Hey Sugar: Should Toddlers Have Sweets?

09.22.10: Leo's 28th Month

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I have a friend whose child is not allowed to eat any food containing more than 2 grams of sugar per serving. 2 grams! I thought this seemed like a clever idea worth emulating until I looked at the back of the soy milk. Leo drinks regularly: 7 grams of sugar. Whole milk, which of course contains only natural sugars, has 13 grams of sugar on the label. As I started looking at labels, I had flashbacks to the “candy collection” that my sugar-deprived best friend and I kept in a hollow tree back in middle school. What’s the right approach to kids and sugar anyway?

I am definitely on the more sugar-leary side as a mom: I haven’t introduced the concept of “dessert,” only “treats,” which I emphasize are a once-in-a-while thing. I don’t give Leo juice, and for digestive reasons, I usually have to limit his fruit intake more than he’d like (the kid will keep eating grapes until, um, bad things happen). I serve plain yogurt, unsweetened applesauce, I buy wholegrain breads, avoid high fructose corn syrup (though apparently this is no more evil than other sugars)…you know, I try . And then I send Leo to a school where he eats Oreos on a regular basis for snack. Ah well.

In a recent New York Times piece entitled Keeping Kids Safe From the Wrong Dangers, Lisa Belkin writes “If history is any guide, we seem to veer between overreaction and underreaction — all while defining our own response as “moderate.” And,” she continues, “while we certainly make constant (mis)calculations in our adult lives, we seem all the more determined yet befuddled when it comes to the safety of our children.

Well count me befuddled. I write—and read—about food and nutrition all the time, and I have my opinions about what’s healthy (‘real food’) and what’s not (junk! empty calories!) but I have no idea whether I should be more worried about giving Leo homemade buttery cupcakes, the occasional piece of conventionally–raised meat when we can’t find—or afford—organic, or too much pasta. I just sort of keep all these concerns on the back burner, while focusing mostly on produce (ie how to get Leo to eat veggies) and producing sustainable, tasty home-cooked meals.

Then, every once in a while, I go on a bender. Sour gummy candies are my kryptonite. Of course I sneak these when Leo isn’t looking. But the fact that I do makes me wonder whether my attitudes towards food and health are really doing any of us any good.

So, in the spirit of setting a good example, and trying to eat better myself, I’m giving up white sugar for a month. Mostly I’m doing this to remind myself that I don’t need to eat sweets so often. Of course, it’s been a week and I came home from work today and convinced myself that the homemade bread that was going stale deserved a better fate. Like, bread pudding. Sweetened only with maple syrup of course. Like I said, treats do happen every once in a while. The trick is to keep them coming just infrequently enough so that you can really enjoy them.

Recipe: Maple and Dried Fruit Bread Pudding

Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer and cookbook editor and co-author of The Flexitarian Table. Food Editor and blogger for The Faster Times, she tries not to eat for two now that her son is a toddler.