How Do I Teach My Kid to Have a Normal Relationship With Sugar -- When I Don’t?

How Do I Teach My Kid to Have a Normal Relationship With Sugar -- When I Don’t?

One mom’s struggle with eating treats and the challenges that presents in parenting.

By: Marisa Torrieri Bloom

When it comes to sugar, I'm a sometimes-binge eater. It started as a mild eating disorder in my teens and got worse and worse until my late 20s. That’s when I decided to nearly cut out sugar almost completely. For me, one cookie is a potential gateway drug to a dozen more and eating one piece of cake is a trigger to binge.

After trying numerous food plans and mantras, I’ve learned to avoid it as much as possible, one day at a time. That means I don’t eat cake at weddings, and I don't bake cookies anymore or attend cookie-swap holiday parties. There are no boxes of chocolate truffles on Valentine’s Day, and I don't eat ice cream with friends (though on rare occasion, will have a certain brand of chocolate-agave-nectar popsicle or a small cup of frozen yogurt at certain chains).

Say what you will, but this is what works for me.

However, I'd like my sons to have a normal relationship with food -- sugar included. And ever since my oldest toddler was born, I’ve been struggling with boundaries. What will happen to him if I’m not a cookie-baking mom -- like all other moms I know? Do I let my son have ice cream when we’re out? How much Halloween candy is appropriate?

So far, I’ve been overcompensating a little bit. This past Halloween, I made a big deal out of trick or treating to my 2-and-1/2-year-old, and for two weeks, let him have a piece of candy almost every night. I’ve noticed that I practically push cake on him at birthday parties, too. Perhaps this is because I don’t want my son to shun sugar or be ashamed of eating it (as I have been because of my tendency to overindulge).

Mary Dobson, LMFT, a Connecticut-based therapist who specializes in working with family issues as well as eating disorders, says it’s no surprise I feel a little guilty -- or even abnormal -- about the prospect of not participating fully in a sugar-laden culture.

“Sugar is a normal and socially sanctioned way of marking special occasions -- birthday cakes, Halloween candy, [holiday] cookies, and so on,” says Dobson. “Being a mom who abstains from sugar can sometimes make you feel like you’re on the loft overlooking a really great party, but your child doesn’t have to be. Avoid projecting your dysfunctional relationship with sugar onto your child, introduce sugar in a positive and moderate way, and adapt a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.”

More from P&G everyday: I Don’t Believe in Rewarding Kids With Food (But I Do It Anyway)

Sunny Sea Gold, author of Food: The Good Girl's Drug who is recovered from binge-eating disorder, says taking the "weirdness" out of the equation when it comes to foods, whether they're healthful or more junky, is so key in helping our kids grow up with healthy food relationships.

“One thing that I do with my toddler is to let her make up her own mind if she's interested in whatever food items are out at a party,” says Gold. “If she doesn't notice the candy or cupcakes, I'm not going to point them out to her because why bother? But if she does -- and believe me, my girl loves her sweets -- I say yes and give her a reasonable portion. If she asks for more, I tell her that we're going to give our tummies a rest and then check in with them in five or 10 more minutes to see what they're asking for. Nine times out of 10 she forgets about the food and goes and finds something else to do.”


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On the occasions that Gold’s toddler does want more cake or sweets, Gold takes a minute to assess whether giving her more would actually be unhealthy and truly give her a tummy ache.

“She threw up in our car once after too much brownie sundae with her dad and it was awful,” says Gold. “If I think she's had enough, I tell her something neutral like, ‘Too much cupcake can make your tummy hurt, so no more for today.’ But maybe we can take one home and you can have it for dessert tomorrow."

One thing Gold never does is use treats or food as rewards.

“As you know, thinking about sugar as a reward can give it this whole other dimension of meaning to people who are predisposed to have issues -- like it's Mommy's love all wrapped up in a candy wrapper,” she says.

How do you set limits for your kids when it comes to eating too many sweets or other less-healthy foods?

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is a freelance writer and guitar teacher who lives with her husband and two young sons in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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