Care and Feeding

We’ve Created a (Cookie) Monster

Before lockdown, we gave our son a really healthy diet with just the occasional ice cream or candy. Now things have gotten really out of hand.

A young boy with wide eyes and an open mouth looking delighted while eating a cookie.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Like many parents, my partner and I have relaxed a lot of rules during the pandemic for our 3-year-old. Before lockdown, he ate a really healthy diet with just the occasional ice cream or cookie. Now things have gotten really out of hand. He’s having candy every day, and often has multiple sweets daily. It’s gotten to the point where he starts tantrums if he’s denied a treat, even if he just had one. Sometimes, we just give in.

We know this is bad. We are faced with limited child care, we each work full time, and my partner’s job is out of state, so I parent alone during the week. We’re stretched so thin, but we know we need to get this sugar thing under control! Part of me thinks we shouldn’t keep any junk in the house because it’s too tempting for him, but then I think perhaps it’s better for kids to have a mix of foods around and to learn that we eat treats in moderation. Maybe he’ll have an easier time if there are rules, like “Saturday morning is Dunkin’ Donuts time, and that’s the treat of the week.” But honestly, I think so much of the fun of a treat is the spontaneity, so maybe that would be too rigid?

Should we just continue to keep some treats in the house, limit them to a few days a week (which will no doubt seem arbitrary and confusing to a 3-year-old), and just not let his tantrums ruffle us? We just need a plan that feels good.

—Locking Up the Snacks

Dear LUS,

Are you saying that allowing myself to have a waffle cone four to five times per week because I am SAD about the pandemic is not a good thing? Oh, boy.

You are not alone in this struggle. Many of us have overindulged our children and/or ourselves in food, toys, and other feel-good things in order to get us through this really crappy period of time. However, there’s a thin line between making spirits bright and creating unhealthy coping mechanisms that could have long-term consequences, and you’re going to have to change course a bit.

Instead of creating rules that are hard to live by, seek to institute habits that you can maintain. A once-a-day dessert limit may be challenging to a kid who has gotten accustomed to more, so start introducing healthier options that are both appealing to his tastes but low enough in sugar and fat that you don’t have to wring your hands over serving them (sugar-free popsicles have been fooling kids for decades, and this chocolate pudding was a hit with my kid; I, a lifelong Cookie Monster with exacting dessert standards, enjoyed it as well).

You can have a weekly Dunkin’ date and leave room for spontaneity when it comes to having a treat—which, again, doesn’t always need to be rich and unhealthy to be delightful—but it sounds like you’ve unintentionally created the expectation that dessert is more readily available than it should be. What if you kept the in-home goodies on the healthier side, with rare exceptions such as purchasing a seasonal pie or a pint of your son’s favorite ice cream for a special movie night, and then limited more indulgent treats to one-off purchases? You could go to a bakery and get him a single cupcake, which allows him the delight of the treat without the expectation that he can go to the kitchen tomorrow and have another one or two.

Make sure your kid isn’t taking in too much sugar and that his diet is otherwise as balanced as possible (which is hard, of course, because 3-year-olds are known to be picky eaters), but don’t only make diet reform the goal of dialing back his access to dessert. Try and come up with other ways to keep him upbeat, engaged, and looking forward; this is no small challenge, but it is an important one. And forgive yourself. Many of us have used cookies to get a little much-needed silence or cooperation, or just to see a glum kid perk up. You’ll likely do it again, even if you get into the habit of trying to do otherwise.