Reflections on a Treat-Free Month

I am wrapping up a treat-free month with my kids. Back in December, the cookies, candy, and treats got more than a little out of hand. This month has been a learning process for my kids, but more importantly for me. I’ve been able to let go of some of my longtime beliefs about the role that sugar needs to play in childhood. Have you ever tried to go treat-free with your kids?

Show Notes/Links

Hi, it's episode 192. And today we're talking about sugar. Hi, this is Denaye. I'm the founder of Simple Families. Simple families is an online community for parents who are seeking a simpler more intentional life. In this show, we focus on minimalism with kids, positive parenting, family wellness, and decreasing the mental load. My perspectives are based in my firsthand experience, raising kids, but also rooted in my Ph.D. in child development. So you're going to hear conversations that are based in research, but more importantly, real life. Thanks for joining us.

Hi, and welcome to episode 191. Today, we're talking a little bit about sugar or maybe a lot a bit about sugar. So in December, my kids were inundated with sugar. I don't know if anyone else feels like this, but every year around the holidays, sugar becomes so widespread. So, after the holiday season, this year, I decided to go treat free for a month with my kids.

So by that, I mean, for a month, we're not having cookies, candies cakes, pretty sure that my kids had enough of all that stuff around the holidays to last them the rest of 2020, but we're just trying it out for a month. My intent in doing this was experimental. I wanted to see what my kid's reaction would be. I wanted to see if I could uncover some of the underlying beliefs that they have around sugar, because I know I have some of my own, and I will say that the results have been surprising. And I'll be sharing more about that today, before we get into today's episode, I'm going to share a quick one minute word from the sponsor. The sponsor for today's episode is Derma E. This is a company that's brand new to me, but I've been trying some of their products and I'm already a fan Derma E is a clean beauty brand.

Derm E has products with wholesome nutrients and exceptional ingredients. They have something for everyone. Whether your issue is aging, acne, dry, oily, or sensitive skin. They have sulfate and paraben-free products that are vegan gluten-free. So I free cruelty free. I've been using two products from the vitamin C line, the vitamin C serum and the vitamin C intense night cream. And my skin already looks brighter and more hydrated, which can be tricky around this time of the year. Derm E has a great offer for the Simple Families listeners. If you want to give it a try, they're giving you 20% off site-wide with the promo code, a "simple 20", the website is Derma E And you can use the code "simple 20" to get 20% off your order. So what's happening on simple families in February, we are starting February off with a workshop and feeding babies.

Some of you may know that this was the area of my doctoral research interest, understanding how we feed babies in the first year of life and the impact that it has on the years to come. So in this workshop, we'll be talking about starting solids. Now, I'm not going to promise to anyone that will prevent picky eating, but there are some very intentional things that we can do in the early months of eating food that set our kids up for success later, that's going to happen on February 5th at 2:00 PM. Online. If you want to grab your spot, go to simple /babies to register. And if you can't make it live, you can register anyways and you'll get the replay sent to you. You can watch at your leisure. So that's the beginning of February, the end of February, February 27th, we are going to launch off a new round of the mental unload.

If you're new to Simple Families, the mental unload is a program that I run three or four times a year that focuses on mental clutter. In this program, we take a look at understanding and simplifying the mental load, stay tuned, and I'll give you more information about that as it gets closer, but pencil it into your calendar in the meantime, all right, let's talk about sugar. And I want to rewind to December, December in our family felt really out of control. When it came to treats and cakes and candies, it all came to a head for me. When my kids went to an event at our local library, it was a craft event and they went with our childcare provider and she brought them back and they were covered in frosting and all the crafts that they made or entirely constructed of candy, needless to say, they came back empty handed because they ate all of their crafts before they even got home.

Now that's some zero waste for you, right? They destroyed all the evidence. This event came after a series of other events that involved bags of candy. Other candy made creations like gingerbread houses, mass quantities of sugar everywhere. And I realized that I was really afraid of saying no. So, the matter is none of this candy or treats or sugar, any of it was coming from home. The way that we have always handled sugar and treats and that sort of thing in our home is that at home we eat well. When we're out, we indulge, we eat at home about 80% of the time, about 20% of the time we're out in the world and we eat things we wouldn't normally eat at home. So, we don't keep treats and candy and other indulgences in the house. But we do enjoy them as a family when we're out by no means, have I ever been restrictive of any foods with my kids?

I just don't buy it. I keep it out of my house. And that's always been a balance that has worked for us. But after this December came and we were so inundated with treats and candies. Yeah. I asked myself, can I say no? I realized I was really afraid saying, no, I was afraid of putting limits on it. Everyone else was doing it. My kids don't have any general health problems that would lead me to need to restrict it. But I had this sinking feeling that it was just too much. I've always been of the mindset where I don't want to be too crazy about food. When it comes to my kids, I want them to develop their own rhythms and follow their own appetites. We very much follow Ellyn. Satter's division of responsibilities, which is the parents choose the food and the kids choose how much and whether or not they want to eat it.

I never pressure my kids to eat more. And I certainly don't restrict them from eating too much. I know, I hear a lot of parents saying they're afraid if they restrict candy and sugar, their kids are going to want it even more and they're going to binge on it even more. And I don't have a good answer for that. I know that growing up, my parents were not really restrictive around sugar. We didn't have any hard set rules around it. And I just, as much as my friends were eating, I had it at school whenever it was available. And I binged on sugar all the time. Whenever I could get my hands on it, I ate as much as possible all through my early adulthood. So for me personally, my tendency to choose sugar over pretty much everything was not based in heavy restriction as a child, but that's not to say that that doesn't happen.

That's just my own personal experience and anecdote. If you rewind back to when our kids were newborns, newborns and babies of all ages have a natural tendency to seek out sweet and breast milk is sweet. So there's something adaptive about that. The natural tendency towards seeking sweet helps our babies find and seek nourishment. And as they grow through that first year of life, they still have a natural tendency to choose sweet over pretty much all other flavors. The tendency towards liking bitter is the last taste to develop. And it's often the most challenging one, but our vegetables like broccoli and spinach are the hardest things to get kids to eat. One way that the baby food industry has adapted to this is through the addition of fruits to their baby food pouches. If you take a look at baby food and the way that the stage system is structured, you'll see that many of today's baby foods in particular, the organic brands.

I think that they are some of the worst offenders. The ones in the pouches you'll find that stage one is straight up plain vegetables, stage two, you'll find bitter vegetables mixed in with pear puree or Apple puree. By the time you get to stage two, you'll be hard pressed to find any commercially available baby food pouches that don't have Apple or pear mixed into them. That's because as kids get closer to the first year of life, they start to develop an opinion about what they're eating. And that opinion often leads them towards sweet. Now, just to be clear, I'm not saying anything negative about feeding fruit to babies. What I am saying is that we shouldn't be covering up bitter flavors with sweet because we fail to expose babies to bitter. When it's smothered in sweet, they need to experience both flavors in their true form, not using one to cover up the other, especially if it's something like spinach and broccoli, you might find that broccoli is occasionally mixed in with some carrot puree that's because carrot puree is naturally sweet and flavor.

We here in the U S tend to give our babies the sweet vegetables, first sweet peas carrots, which are sweet, sweet potatoes. The result is that as parents, we realize that our babies love sweet and they're seeking sweet, and they're more likely to accept the sweeter vegetables. And we tend to serve those first, the baby food companies have also picked up on this and they want your babies to want their baby food. And to do that, they make it sweet. And as babies get closer to the first year of life, some natural pickiness can start to set in. So making the food a little sweeter and a little sweeter as they get older, makes it more likely that the babies are going to accept those baby foods. So, in many ways, the baby food industry has started to cater towards these natural tendencies.

So, what does this mean? It might mean, that some of our babies are growing up essentially with a sweet tooth. They're not being properly exposed to bitter and sour and salty and all the other flavors that are so important for them as they grow. Now, of course, we can make different choices as parents, because after all it is our job to choose the food that our kids are going to eat. It's their job to decide whether or not they want to eat it and how much they're going to eat. But way back in the thirties, there was a researcher named Clara Davis, and she did some really groundbreaking research around understanding. If children are able to self-select nourishing diets, she was able to perform a study that would never, ever fly with an ethics board in the current day and age. So what did Clara Davis do? She took unmarried teen moms and widows who couldn't support their family.

Couldn't provide for their babies and put them into an orphanage set up in Chicago. And she got 15 kids to participate. And over the course of a few years, starting in infancy, she allowed them to self-select the foods that they wanted from sort of a buffet of foods. I'm going to read you a list of some of the foods that she served so you can get an idea, water, sweet milk, sour, milk, sea salt, apples, bananas, orange juice, fresh pineapple, peaches, tomatoes, beets, carrots, peas, turnips, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, potatoes, lettuce, oatmeal, wheat, corn meal, barley beef, lamb, bone marrow, bone jelly, chickens, sweetbreads, brains, liver, kidneys, and fish. Not all of these foods were served at once, but they all were served and rotated. And what Clara found was that children were in fact able to seek out the food that their bodies needed the most.

The children did not eat the same things and their diets changed as they grew. But the overall result was that these children were all well-nourished at the end, despite eating different things. Because many of these children came from impoverished families who had limited access to medical care and to proper food. Some of them were sickly when they came in. One in particular had a severe case of rickets, which is a vitamin D deficiency among the foods he was offered was Cod liver oil, which is a source of vitamin D. This child consumed Cod liver oil willingly on several occasions until his or her vitamin D levels were normal and then never consumed it again. So, Clara definitely found evidence that kids can self-select their diets. And they know what's best for them in many ways. Unfortunately, she was overwhelmed with data and a lot of the results were inconclusive and other researchers.

Exactly sure how reliable this study was and the conclusions that came from it, there's belief that she wanted to do another version of this study, but using process prepared foods instead to see what the results were. But she ran out of funding and due to ethical considerations, there really will never be a study like this again. So we have to take from it what we can. I absolutely think that there is something to this. I think that kids surely can, self-select what they need. Their bodies know what they need. And when given healthy choices, they can choose the right things that are going to help them to thrive. But the smorgasbord that Clara's kids received was very different than the smorgasbord that my kids had at that library event. If I was taking my kids out into the world and all they were being offered was carrots and beets and Cod, I probably wouldn't be that concerned.

Humans need food to survive and thousands of years ago, before there were social implications and with food, surely humans ate the best foods that they needed in order to thrive early human's ability to self-regulate was probably a lot better than ours is today. It's hard to listen to our bodies when we're surrounded by options, not always healthy options. So yeah, even as adults, many of us are going to seek out the dopamine surges that come with eating something, sugary, something sweet. It can have almost an addictive quality to it. So are our children born with the ability to self-regulate their food intake and make good decisions? Yes, probably. I would say so, but what we're faced with is a society that believes that children need sugar to be happy. That childhood is incomplete without a smorgasbord of sugar. It's not a birthday without cake. It's not Christmas without a gingerbread house and a stocking full of candy.

It's not Easter without a basket full of treats. Every time my kids leave swimming lessons or the barbershop, they've got a lollipop in their hands as a reward, sugar and treats is naturally intertwined into the way that we're socializing our kids. And the truth of it all is I'm afraid to say no to my kids in many ways. I think I'm afraid of making them the quote, unquote weird kids who aren't allowed to have something that everybody else is having. We are already doing life differently than a lot of people in our community. And while I definitely think there's value in going against the grain and finding your own way, I also think there's value in fitting in and finding similarities among your peers. So I try to pick and choose. We do gift free birthday parties, which is, you know, a little bit weird according to society, but if we didn't do cake or gifts, ooh, I don't know.

I think that's kind of like next level. And then we're getting into a whole another topic of my insecurities around being different. So I do truly want to pick my battles. I want my kids to eat less sugar. I want to raise them intentionally, but I also don't want them to feel alienated from their peers. And I don't have any intentions of doing that. I don't have any intentions of being restrictive of them when they're out of the house, but I did decide I wanted to take a few weeks off. I wanted to take a few weeks, treat free to see if I could uncover some of the core beliefs that my kids have and that I have around sugar. And one of my core beliefs is surely that my kids will be deprived and they will be without if they don't have sugar. Now, let me remind you that my kids are almost four and newly six January 1st came.

And I said to them, we're going to take a couple of weeks off of having treats. We're not going to have any sugar for January now. I'm not restricting them from eating maple syrup on their pancakes or eating fruit. That sort of thing. I'm simply just saying, we're not eating desserts. We're not eating candies. And the surprising thing of it is that it's been harder for me than it has been for them. When I first told them they were slightly bummed, I wouldn't even say they were totally bummed or upset. They're just like, Oh, why not? And I use my job description, which I shared with you all last week, which is as your mom, it's my job to keep your body and your brain healthy. So I want to make sure that you're eating healthy things that help you grow and nourish your brain and body.

So they passed on the cupcakes after coffee hour at church and had oranges and cheese sticks. Instead they left swimming lessons without a lollipop. And we just spent a week in Arizona visiting my brother's family, where the weather was warm and beautiful. And they didn't ask to go get ice cream a single time. In fact, I was the one thinking about ice cream every day, but it never even crossed their minds. And interestingly, at the end of the trip, my son said to me, this has been my happiest trip ever. He so much enjoyed spending time with his cousins and playing outside. The lack of treats had zero impact on his happiness, which I can't say surprises me, but I'm glad that I know that for sure. So, I thought that this was going to be hard and it actually hasn't, it's been hard for me, but my kids, it really hasn't phased them.

I have had to say no a couple of times, but it's pretty much a non event. We've talked a little bit about how there are foods that we should eat in abundance. And there are foods we should eat in moderation. And I'm approaching this from a very simplistic point of view with them. And I'm not demonizing sugar or treats or candy or anything like that. I'm just simply exposing them to the idea that we can make a choice. We can say no. And maybe there will be some times where I say no, on behalf of my kids, when February comes, they will start eating treats again. And I expect that it will be pretty much a non event, just like it was when we gave it up. And I can't say that they took away and learned a lot from it. But I certainly learned that my kids can be just as happy and joyful and fulfilled without tacking a lollipop onto the end of every day, when it comes to treats and candy, sometimes we can take it and sometimes we can leave it, but we do have a choice and the choices we make have implications on our health.

Maybe not right now today, but in the long-term yes, we do have to eat certain things in moderation. The reality is that I don't want to have to say no to my kids about sugar. What I really want is for the adults who are the ones purchasing the food and making the decisions to do better. I want the library event next year to use paper crafts instead of candy crafts. I want schools to serve fruits rather than fruit snacks. I think we have to focus on dealing with this on a higher level, rather than going with the well, everybody else is doing it. I'm just going to do it to mindset. Acknowledging that we as adults can be the ones to make changes. The next time that you're responsible for bringing snack to your kid's school, make better choices. If you bring snacks to them after little league practice, choose wisely as adults, we're the ones with the money and the purchasing power.

And how are we going to spend it to focus on the health and wellbeing of our children? Are we going to go along with the status quo or are we going to make better choices? Can we stand up for making change? Can I go to the librarian in advance of the holiday event next year and help her brainstorm ideas that don't involve a bunch of candy? And now I would never approach this from a point of judgment. I would never criticize anyone else who buys sugar for my kids, but I am going to set the example by not doing it myself. I've had a lifelong history of indulging on sugar. And as I've reached my adult years, I've done more work on understanding my core beliefs around sugar, not as it pertains to my kids, but more as it pertains to myself, I've done the whole 30 a couple of times, which is where you spent 30 days completely giving up sugar.

And I found that I feel so much better at the end of the month. I always find that naturally sweet things like fruit tend to taste really sweet. Now, I don't know what the research behind this says, but it seems to me the less sugar I eat, the more adverse I am to sugary things, at least in my adult years, that is, and on a similar note, we've hosted two AU pairs from Europe who have both had the same reaction upon arriving in the U S and tasting our bread and our regular staple foods. And that reaction I'll quote, everything tastes so sweet here, but by the time their year's coming to a close, it doesn't taste so sweet anymore. Taste buds adjust to sweetness. So, no, I don't believe that when it comes to children, it's as simple as letting them make all the choices for themselves.

If foods still existed purely as something that we need for survival, then yes, maybe we could do that. But then the truth is food is so highly socialized. The way we eat, what we eat, the associations we have with food, the marketing that we see, sugar being used as a reward, sugar being withheld as a punishment. All of this has complicated our ability to see food purely as a method to fuel our bodies. Unfortunately, the process isn't as natural as it was intended to be. So there may in fact, to be some education around moderation and around making positive choices, when it comes to food, there may or may not be times as adults that we need to say no to a treat request. And I know that many people believe that if you let a kid eat their whole bag of Halloween candy, that they'll say shade on it and get sick and never want to do it again.

Well, I'm never going to be that parent. I'm never going to let my kid eat their whole bag of Halloween candy or their whole Easter basket, because I did that as a kid and I never satiated. I never had enough. So while that may work for some, it didn't work for me. And I really just don't personally want to take the gamble that that's going to work for my kids. But if your parents did this with you, or you're doing this with your own kids, and it's worked for you then great. As I always say, do what works best for you and your family, which probably looks a lot different than what I do for my own family. Some of the things that I talked about in this episode were research-based, but most of it was anecdotal. Most of it was my own experience and my own personal core beliefs and thoughts about this subject.

And in general, that's how I make decisions. I do consult the research and read a little bit about what science is saying, but overall, I try to trust my gut as much as possible in reflection. I'm really glad that my family and I spent the past few weeks without treats. It's helped me to better understand the core beliefs that I have around treats and giving my kids treats and eating them my selves. And it's also helped me to challenge some of the core beliefs I have around treats and candy and childhood, and the fact that no kids don't need treats to be happy, but some treats here and there is okay too. I'm always trying to find a middle ground. And when we lose that middle ground and things start to feel a little out of control, we have the power to reign it back in.

And sometimes that means hitting the reset button like we did with this. I hope you've enjoyed this episode. And as a quick reminder, anybody that has a baby or is pregnant and expecting a baby, you should absolutely check out my babies, eat real food workshop, which I am doing on Tuesday, February 5th, you can go to to get all the details and register. If you want to start solid food off with intention and do your best to prevent picky eating, then I think you're going to love this one. This is the first time I've offered this in about three years. And if you can't make it live, you can sign up register and you'll get the replay sent to you 24 hours later. Thanks for tuning in today. This has been episode 192 as always. I appreciate you being a part of simple families and have a good one.

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.