Chocolate bunnies and Hot-cross buns… or Crispy Carrots?

With all the public holidays and Easter celebrations, shops overflowing with sweet treats and chocolates behind us...

We all are left with the natural need to ‘return to healthy’.  How did you, as a parent, navigate the family gatherings and sweet treats that was given to you and your child?

It can be quite difficult to manage if parents do not take a firm stance whereby, they both understand and agree on the child’s sugar intake.  Here are some tips to tackle your child’s behaviour and relationship with food. 

Tip #1:  Make an informed decision of when you would like to expose your baby or child to sugar, treats and sweets and make sure everyone understands the when and how.

Babies and children have a natural tendency to like sweetness – it is because they have been exposed to this taste the most.   From the swallowed amniotic fluid, in-uterine and throughout the first few months of life being breast- and/or formula fed.  This is a survival mechanism to encourage milk intake for growth and development.

Hence, the importance of the type of foods chosen to compliment milk feeds from introduction of solids and throughout the first year of life.  These foods determine development of acquired taste to bitter, sour and salt.  


 Advised approach to sugar the first year of life (0-12 months):

  • Naturally occurring sugar in foods such as fruit, some vegetables and dairy, can be used to encourage acceptance of more challenging tasting foods.
  • It is best to avoid added sugars such as high fructose corn syrup, agave, sugar, sucrose, coconut sugar, cane sugar, glucose, maltodextrin - to list only a few. These added sugars are mostly found in fruit juices, sauces, baked and/or processed foods. 

According to the South African NHANES-1, the prevalence of overweight and obesity is 13.5% for children aged 6-14 years. This is higher than the global prevalence of 10% among school children.  Although we know that cultural influences, as well as genetics play a role in developing overweight and obesity, the family mealtime practices and feeding style of a parent has also been found to impact on the development of overweight and obesity in young childhood and teenage years.  Whereas social and/or family and structured mealtimes have been found to have a positive effect on decreasing prevalence of overweight and obesity, restrictive feeding practises is being associated with an increased risk.  Restrictive feeding is when attention to control and/or limiting food choices are implemented.  Restriction may lead to preoccupation with ‘the forbidden fruit’.

Tip#2:  Do not make sugar and treats the enemy, rather normalise these foods and give it a place and acceptance in your family’s mealtimes

Restrictive feeding has also been found to lead to ‘eating in the absence of hunger’.  Whereas, responsive feeding practices encourage more awareness of satiety and hunger cues.  Considering that sugary-foods are energy dense but largely lack in nutrient density, these foods should also be included in a conscience manner, not taking the place of nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruit, protein, fiber-rich grains and healthy fats.   Research also suggest that replacing sugar with alternatives such as Stevia and/or artificial sweeteners has a negative impact on your child’s palate development, blood sugar level and gut microbiome.


Tip#3:  When a toddler asks for a snack, sweet or treat right before mealtime, either suggest having it after or when appropriate let them choose ‘the what’ themselves to have after a meal.


Asking for a treat may indicate hunger and can pose a good teaching session and discussion with your child. ‘I realise you are hungry, the food is almost ready. Then, if you still feel like it, we can have a snack after lunch’. 


Advised approach to sugar the second year of life (12-24 months):

  • Allow sugar and sugar-containing food into your child’s balanced diet and at meal or snack times.
  • Avoid/ limit sugar-containing beverages and dried fruit.
  • Set boundaries, not restrictions
  • Avoid sugar-replacements and or artificial sweeteners
  • Avoid offering a sugary-food, treat or sweet as a reward or negotiation to finish a meal 

Adequate and balanced nutrition is very important for growth and development – brain function, immune-system support etc.  Be careful to underestimate the effect of behaviour towards food that result in a relationship with food.  This can make or break the efforts you put in from introduction of solids to ensure a healthy relationship and balanced intake later in life. 

Food for thought:

Next time you approach a type of food or mealtime, ask yourself- how do I (the parent) feel about it?  Is this something I want to teach my child or rather something I would want to unlearn and change for my child’s relationship with food. 


N J van Rensburg RD(SA) & Co-Founder of Rooted Natural




Fidler MN, Braegger C, Bronsky J, Campoy C, Domellöf et al. Sugar in Infants, Children and Adolescents:  A Position Paper of the European Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition Committee on Nutrition. Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2017, 65(6), 681–96.

Murray RD.  Savoring sweet: sugars in Infant and Toddler Feeding.  Ann Nutr Metab. 2017, 70(S3): 38-46. 

Gupta N, Goel K, Shah P, Misra A. Childhood obesity in developing countries: epidemiology, determinants and prevention. Endocr Rev. 2012; 33(1):48-70.

Rossouw HA, Grant GC, Viljone M.  Overweight and obesity in children and adolescents: the South African problem.  S Afr J Sci, 108 5-6 Pretoria Jan. 2012

Faith MS, Kerns J.  Infant and child feeding practices and childhood overweight: the role of restriction.  Maternal and Child Nutrition. 2005, 1(3): 164-68.

Clark HR, Goyder E, Bissell P, Blank Lm Peters J. How do parents' child-feeding behaviours influence child weight? Implications for childhood obesity policy. J Pub Health. 2007, 29(2): 132-41.  

Farrow C, Blissett J.  Does maternal control during feeding moderate early infant weight gain?.  Pediatrics. 2006, 118(2): 293-8. 

Ruiz-Ojeda FJ, Plaza-Díaz J, Sáez-Lara MJ, Gil A.  Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials. Advances in Nutrition. 2019, 10(S1): S31–S48