5 Helpful Strategies for Approaching Treats in Child Care Settings

ice cream in cups surrounded by sprinkles and candies

Written by: Raschelle Sabourin, Registered Dietitian

Reviewed by: Nüton’s Registered Dietitians


Allowing children to enjoy treats does not have to be stressful. In fact, exploring a variety of foods (treats included!) with children and taking a food neutral approach can help foster a positive relationship with food.

Does offering or allowing treats to children in your care cause you stress? You are not alone if you feel stressed about an influx of treats coming into your child care setting throughout the year, or on holidays, and special occasions.

First and foremost, it’s okay to offer treats to children. Providing treats can be a fantastic opportunity to strengthen a child’s relationship with food. They can gain experience being mindful and relaxed around all kinds of foods and food occasions.

Note: we use the word “treat” throughout this post but continue reading for a more neutral way to talk about them.

Before we share strategies to approach treats with children, consider this question:

Where Does the Fear Around Allowing Children to Eat Treats Come From?

Adults may worry about allowing children to eat sweets and treats. These worries are often rooted in our experiences stemming from diet culture and weight stigma. Some common concerns we hear are:

“If we let children eat treats, that’s all they’ll want to eat.”

“They’re going to gain too much weight.”

“X food has too much sugar.”

What we often see as a “solution” to these concerns is banning or restricting treats in childcare settings or food policies that limit the foods that can be sent from home.

It seems like this should work, however that is not the case. In fact, restriction always backfires. When treats are forbidden, we (adults and children alike) want them even more, which can create a skewed relationship with food.

Are you unsure what the best approach is? Let us show you some ways to take the “stressed” out of “desserts” (see what we did there?). Here are five helpful strategies for approaching treats in child care settings.

Use a food neutral approach

Foods are not inherently “good” “bad” or “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Calling foods “junk” or “unhealthy” actually makes them more sought after and can create feelings of shame or guilt when they’re eaten. Remember, they’re just food.

Instead, try using a food neutral approach. All foods bring something different to the table. For instance, treats can be delicious and bring fun memories for years to come. While not all foods are nutritionally equal, they can be morally equal. By taking this approach, we can remove some of the novelty and appeal of certain foods, while reducing shame and guilt.

It is also helpful to call foods by their names. For example, instead of calling a chocolate bar a treat, call it a chocolate bar. Give our post on food neutrality a read to learn more.

Helpful Phrases to be More Food Neutral with Treats:

Instead of: Say This:
–         No, you can’t have cookies! You already ate so much sugar today. –         Cookies are not on the menu today. Let’s have some cookies tomorrow.
–         Juice is unhealthy! –         I agree juice is tasty. What kind do you prefer?
–         Eat your veggies, and then you can have dessert. –         We are having strawberry cake for dessert today.

Follow the Division of Responsibility

Your natural response may be to want to step in and micromanage a child’s intake, especially when it comes to treat foods. Trusting children to listen to their bodies will help in the long run to support the development of a healthy relationship with food. But what does this trusting relationship look like? It all comes back to the Satter Division of Responsibility (sDOR)!

When it comes to treats, the sDOR can help. The sDOR sets out specific roles for eating and provides the structure that children need. When adults and children play their roles, it supports children in the long-term process of learning to eat a variety of foods and make food choices as they get older.

Following the sDOR means that child care settings and staff respect foods coming from home and allow children the opportunity to eat those foods. Treat foods included. Childcare settings or schools may supply meals or snacks, in which case they may take on the added role of deciding what foods are offered. Use this opportunity to offer a variety of foods alongside treat foods. Children are ultimately responsible for how much, or even whether, they eat.

Offer Treats Regularly and Without Expectations

A reaction we often encounter when talking to caregivers and educators about this for the first time is that they think we are saying treats should be a free-for-all and that we should just let children eat whatever they want, for as long as they want! This is very understandable given that most of us were conditioned to “clean your plate, or no dessert”. However, this is not what we are suggesting.

The goal is to make treats less special and “forbidden”. There are a number of ways to do this that might seem counter-intuitive at first, but hear us out.

Include treats/dessert at mealtimes

How often you do this is up to you. Putting the treat on a level playing field with the rest of the meal decreases the urgency to finish it and helps children tune into their hunger and fullness cues. The caveat here is to limit everyone to one serving of that food. Why? Because the treat is being served with a wide variety of foods it is in “competition” with. The key here is to be neutral about it and allow children to eat the treat in whichever order they decide.

Offer unlimited sweets at snack times

Yup, that’s right. How often you do this is up to you. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the way it works is to signal to the child that they can be trusted to listen to their body around treat foods. It also helps to take away the sense of restriction and novelty around these foods. For example, offer milk and a plate of cookies. Allow children to eat as many cookies and milk as they’d like. Again, it’s important to remain calm and not comment on how much (or little) they eat.

Be firm about structured snack times

Structure is very important. A snack time has a beginning and an end so if it is 15 or 20 minutes, the treat is out for that length of time only. Sit together while enjoying the snack without other distractions. A few minutes before the end of snack time (or earlier if it looks like everyone is done) wrap things up (i.e., “did everyone enjoy their snack? Does anyone need more before we clean up?”).

When snack time is over, the “kitchen is closed”. If a child continues to ask for more treats after snack time is over, approach the situation calmly. You could say “I understand you’d like a treat, but we’ve already enjoyed our treats, so we are done for the day”) and then reassure the child that there is another opportunity to enjoy them tomorrow or at the next snack time.

Avoid using food as a reward

Avoid using food as a reward or punishment. Rewarding children with food sends the message that “if I behave well, I get a treat”. This message is confusing for children because it unintentionally places treat foods on a pedestal (i.e., the opposite of food neutrality). This may be a tempting strategy in the short term, but long term, it is likely that the child will eat more often for reasons other than physical hunger, such as stress, boredom, anxiety, or happiness.

Instead, offer extra time doing a favourite activity, or better yet – join in on the fun with them!

"If you try to decide how much your child eats, [they] will stop knowing how much [they] need to eat and eat more than [they] need." Ellyn Satter

Stay Calm and Be a Role Model

The power of role modeling is real. According to dietitian and feeding expert Maryann Jacobsen, “children learn to see food the same way their parents do, which may not always be healthy.  Research shows that parents who eat for emotional reasons, feel out of control with eating (called disinhibition) and worry about weight (their own and their child’s), not only are more likely to utilize controlling feeding practices, but tend to have children with similar issues.”

It’s important to address your own eating issues as a caregiver so that you can model not only eating a variety of foods (including treats!), but also a healthy food relationship.

What’s the Bottom Line?

We understand that you may have concerns or fears about providing treats in your centre. Having treats at your centre can be fun for everyone and offers different experiences.

Food is a huge part of children’s lives, and you help play a vital role in helping children understand that all kinds of foods can be enjoyed equally in/at different times and places. Taking a neutral approach with food exploration and/or menu planning can help support a healthy relationship with food.

How to share this information with parents and caregivers:

If you would like to share this approach with families and caregivers, you could introduce it using the Nurturing Healthy Eaters handout series during orientations, parent nights or other means of family/home communication.

General eating advice:

The eating advice in this blog is based on Ellyn Satter’s principles and guidelines. For more about Satter’s work, see:

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