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Sweets and Nutrition for Kids

Whether you're a meat-veg-and-potatoes mom or a vegan virtuoso in the kitchen, one thing is certain: your kids will still be drawn to sweets. Whether you keep them in your house or not, there will inevitably be birthday parties, school events and outings that lure your little ones to a spot-lit dessert table or candy bonanza. No mom wants to be the sugar police, because a little sugar is fine, but you can teach your kids to choose wisely and know when "enough" is really "enough."

Kids and Sweets

As a mom, you know your food groups, pyramids and the newest nutritional visual aid: a plate divided into sections for complex carbs, protein and fruits and vegetables. A balanced diet for growing kids does include protein, low-fat dairy, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and fruits and vegetables. Try as they might to convince you, kids do not "need" refined sugar. That being said, eating sweets is a sensory pleasure for most humans. You only have to see a child having her first spoonful of ice cream to realize how truly sweet a kid's life can be. A nutritious diet doesn't have to exclude sweets; simply make them an unexpected treat instead of an everyday staple.

MORE: 10 Habits of Healthy Kids

Sugar on Your Shelves

In these confounding times of food chemists and over-the-top advertising, it can be insanely difficult to keep up with the marketing aliases for sugar. It used to be that the enemy was high-fructose corn syrup. Easy enough; moms read labels and put it on their "least-wanted" list. However, there are a whole host of refined sugars that show up in many different common foods. A partial list of current refined sugars from MayoClinic.com includes white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, maple syrup, pancake syrup, fructose sweetener, liquid fructose, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, crystal dextrose and dextrin. Dietitians Jennifer Nelson and Katherine Zaratsky, of the Mayo Clinic, confirm that the biggest sugar traps for kids are cereals, yogurts, desserts and beverages. Many have more sugar in them that you might expect, so it's important to monitor your child's intake.

Eveything in Moderation

So what's a conscientious mom to do? Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen of RaiseHealthyEaters.com, says, "Treating sweets like the be-all-end-all or the bad, forbidden fruit, brings too much attention to these foods, piquing kids' interest even more." She suggests that moms keep sweets as treats or special occasion foods and substitute healthier sweet options for their everyday lifestyle. Try to limit cookies, chips, ice cream and soda to 75 to 100 calories per day for younger kids and teenage girls, and 200 calories for teenage boys. You can easily substitute sweet fruits like cherries, watermelon, grapes or fruit-based desserts for cakes, cookies and candies. Fruit has valuable vitamins and minerals and also adds fiber along with the sweet taste.

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When to Let Them Choose

It's tempting to always have the final say about what treats your little guys choose, but eventually they'll need to make choices when you're not around. An easy-going rule is that they should ask about eating sweets when you're with them. Once you've educated them about healthy and not-so-healthy choices, in circumstances such as a birthday party or school picnic, you may want to say, "I'm going to leave it up to you this time, I know you'll make a good choice." This gives them confidence in their abilities to regulate themselves and a sense that you trust their judgment.

Making Changes

When kids consume a lot of sweet foods and drinks, their taste buds can become accustomed to the intense flavors and they may reject more nutritious foods. You can remedy the sweet-tooth habit by switching out highly-processed sweets like cake, cookies and candies for high-quality treats like fresh berries and whipped cream, frozen bananas pureed into ice-cream texture or graham crackers spread with cream cheese and a bit of jam. Still tasty and sweet, but more nutritionally dense. Tomovich says, "No doubt your child will be faced with lots of overly-processed sweet foods throughout their life. But at home, you can up the ante by thinking twice about bringing these foods in your home and, instead, provide homemade desserts, wholesome treats and dark chocolate. The idea is for kids to appreciate, and even become picky about the kind of sweets they enjoy."

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