One habit I am very grateful my parents taught me is this: When you finish your dinner, stop eating. If you get hungry again before bedtime, you may have dessert. In my childhood home, “dessert” was often canned fruit in syrup, homemade yogurt with jam, tapioca pudding, fruit crisp, a bagel, or something else that tasted sweet but also had some nutrients. I have continued this habit into my adult life and taught it to my son Nicholas, who’s now seven years old. Most of the time we don’t plan for “dessert” specifically but eat what we feel like eating for an evening snack–chips and salsa, a bowl of cereal, Raisin Bran Bread, or leftovers from a different night’s dinner are as likely to be “dessert” as are sweets. At times we don’t have any real sweets (like candy) in the house at all, and when we do all three of us may forget to eat them for days at a stretch because we just don’t have a niche for super-sweet foods in our daily lives.
I cannot advise anyone on how to adopt this habit midway through life, since I’ve always had it. My point is that this is a great habit to get into as a very young child, so if you are raising a very young child or planning to do so, try to establish this habit for your child. Just by setting an example while your child is awake (planning to break out the sweets after his bedtime!) you might be able to wean yourself from dessert, too!
There are three main reasons delaying dessert is a good habit:
- It prevents development of the feeling that a meal is not complete until you’ve eaten something sugary. Katie at Kitchen Stewardship is so accustomed to that feeling that she’s attempting to switch her family to fruit for dessert, rather than just quit serving dessert–and my first thought on reading her article was that I am glad not to be crippled by the expectation of dessert! When you’re not saving room for dessert, you eat a little more of your nutritious dinner. If what you’ve actually been doing is packing in the sweets when you’re already full, eliminating those surplus calories will improve your health.
- Not eating again until you are hungry may mean that you wind up not eating again until breakfast. Once you’re away from the table and doing other things, you may not get around to eating, in which case you must not have needed those calories. Daniel and I as adults both have some nights when we eat dessert/snack and some nights when we don’t. With a child who needs to go to bed on time, though, you may find that being too flexible about snacking leads to staying up late every night because he suddenly realizes he’s hungry just when it’s time to go to bed! We now say, “If you need anything else to eat before bed, now is the time.”
- When you are eating a snack separate from a meal, and you are feeling hungry, you may find that very sweet, non-nutritive food (like a piece of frosted cake) is quite unsatisfying. It may even make you feel sick. That motivates you to choose healthier foods for “dessert” and avoid having those empty calories in your diet at all.
Despite our establishment of this good habit, recently Nicholas has been asking if he can have “dessert” right after dinner some nights. Partly this is the influence of many children’s books in which the primary motivation for eating a healthy dinner is to earn dessert: When he isn’t thrilled with what we’re having for dinner, he’ll start bargaining, “How many more bites do I have to eat if I want dessert?” Daniel and I find this irritating, but usually we’re able to come to an agreement. Another factor is Nicholas’s desire to make sure he doesn’t miss out on special treats like his Halloween candy (which always lasts through Christmas, at least) or sweet things that have come into our home (like a recent box of Girl Scout cookies) that might be polished off by his parents before he gets a fair share! That’s understandable, and I take it as a good sign that he seems to fear forgetting that the treats exist–and sometimes does forget about them for a day or two–instead of being obsessed with them.
One more tip on desserts: Fruit gets sweeter when you cook it, and that’s a great way to use up random leftover fruit! Also, the act of cooking it feels like you’re transforming it from “just fruit” into a dessert.