It was one of those Wednesdays. My older daughter had a doctor’s appointment right after school and then we were racing to sneak in a haircut before dinner. The baby was along for the ride; my husband was commuting back from the city. As we left the hair salon, the baby started wailing and my 4-year-old started whining and I realized it was after 5 pm and I had made no plans to feed them.
So I drove to the ice cream store.
And this was dinner: A scoop of mint chip for me. A scoop of chocolate with rainbow sprinkles for the preschooler. A half scoop of vanilla for the 8 month old. We sat on the front porch of our town’s beloved ice cream spot and watched tug boats gliding along the Hudson River. Hands and faces were sticky. Tummies were full. I’m not sure why they’re so somber that picture, because they were, in fact, so happy.
To my adult self, it felt decadent and maybe a little irresponsible. But here’s something I learned while researching my book: Kids develop a healthier relationship with treat foods when you don’t forbid them or require good behavior, clean plates, or any other “payment” in order to earn dessert. When you let fun foods be a part of normal life they can be a logical solution to a time management problem and a moment of peace in a chaotic day — and nothing more.
That’s because kids go nuts and gorge on dessert only when they internalize our anxieties about it. If they expect us to police their serving sizes, or only dole out treats on a reward basis, research shows they are more likely to fixate on those foods and lose their natural ability to regulate how much ice cream or potato chips they want to eat. (The fact that these foods are designed to be highly palatable and reinforcing all by themselves is also a factor — yes, it’s easier to stop eating carrots than potato chips because we don’t crave them in the same way. But it’s easier to enjoy the foods you crave if you don’t subject yourself to a guilt trip every time you crave them. And enjoyment is essential to experiencing satiation.) And using food as a reward also sets kids up for longer-term disordered eating patterns, as Maryann Jacobsen explores in this recent post.
I suppose you could argue that since we don’t usually eat only ice cream for dinner, I elevated its treat status by making the impromptu dinner stop. But I didn’t do it to reward anyone’s good behavior (or, paradoxically, to distract anyone out of bad behavior, which can also be problematic). And we have ice cream pretty regularly in warm weather, so it’s definitely not forbidden. I did it because I wanted to have an easy, tasty dinner where we could enjoy our food, but enjoy the experience even more. Summer memories are made in food moments: Fresh made basil pesto, grilled corn on the cob, cherry tomatoes eaten straight off the vine. All things my kids love. And sometimes — just because you can — ice cream for dinner. With no guilt, hype, or anxiety. But extra rainbow sprinkles, please.