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Should dessert be a reward?

You’ve heard the advice countless times: Don’t offer dessert as a reward for your kids. Don’t hold it out as something they “get” to eat when they’re finished with their peas, don’t present it as an award when they’ve finished a big homework assignment, and don’t use it as an incentive to shape unrelated behavioral issues. In other words, don’t make it into some big thing that they will covet and later go overboard on when they can finally make their own choices.

But realistically, what parent hasn’t used it as an incentive at least every now and then? At the Jolly Tomato household, for instance, you may not have dessert unless you finish your dinner and stay seated at the table with everyone else. Our rationale is, if can’t manage to do either of those simple things, why should you get to have cake or cookies? Sure, it’s possible that we’re glorifying dessert. But somewhere between these two philosophies (don’t withhold dessert vs. treating dessert as a reward) there’s got to be a healthy realistic way to serve sweet treats without making them the central focus of the day.

We’ve been thinking a lot about dessert recently (mmm….dessert) because it’s been a hot topic among the FOJT’s (Friends of Jolly Tomato). One of our beloved teachers told us that when her children were small, she offered them dessert right alongside dinner. Dessert was usually something like brownies that could be chopped into bite-sized pieces. So she served meals family-style, and each child would take a portion of each food, including dessert. They could eat dessert first if they wanted to, but they also had to finish everything else that was on their plate. The idea was that no one learned to covet dessert as something greater than the rest of all of the other foods.

We like this idea, but something tells us it has disaster written all over it for the Jolly Tomato household. We have visions of our little guys glomming down on the bite-sized brownies while the bite-sized pieces of spinach, carrot, and meatloaf grow cold. And then we can hear the protests, “But we can’t eat the meatloaf. We’re too full!”

In our less-than-perfect household, we feel like we need to set a few minimal ground rules to keep some sort of nutritional order. So that means dessert comes after a good dinner. And on the special days when we have an afternoon dessert (ahem, trips to the donut store) there’s (ahem, usually) no after-dinner treat that night. But we are definitely trying to stay away from using sweet treats as any kind of motivational award. We don’t give out M & Ms for potty training, we don’t give out frosted cookies for making the soccer team, or anything else along those lines. Our goal is to create an environment where there are a few simple standards but the “rules” about dessert aren’t overly proscribed. Oh, and because we want it to be fun, too. Because after all, who doesn’t love dessert?

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