eat some food, they get a bit of birthday cake - for instance. You let them get enjoyment out of treats while encouraging generally healthier eating. –  Saiboogu Mar 31 '11 at 20:20

Whenever we have "dessert" it's something well after dinner, so it's not associated with the meal. If we ever have something after the meal, it's orange slices or some other fruit.

It does happen that our son says he's no longer hungry because he's excited about something else. We set the food aside and tell him it's there if he wants it later, but he doesn't get anything else to eat. This happens seldom enough that it's a good approach for us.

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I would go a step further than some of the others and remove dessert as an expectation or rather an option altogether. Growing up dessert was what company brought over, or what we had on special occasions, or on the rare outing. We ate well, and then we were done. Sometimes we had fruit later on in the evening. Further more, finishing food (vegetables especially), was never an option. There was no backup plan, there was no alternative meal. There was food. You ate it, or you didn't. (Actually, it was you eat it now that it tastes good, or you can wait until it's cold and pretty gross, and choke it down). I remember some "disagreements" about this, but looking back, I'm incredibly grateful. I ate well the, eat well now, and as I'm starting a family, my wife and I are doing the same. Balanced meals, no unnecessary pieces.

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Only do dessert one night a week. On dessert night, don't tell them its dessert night until after they've finished their food. So from their perspective, its never dessert night until they get surprised once a week.

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We have dessert one night a week. If they have been good. And they eat everything on their plate! It sometimes is announced in advance (especially if I have been away all week - as that way I get to join in with the excitement of a 'special night'. This is more of a benefit for me than my kids:-) –  Rory Alsop May 9 '11 at 17:05

I personally agree with this article's perspective on this.

You are the parents so you make the rules. You need to talk to your kids and help them understand that desserts are "extra" and are not a ritual (i.e. should not be expected). I think you should start by saying one night: "there is no dessert tonight" or the dessert is a vegetable like baby carrots or an apple. If they throw a fit, there should be an appropriate punishment to show them that throwing a tantrum won't get you to change your mind.

Remember to set a good example and finish your plate as well and buy healthy snacks to help your child get a balanced diet. If you don't stock cookies, it's easier to tell them no.

Good luck!

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I absolutely loved this article, particularly the author's suggestion about the use of color to encourage creativity in children. –  Corvus Melori Jun 29 '11 at 18:52

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