Care and Feeding

The Way the Cookie Crumbles

My 4-year-old’s preschool loves snacking, but I’m concerned about diabetes. How do I minimize her exposure to sugar?

A kid delightedly eating a cookie.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m trying to figure out what to do now that my 4-year-old is in preschool and generally social, like going to friends’ houses. We go to a very small preschool with a high level of parental involvement (parents prepare the snacks each day), and it seems like every other day is some child’s birthday (or “half-birthday”) or another holiday, or the snacks (cookies, chocolate-covered whatevers, etc.) are treated like a party themselves—“just because.” (And I’m writing this message while I’m drinking a sugar-bomb coffee and eating some crappy cheese bagel, so I’m definitely not in the camp of thinking that if it’s not a kale smoothie, it’s not good enough for my preciouses.)

That said, there are a number of diabetes diagnoses and other diet/weight-related issues in our family, so the kids are already starting off at a genetic disadvantage, and I’m trying to minimize the exposure. I know the advice is to just “model good eating habits,” and honest to God, my preschooler’s favorite meals at home are things like salad, lentil soup, and fish. But if kids are only supposed to receive 17 grams of sugar a day and she gets eight from her morning yogurt and 25 from snacks, plus whatever else she gets snuck at whoever’s house she’s at, what’s a realistic strategy for mitigating the intake? I’d love to be able to give her a treat myself occasionally, but it’s a bummer picking her up thinking we could go get a small scoop of ice cream only to hear about the cupcakes she already had at school.

I’ve spoken to her teacher, who has indicated there isn’t really anything to be done. I’m finding myself edging closer to that helicopter parenting stereotype of bringing her own snacks every day and not letting her partake. At the same time, I think society has a problem with sugar, and I refuse to throw up my hands and accept that she’s just going to develop diabetes. I also don’t want to antagonize her teachers (or other parents) by pressing the issue, particularly given that it’s a pretty small community, but it’s a real health concern on our side that I don’t feel is being taken seriously.

—La Dolce Vida

Dear LDV,

By my count, you have exactly three options. Either you a) accept the sugar distribution as it currently stands, b) go full helicopter mom complete with celery baggies and whatnot, or c) look for a school that boasts stricter policy on in-class sweets. You simply have to decide how important it is for you to manage your kid’s sugar intake.

Is it important enough for you to take on the additional labor of micromanaging her daily eating experience? Because it would be micromanaging. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it would be a lot. It would be a lot for her, and it would be a lot for you. It would be unusual, and it would make her feel pretty bummed about everyone getting to eat something that she cannot. The same would be true if you decide to switch schools. Her social order would be disrupted, your expenses may well go up, and that’s not to mention the amount of time you’d take during the day to find and visit potential new schools. It’s all a big deal.

But what will happen if you simply let things progress as they are? Certainly, your daughter won’t become diabetic from preschool snacks, especially because sugar does not even cause diabetes. She may develop a taste and maybe even a greater attachment to sugar than you‘d like, but as the primary provider of her meals for the foreseeable future, you’d also have plenty of ways to make an impact on her overall sugar intake, not the least of which is your own diet. In your letter you admitted to drinking a sugar-filled coffee while also tossing off the idea of leading by example. Look, there are a lot of ways to try and teach kids not to do something, but no parenting strategy is more primary or more effective than simply behaving the way you would like your kids to behave. It is impossible to teach a kid to do something that we are unwilling to do ourselves, and I can’t help but wonder how much your fixation on managing your daughter’s eating is fueled by a reluctance to face the seemingly much more difficult reality of managing your own.

It is fine to go helicopter, if you have strong beliefs. It is fine to search for schools that reflect your values. But there is an order of operations, and I might suggest that first in that order is to model for her in your own life the behavior you want her to have. If you find that it’s too much for you, then it may help you see that it’s too much to do for her.