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Berkeley Parents Network > Advice > Eating > Dessert



Finish dinner before you get dessert?

May 2005

I am hearing from various sources that kids shouldn't be forced to finish the food on their plate because maybe they are full and we shouldn't make them over eat (e. g. obesity being a big problem).

But how are parents managing dessert and new foods?

We often have a bit of fruit for dessert but my kids would gladly give up almost any dinner to eat fruit. We do the, I assume, usual routine of ''eat your dinner and if you are still hungry you can have dessert, but if you are full you don't have to finish dinner.'' But I don't know if this is any better than ''eat the food on your plate and you can have dessert.'' Also, I find that my kids, as expected, don't eat what they don't like, i.e. new foods.

We have very limited snack/junk foods or juice. I try to serve small portions so that if they are really hungry they can have more of something. But what seems small portion to us, like two slices of zucchini (which they used to love) is now a huge amount.

I'd like to hear how others are dealing with the vagarities of children's tastebuds and the general societal problem of eating too much.

Also, how do people deal with visitor kids. We often have kids over and I mostly try to have what our kids consider kid friendly food. But there is inveritable the general response I don't like that xxx without them actually having tried it. So how do you balance your house rules of ''eat your miniscule portion of this strange item before you can have dessert'' with ''don't eat unless you are hungry''.

Signed: What about dessert?


There is a fabulous book called ''How to Get Your Kid to Eat...But Not Too Much'' by Ellen Satter. She talks about power dynamics in feeding relationships and how these go askew. Her feeling is that food should not be used as a reward, and by saving dessert for after dinner, it becomes a reward. She actually recommends providing a small amount of dessert on the plate with dinner - if the child eats dessert first, it is fine. The child will eat dinner as well if still hungry (if not, there is probably too much dessert on the plate).

Regarding not eating new foods, studies have shown that it can take up to 20 presentations of a new food before a toddler will feel comfortable enough to try it. Keep offering, and eventually the food will not be new anymore.

Good luck. anon


First, I don't think telling your kids that if they are too full to finish dinner that they can't have dessert is the same thing as saying they must clean their plate. They don't have to clean their plates, they just have to eat until they've had enough. We've done it this way with our kids (now 6 and 10) and they are great at knowing when they've had enough. We've been in restaurants where a sundae or ice cream is included in the kids meal, and my kids have refused them because they weren't hungry! It is a good thing because they learn to listen to their bodies and make good choices.

Second, when it come to introducing new foods, I usually offer it with something else they like. Like spinach and carrots. It might be more of pain, but it gets them to try it with a healthy back up. Our rule is that they have to at least try the new stuff. And they know that I am going to keep reintroducing it in one form or another, so they're not getting out of it forever. It has worked pretty well so far.

I have also maintained that I wouldn't get into food battles with my kids. I don't rule with a steel fist, but the rules are the rules and I refuse to negotiate every meal time. It can take a while for them to get the hang of things, but if they know you're not going to bend, they eventually go with the progam. anon


The rule at our house regarding dessert is: no dessert if you haven't eaten 5 fruits or vegetables throughout the day. We started this three years ago when my son was three and my daughter five and it has worked incredibly well. There must be a fruit at breakfast--and I don't count juice--and the kids have two in their lunch boxes and I provide at least two and usually more if we are having stew or soup for dinnner. If either kid chooses not to eat the fruit/veg. at lunch or dinner, they have no dessert. Amazingly, it's no longer an issue. The rules are clear. Sometimes my son wants to catch up, and so eats something after dinner so he can have a treat but more often than not he lets it go if he didn't reach the quota. (I will admit that they are also allowed a small treat after school which isn't dependent on the fruit/vegetable quota.) If they get their five, I allow a good dessert--a piece of chocolate or cookies or low-fat ice cream. It has taken away a lot of stres and I am hoping will instill a life-long habit of trying to get the good stuff in before the less-good stuff. Guilt, in other words. 5-a-day-mom
We faced the same dilemma. I found that my daughter was scarfing down food to get to the fruit. Now we only offer dessert on the weekends, if at all, which helps a lot -- though this may be cheating the issue of learning to deal with moderate consumption of sweets. Also, we only require a small ''no thank you'' bite of foods she doesn't like or doesn't want to try. The ''no thank you bite'' rule also applies to getting seconds on the foods she does like. So far this hasn't devolved into a horrible power struggle or anything-- we just explain it as a way of showing respect to the cook and staying open-minded and make it clear that the rule also applies to us. So far this balance seems to be working for us, but we're new at it-- our daughter's not yet three. Good luck to you! Caroline
kids love dessert. We just have fruit every night. They are required to try everything on their dinner plate; they are older now (5 and 9 years old) and so it is easier than when they were younger. I do encourage them to eat just til they're full, but there is always room for dessert! A few times, we put the fruit on their plate with their dinner, and this was very frustrating for them. They like having dessert to look forward to. jen
At our house, dessert is an occasional occurrence. If they eat all of their dinner and the vegetable was a ''hard one to eat'', they often get a dessert - it's agreed upon at the start of the meal. The always have to eat one bite of the vegetable (no matter how many times they've tried it) or other new food we want them to try. For their drink they get a choice of milk or water. But... at school, camp, a friends, a party... they can have decaf soda, juice - whatever the other kids are eating within reason. If we have a guest child, then we suspend our rules to make it enjoyable for the guest child. Our kids understand the difference between regular meals and special meals with visitors (they're 5 and 3 years old). karlyn
First of all, Thank You for being a parent that seems to be concerned about nutrition for your kids! I think you can follow your same train of thought that if the kids are not hungry enough to finish their dinner, then they shouldn't be eating dessert. That's like eating when you are not hungry, I would think. That said, we don't treat fruit as a dessert in our house, probably my girls are not the big fans your kids are.

What we do is serve our kids in ''courses'' to get them to eat healthy. This is a fine-tuned combination of what we feel is most important and what theymight otherwise resist. We always serve veggies first, nothing else on their plates. (I have a 5 and almost 2 yo--this works much better for the older one than the toddler, but she's learning!) Once they finish that, we usually move on to the protein part of the meal--chicken, fish, tofu, beans and rice. The last thing we give would be starch items that are pretty low in nutrition, i.e. pasta, bread, rice w/o beans, etc, but do give them energy. This is what they, like me, would make an entire meal out of if they could choose). If I were giving them fruit, this would probably be when I'd serve that. Dessert is extremely occaisional for us, but if they finished everything, I might treat them to a small something sweet. My kids are really healthy and I feel it's in part because they eat so well. That's what works for us! Good luck with your kids! Elizabeth


I agree with the current research on this topic; that you should not force your kids to eat, but not for the reason you stated which is obesity ( which of course is horrible) but rather the emotional tolls that kind of control can inflict. First off, we are all born with self regulation in this area; man, woman or child KNOWS intrinsically how much caloric intake they need for any given time. Sometimes we are hungrier than others, sometimes we are hungry a few times a day and other days we need to graze more often... the point is when you override this self regulatory feature in children what you are telling them is '' you can't be trusted to make these most basic decisions about your own body so I need to take over for you.'' Sadly, the message flows over into other areas of development and the child may often be looking to you for ''the answers'' in other instances where ''the answers'' should be internally knowable to the child without your input.

Your only responsibility when it comes to food is to offer healthy choices so that whatever he child chooses is okay. You need to shop for the food, stock the fridge, and give your child the appropriate choices (i.e. would you like yogurt and toast OR fruit and a sandwich for lunch?). With regards to dessert (which I think is what your original question was - sorry for the sermon!) - dessert is PART of a balanced diet.

Give it to them WITH their lunch or dinner - that way, you take away the hierarchy of food (i.e. all foods are equal and all foods contribute to a balanced diet). Even if your child eats the ''dessert'' first, which he/she will do the first few times, a hungry child will not be deterred by one cookie or small piece of cake or a piece of chocolate. When you reserve dessert until dinner is eaten (to your satisfaction) not only are you overriding the self regulation of your child (because now he is eating food he may not be hungry for in order to eat dessert) you are holding out food as a reward (eat the ''bad'' food and you can get the ''good food'') - which may have some damaging psychological ramifications.

On a more personal note, I always give dessert with the meal to my preschool daughter (who announces often that chocolate is her favorite food) - she eats the dessert first about ten percent of the time. It is surprising but once you take away the ''taboo'' of sweets and treat them on par with string beans, it will be amazing to you how strings beans will come up in the rank (or perhaps, how sweets will go down..) Either way, it's good for the kids - both physically and psychologically!

Good luck! food for thought


I ask my child to at least eat a balanced meal (not everything on the plate, but at least a little bit of everything, and especially, enough protein) before any dessert. And if not much food was eaten, the dessert is correspondingly small. My son's idea about what constitutes "dessert" is pretty flexible; it is more like "treat," meaning anythng that is a controlled substance. Sometimes he chooses to have chips for dessert (just a few) or gatorade, or dill pickles!! instead of the more traditional icecream or a popsicle. (He also likes fruit with whipped cream for dessert - without the whipped cream, it's not as festive, I guess.) I've noticed that sometimes after a small dinner and a small dessert, he asks for more dinner.

If he really dislikes something (he does not like tomato sauce or potatoes) I don't make him eat it. He will try new things and likes most of them, and generally eats a well-balanced diet so I respect his tastes.

I have no rules for guests, adults or children. If I am offering dessert, guests are included, even those who don't eat their dinners. When we are having kid guests, I only offer ice cream for dessert though, not potato chips or gatorade! Fran


-- Hi - I'll look forward to other suggestions because we are in a similar situation with our almost 5 year old (and his younger brother). We have been alternating dessert-night with bath-night, and I sometimes try to plan menus I know he may be less interested in for bath-night so there won't be the pressure to eat for dessert. So far we're using the ''if you're still hungry after you finish dinner we'll talk about dessert'' line, but also the rule I grew up with: if there is anything on your plate you don't like you can set it aside without finishing it as long as you don't complain about it. And of course you can't know if you don't like it if you haven't tasted it. Sometimes these two guidelines are hard to reconcile.

I think it would be too harsh to make a guest eat something he didn't like in order to participate in dessert so I've just said ''well, I'm not sure what the rule is at your house but at least you did eat some __ so you can have dessert too'' - in other words, make it clear that this is an exception to our normal rule. But I don't offer alternative menus - dinner is what is on the table. So far we've been lucky to have guests with wide tastes! - Charis


When I taught preschool we had an easy solution for the dessert delemma. We would give them their dessert at the same time as their meal. They could eat their dessert first if they chose to. As long as you are giving them a SMALL dessert portion, they will have plenty of room left for dinner. They always ate the rest of there food with no complaints. You of course choose the dessert, and once it's gone they may not have more. Also, children will eat good food if they are hungry, make sure they aren't snacking too much throughout the day. Works for us
I have an 18 month old and his tastes change week to week, so I always offer him a bite of everything served for dinner.he's never taken to broccoli but I offer it anyway in case one day he tries it and likes it. mostly he doesn't even try it. I don't really bother with desserts (until after he's in bed). I often have a sweet something for him like fruit or yogurt and if that's all he eats at least I know its relatively healthy. I don't really give the food a hierarchy though - first this then that - though I do try to get some variety so if I know he'll eat orange slices until he's full and he'll also eat chicken I offer the chicken first until he's done with it. I'm not really into using food as punishment or reward. its all just food and when junky stuff is not available, I think kids eat what and how much they need on their own. my cousin requires ''no thank you bites'' of her kids who are older. if they refuse to eat something they still have to take one bite, if they fret, they have to take two and if they continue to fuss they have to eat the whole serving. I'm not sure I'd go that far but I think the no-thank-you bites is a good idea when their older you can't control what they eat, only what you give them
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