Setting a Treat Policy for Kids

The fall not only seems to bring the cold weather, but it also seems to bring on the never-ending list of special occasions where treats take front and center!  Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter with lots of birthdays sprinkled in there too means a never-ending amount of sweets, treats, and snack foods. 

Considered either as forbidden foods or fun foods; sweets, treats, snack foods, fried foods, and soda pop taste delicious but offer little in the form of nutrients that support growth and development.

In our home, our treat policy is to have a plan.  While not contributing significantly to supporting our children’s growth and development, our child needs to learn to manage treats so they don’t feel deprived or restricted.

Research shows that restriction leads to overconsumption of these foods. We know that a child who is deprived of treats will show an increase in behaviours often begging, whining and even sneaking food. Another concern is when forbidden foods make up most of what your child eats it then decreases the opportunity for your child to learn to like new foods and expand their food variety.

Forbidden foods also get their bad reputation from diet culture and food policies passed down through generations that fat and sugar are bad and need to be restricted.

As a parent, your personal relationship with sweets and treats in addition to the boundaries you set for your child has a significant impact on how a child will develop their relationship with fun foods. Micromanaging, demonizing or labeling these foods as bad, unhealthy or junk can lead to a distorted relationship. When a child rarely sees these foods and they are considered “bad” they won’t develop the skills to manage them in a healthy way.

This will translate into adulthood when they have unlimited access on their own and can lead to obsessing or overindulging on these types of foods. You can avoid forbidden foods as long as possible with your child never knowing they exist, but they will find out at some point when they have friends in school, and since they are widely available around every corner or corner store. The more opportunities to have access to these foods, the more these foods lose their excitement.

Wait what??

Consider this: how can you teach your child the skills to manage these foods if they are never exposed to them or they are consistently restricted by well-meaning parents?

I often help the families I work with to develop a treat policy that works best for them and their children. The theory comes from the work of Ellyn Satter, a pediatric dietitian and family therapist and her work on the Division of Responsibility. The following points are important considerations. (Source:

The 5 Key Points to Consider in a Treat Policy:

  1. Structure. Meal and snack times need to be on a predictable schedule typically every 2-3 hours for kids under 5 and 3-4 hours for kids over 5. A predictable and consistent set of boundaries around all food helps your child to trust you to do your role in providing food including forbidden foods without restricting them completely. This then supporting your child to eat the amount of food their body needs from the food offered.
  2. Provide the occasional opportunity for unlimited access to forbidden foods without distractions. This would include sitting at the table for a snack with a whole bowl of chips or a whole plate of cookies paired with a portion of nutritious food like milk or fruit and allowing your child to eat until they are full. They may eat a lot and have to manage the natural consequence of a sore tummy, but it is the learning opportunity that is key. The excitement will wear off over time.
  3. Offer 1 portion of dessert (with no seconds) with the meal. A child can then decide if they want to eat it at the beginning, in the middle or at the end. This is one I know many families struggle. I too grew up with the idea that dessert was the reward for eating your dinner. This puts dessert higher up on a pedestal. What kids hear is I have to eat my broccoli first to be able to get ice cream, then my broccoli must not be as good as the ice cream. When you neutralize it and relax your expectations you will find your child happily eat some ice cream and then go back to eating their meal and finish sometimes with the dessert item still having leftovers. This takes time and persistence so the excitement wears off and your child becomes more relaxed around it. BUT you need to be relaxed around it too. After all, you are your child’s biggest role model.
  4. Offer fried foods or fatty foods as part of meals at home occasionally. This may look like burgers with a salad and fries or a grilled cheese sandwich with raw veggies and potato chips. Exposure to these foods at home with access to seconds and thirds with healthy options available too helps to neutralize the appeal of these foods. Think the friend who can’t control how much pizza they eat, the more often your child sees it, it loses the excitement when it isn’t a restricted food.
  5. Encourage mindfulness when eating. Supporting your child to slow down and explore the food and appreciate the taste, texture, and experience of eating helps to savor the food and they often become satisfied with less. Eating when distracted promotes overeating which takes away from the ability to listen to our body’s hunger and fullness cues.

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