Tired of all the whining and pleading for sugary sweets? This simple strategy of Dessert Day will teach your kids to stop asking for sugar, to appreciate and savor treats, and to learn that dessert is a "Sometimes Food." It will also help you to train your brain to stop asking for "something sweet" after the dishes are cleared. This family habit can keep you from having to use precious willpower stores to say "No" all the time and restore peace and quiet to your home.
Get Your Kids to Stop Whining for Sugar
& Stop Yourself From Wanting it Too!
When my two oldest children were 6 and 8, they started to get into a very bad habit. Every day after dinner and increasingly after lunch they would ask me if they could have dessert. Most of the time I said no, but sometimes I would give them a cookie, or ice cream, or some other sugary treat. It was getting super annoying. I didn’t want to give them treats all the time, and I didn’t want them asking me all the time either! And invariably, if they had a treat, then I would have one too.
The thing was the actual decision was hard to make. If we had treats, and it seemed like it had been a while between desserts, then I would say yes. But, I started to resent the begging and pleading, and they were getting better and better at wearing me down. And, having sugar all the time wasn’t good for them, and it wasn’t doing my waistline any favors either.
How Not to Train Your Kids
When it comes to training dogs, rats or even children, when you reward someone for a behavior, that is called conditioning. Pavlov conditioned his dog’s to salivate with a bell. I had unknowingly conditioned my children to ask for dessert after every meal.
When you reward someone each time for a behavior, that is called continuous reinforcement. If I gave my children a cookie every time that they asked that would be continuous reinforcement. But if you reward them at random times (not every time), then the behavior becomes stronger and a lot harder to extinguish. This is called intermittent conditioning.
Just like a slot machine gets us to keep pulling the handle due to variable pay out, my kids kept pestering me more and more. My children didn't know when the dessert jackpot would come. But they knew the more they begged and pleaded, the more often I’d give in. When we would have dessert was a mystery, so there was no end to the whining.
The Origins of Dessert Day
Finally, when I got exasperated enough, a flash of inspiration hit. When I was in college, one of my roommates was Swedish. She told me that in Sweden children only get candy on Saturdays while they watch cartoons. Saturdays are candy day. At the time I didn’t ask her why or how this custom started. Is it something that all Swedes do or just her family? It seemed rather random and arbitrary, but I remembered it.
I decided I needed a random and arbitrary rule too. I would stop the dessert nagging once and for all. Like Candy Day in Sweden, Dessert Day was born in Alabama. I decreed to my kids that we would have dessert on Friday nights. Friday was Dessert Day. Sweets would not be given out on any other day or at any other time.
My kids kept asking for sugary treats for a while. They wanted to test me to see if I really meant it. But now there was no decision for me to make. It had already been made. There was no argument that the kids could use. When they would beg for a cookie, I would ask them, ”Is it Dessert Day?” Then, they would sheepishly answer, “No.” And that was the end of it. No whining…No cajoling. It was a miracle.
Why We All Need Arbitrary Rules
It might not be your kids that are begging for “something sweet" every night, maybe it’s your own brain. Remember the Assistant habit part of your brain loves pleasure. And there aren’t many things more pleasurable than a big bowl of rich, creamy, sweet ice cream after a long day. In fact, your brain might be the one begging for dessert every night.
Benefits of Dessert Day
Dessert Day stopped the arguing and made my house more peaceful. But there were other benefits to having Dessert Day (besides the peace and quiet) that I didn’t anticipate.
More Willpower—Decisions use up your valuable willpower stores. The less decisions you have to make in a day, the more willpower you'll have for other things. (If you want to know more, check out this post on willpower.) By not having to make decisions about dessert, I was getting a boost to my willpower every day.
Dessert became special—One of my goals for my children is for them to become food snobs. I know that sounds pretentious, but I want them to appreciate good food and conclude that low-quality processed foods are not worth eating. Once Dessert Day became a thing, treats were more special. My kids would consider for days what we should have. Just any ordinary Keebler cookie wouldn’t do. Oh, no. Sweets became special. They needed to be worthy of the distinction of a once a week treat. Whatever we made, was savored and appreciated.
Helped keep my weight and theirs in check—Although I didn’t need to have a dessert every time my kids did, I usually did. The Assistant part of my brain was eager for any opportunity to eat more sweets. Although kids usually have a little more room in their day for an occasional treat, this was becoming way more than “ocassional.” Plus, I didn’t want this to become an ingrained habit that my kids might struggle with for the rest of their lives. Now my kids know that sweets are a “sometimes” treat, and sometimes comes once a week.
Bright Line Rules
Some nutrition experts call these rules—food policies. I prefer what Willpower author and researcher Roy Baumeister calls these clear rules—bright lines.
When you are driving on a highway and the lane marker lines are faded and non-existent, there can be a lot of drifting around the road. But on a newly painted road, you know right where you should be driving. Once you paint some bright line rules, it shuts down arguments, whining, and begging from your kids and your own brain.
To make bright lines, you make simple, clear rules around a trouble spot—like desserts. I teach my clients to come up with Bright Lines around their most common weight loss obstacles. Everyone needs a Sugar Bright Line Rule. If you tell your kids that you are going to “Eat less sweets,” they'll have a very different interpretation of the word “less” than you. But, if you tell them that Dessert Day is Friday and dessert only happens on that day after dinner, there isn’t a lot of room for interpretation.
These bright line dessert rules will differ from person-to-person and family-to-family. One of my clients has a bright line rule that they eat dessert on the weekends. Other clients have bright line rules to eat sweets only when they have company over. Other clients have rules that allow them to eat sweets once a day as long as they only eat 3 bites. Some clients have a rule to eat sweets only on holidays.
It doesn’t matter which Sugar Bright Line Rule you adopt. The key is to make a bright line rule that works for yourself and your family. Then, tell your kids and your brain that this is the way it’s going to be.
When the ice cream truck drives down the street or the ice cream carton in the freezer is calling your name, you’ll be ready. You can tell them, “Sorry. Dessert Day is Friday, and today is not that day.“
Until next time,
I'm a dietitian, personal trainer, and health coach who started asking all the tough health and weight loss questions-- like how do we get more willpower, why can’t we stay motivated, and why is getting healthy and losing weight so tough?
I discovered that the answer to all these questions is simply--Your Brain.
I help you stop the health and weight loss struggles by understanding your brain and then working with it—instead of against it. Then, I teach you how to put your personalized healthy habits on autopilot for results that last.
I believe that you deserve the health and energy to live your best life.