A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

The Dessert Problem

Solving the Eternal Question, "How Much is Enough?"

Once upon a time, dessert was considered a treat. People ate with pleasure and when they were lucky enough to end their meal with a sweet, they rejoiced. But lo, these many years later, dessert has become a far more complicated proposition. When the people are confronted with, say, ice cream or candy, it brings great fear, and they recoil in terror, shouting, “Lord! Remove these temptations from me!” And yet at other times, the presentation of dessert heralds great tidings upon the earth, and the people fall upon the chocolate layer cake until it is all gone, even though it was a cake for 12 and there are only 2 of them.

The Dessert Problem is magnified with the advent of children, many parents find. The precarious balance they may (or may not) have discovered with dessert for themselves is turned topsy-turvy by the arrival of small people whose desire for sweets is, in the biblical sense, awesome. The begging and pleading can be relentless and parents cannot bear the crushing burden of constant denial and negotiation. Some families “solve” this problem by creating a dessert desert: they smite sugar and all its relations and banish them from their homes. These children are the ones whom you can find at a party or playdate, shoveling great handfuls of the good stuff into their little mouths, for they know that unto their sugarfree homes they must return.

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Other parents make no effort to curb their children’s natural sweet tooth, and still others try desperate tactics like serving dessert with the rest of the meal in an attempt to demystify treats. But whatever you try, the problem remains: what children love to eat most is not what they need to eat most of. And I don’t care if you’ve never given your kid a single piece of candy: one day, be it today or ten years from now, he or she will get hold of a doughnut, a Snickers, some Twizzlers or a cornetto of gianduja gelato, and the celestial choir will sing Hallelujah! For this is Good. And that moment, and the years of unfettered access that will follow, are the ones for which we should be preparing our children.

I’ve always been of the mind that banishing sugar and its friends from my children’s diet merely serves to create a classic forbidden fruit scenario. Nor do I believe that turning dessert into a Bad Food will solve the problem: our drive to eat sweets is strong, and our will-power less so. Everyone, even the most ascetic soul, is going to crack one day and eat that warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookie: should crushing shame and guilt be its chaser? Wouldn't a glass of cold milk be so much nicer?

Granted, I like candy, and I like cake, and I love chocolate, and even fruit desserts are looking quite delicious to me as I get older…so some of this philosophy is self-serving. I can’t live without these things, so why should I ask my children to? On the other hand, I don’t think a diet made up entirely of treats is a great idea because, well, I’m not completely mad. And treats are exactly that: an extra fillip of deliciousness that comes after the workhorses of our diet, the sturdy vegetables, proteins and starches, have plowed the field and done the important, meaningful work. That said, I do think there’s a place for pleasure in our diet, and an important one at that: when we stop enjoying eating, we lose something that makes us human. And when we start hating food and eating, big problems arise.

So what is the solution to this plague of sugar so many parents fear? I call it the Candy Drawer. It’s a drawer that existed in my home as a child, and now exists in my family’s home. It’s full of candy. The drawer’s not out of reach of my children, nor is it locked or otherwise secured. But there are rules: candy comes after dinner, not in the middle of the day or at 10am. Dessert comes in limited quantities, which can vary according to the treats that preceded it or the size of said candy. Sometimes the candy drawer doesn’t get opened at all after a meal—if there’s ice-cream or cake or something with a shorter shelf-life to eat (please: we have our priorities straight). And on the whole, this system seems so far to be working out great: our kids know what they’re allowed to eat, and they do. Often they will ask me whether this treat plus that treat seems like a reasonable amount, and I will weigh in, and they (usually) listen. You'd be surprised what small amounts they actually eat. There’s no shame attached, no fear, no blame. And really, best of all, very little negotiating. Of course, this isn’t a solution that works universally: we're all wired to deal with food somewhat differently, and there are certainly children who will not be able to exercise this kind of self-control, even with exposure and practice. (Though I should emphasize that neither I nor my children are anything more than average at self-control when it comes to food; I’d actually argue this is not a bad way to be, despite the popular modern conception that an iron will to resist dietary temptation is no less than necessary to survival.)

And the candy drawer solution doesn’t make us infallible on the dessert front. At a holiday party last weekend I watched one of my children make approximately 45 trips to the dessert buffet table. She got a piggy-back from an older girl one time, and she skipped off quickly without making eye-contact, but I still saw her. And I did call out, repeatedly, cautionary words, something about moderation and cooling it on the brownies, but I wasn’t about to chase her down and wrench them out of her hand, which is probably what it would have taken to stop her. Predictably, she didn’t feel so hot afterwards. In fact, she couldn’t eat more than two bites of dinner, and had to go lie down on the couch. But I’m betting her discomfort taught her a more valuable, and certainly more visceral, lesson than if I had chased her down or yelled at her to stop, and this is the lesson we all need our kids to learn: how to begin gauging for themselves what the right amount of dessert might be. We don’t inhabit a dessert desert, nor should we wish for such a terrible fate, but we also don’t want our children to be gluttons. I’d encourage everyone, especially as we enter this season of sweets, to figure out a candy drawer solution for themselves, and also to accept, for their children’s sake if not their own, that dessert should be a pleasure, not a trial.

What I've cooked since my last post:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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