Part of weaning ourselves down on sugar and training our sweet tooth to expect (and enjoy!) less sweetness includes appreciating the natural sweetness of things like fruit.
Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to serve a dessert without a sweetener this week.
So offer a bowl of sliced pineapple as a dessert, or washed strawberries, or cut melon. If your family is anything like mine, they’ll look at you sideways and think you’re joking, but I’m determined to do it.
I wish I had been both knowledgeable and strong enough to start this habit with my children as they entered the world of solid food instead of allowing them to get in the habit of a sweet thing after a meal. I kept them from all traditional sugary desserts until their first birthday, but it was all downhill from there.
I know well the habit of “something sweet after a meal,” and at no time is it more punctuated than during Lent, when although I give up all refined sugars, I still enjoy something sweet after meals, usually a piece (or two or three) of dark chocolate. On Fridays, however, I offer up all sweeteners, including dark chocolate, honey, maple syrup, etc. It’s rough. I find myself cruising the kitchen foraging for something to tell my tongue “the meal is over.” I end up eating more dates and dried fruit than usual.
This is little Paul at 15 months, trying his first Dum Dum sucker. It gave my dad great joy to share it with him, and I get that. It’s FUN to make children happy, and it’s fun to see their joyful faces when they enjoy something tasty. Sweets are tasty. They’re an awful uphill battle. And it’s cute, too.
He’s thinking, “Wow, I like this new thing!”
As he grew into a darling two-year-old, I was actually really proud that I was able to keep him happy with such a small dessert as an M&M or two or a small Toostie Roll. I figured most kids wouldn’t count that as a “dessert,” so I was doing well in retaining low expectations. (This is before “real food” in our family.)
I got upset when people gave him more, because I figured if he didn’t know that something (like an ice cream cone) existed, he didn’t know what he was missing and would be a happier person (and argue with his parents less).
I knew right where to look for this photo of his first ice cream cone. He was over two years old, at the zoo. I’m still proud that I held out that long, because once he knew what an ice cream cone was, he knew to ask for one anywhere they were available.
I was dead on right about the knowledge thing: if a child doesn’t know what they’re missing, they’re not sad about it, you’re not being a mean, terrible, strict parent, and you can still bring them joy by serving them something much healthier. Once they know the evils of dessert, you become a big meanie if you offer fruit.
This same ice-cream-faced boy used to have the same overjoyed reaction when we’d give him fruit. The kid would practically hyperventilate trying to learn to say “blueberries” every time we opened the freezer (ours are frozen most months of the year), and my extended family members can still remember him bouncing out of his high chair doing the baby sign for “grapes!”
We had friends visit this winter, and all three of them were well-trained that “fruit is dessert.” I was impressed. I also noticed that a banana could be a snack or breakfast, and I asked my friend (the mom) how that worked. Didn’t they notice that desserts were snacks and they were just having a snack as a dessert?
Apparently not. So you can get this trick by even very bright 6-year-olds, even when they were eating that ice cream cone with your son at the zoo. (Shhhhh. I’m not going to tell them.) I served healthy pumpkin muffins as a birthday treat that day, and it was a special treat, just because it was in a heart-shaped pan. Now Leah wants a heart-shaped muffin for her birthday.
What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her!
Knowledge is Power
The unfortunate part about knowledge is that you’re not fully in control of it after the child is about a year old. Any well-meaning family member and even potentially random people at stores and restaurants can bring your carefully constructed wall of dessert ignorance crashing down by lifting the veil on sugar.
I was reading our old Christmas updates this weekend and was pleasantly surprised to read that Leah, child number two in our household, didn’t know what candy was until Halloween when she was 18 months old. I admitted with dismay in the note that as soon as she knew of the sweet treat, she asked for “nanee” all the time. The veil had been lifted.
Here’s the newly corrupted ladybug with her first sucker. How ironic is it that I have photos of all this?! I figure I’m still ahead of the curve on the standard American candy introduction schedule…but I want better things for John.
Unfortunately, it will mean removing the dessert influences in his environment, the ones who will spill the beans of the secret that he should be expecting a sweet treat after one meal per day (we weaned down from two to one when Leah was little). That means changing life for big brother and big sister.
Will they look at me like I’m absolutely bonkers when I serve pineapple for dessert tonight?
Will they claim they are being cheated, that fruit is NOT a dessert?
Am I going to likely have a fit (or two) on my hands and grumpy children?
But I think I’m going to do it anyway.
It’s the first step in saving John from the habit of a sweet dessert, so I’m willing to give it a try.
There are more ideas on how to share the idea of sweetness without actually using a sweetener in the Sweet, Sweet Summer series. For some recipe ideas, you might like the fruit-sweetened power balls (like homemade Larabars) in Healthy Snacks to Go.