Giving kids a big, sugary dessert before bedtime can be a recipe for disaster. Maple syrup replaces the usual sugar as the sweetener for these cookies, and whole-wheat pastry flour lends a healthful touch. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

So how often should kids be given dessert?

There really isn’t one right answer, because not all children are not the same. Some are more susceptible to a sugar addiction, some eat healthfully throughout the day while others do not, and a toddler is a different creature than a teenager.

Let’s first look at sugar sensitivity. Some kids are frankly just more sensitive to sugar than others. According to Kathleen DesMaisons in her book “Little Sugar Addicts,” “Certain people . . . are born with an imbalance in three parts of their brain and body chemistry: they have low serotonin (the chemical that “quiets” the brain and helps with saying no), low beta-endorphin (the brain’s own “painkiller”), and volatile blood sugar. These three disturbances set them up to react profoundly to the druglike effects of sugar.” So pay attention to your child when she consumes sugar. A child who exhibits a negative response to too much sugar should have less, and probably shouldn’t regularly have dessert.

A child who eats well on his own all day can probably have a sweet snack more often than a child who isn’t getting enough nutrients in his body. Protein and healthful fats slow down the effect of sugar and simple carbohydrates, so a child eating well throughout the day might be less affected by any sugar consumed.

Age should also be taken into consideration when deciding how often a child should have dessert. To sum it up, little people need little desserts. And dessert should be a completely foreign concept to really little people. My 18-month-old daughter doesn’t yet know about dessert. She will learn about it soon enough from peers, school and her brothers, but for now, I see no reason to tell her about it.

Assuming your child eats healthfully all day, doesn’t seem to be overly sensitive to sugar and is old enough to ask for dessert, why shouldn’t she have dessert every night? Here are a few reasons:

— Dessert has become a bargaining chip for getting children to eat dinner. It is tempting for parents to rely on dessert as a bribe or incentive to get dinner down. This sets up an unhealthy message that dinner is dreaded and dessert is to be desired.

— Raising blood sugar before bedtime can inhibit a child’s ability to fall asleep, and when the resulting sugar drop occurs, the body releases adrenalinem so the child might experience a disruption in healthful sleep.

If a sweet treat is going to be part of our day, I would much rather give it to my children with their afternoon snack instead of after dinner when they should be winding down. I try to ensure that there is some protein in the afternoon snack, too, which helps maintain their moods and energy better than the sweet alone.

— Children often eat dessert regardless of whether they are hungry. Our goal is to teach children to listen to their bodies and to eat only when they are hungry. Children who are given dessert every night often eat it because it is handed to them, not because they are still hungry or truly in the mood for something sweet.

— Desserts are too big. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is onto something with his ban of super-size sodas. Ice cream cones and cookies these days are much larger than they were when I was a kid. Dessert should be the equivalent of one scoop of ice cream, without the chocolate sauce and sprinkles, or two small cookies. Everything doesn’t have to be super-sized, especially when feeding pint-sized people. Save the sprinkles and toppings for special occasions.

— Desserts are often drowning in sugar. Seasonal fruit or desserts made with natural sweeteners are wonderful alternatives.

There is nothing wrong with something sweet sometimes. But “sometimes” is the operative word. The sooner we teach our kids that dessert is a sometimes circumstance, the sooner the battle over dessert will disappear. Then we can enjoy our dinner.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Almond Cookies

Makes twelve 3-inch cookies

Maple syrup replaces the usual sugar as the sweetener for these cookies. The whole-wheat pastry flour lends a healthful touch. The cookies can be refrigerated in an airtight container 4 to 5 days. Adapted from “Feeding the Whole Family,” by Cynthia Lair (Sasquatch, 2008).


11/2 cups rolled oats

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup chopped raw almonds

1/3 cup organic semisweet chocolate chips


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly oil a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper.

Combine the oats, flour and salt in a large bowl. Combine the syrup, butter and vanilla extract in a separate medium bowl. Add the wet ingredients to the dry mixture and mix well. Stir in the nuts and chips. Use your moist hands to form the dough into a dozen 3-inch cookies placing them on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the edges turn golden. Transfer to a rack to cool.

NUTRITION | Ingredients are too varied for a meaningful analysis.

Recipe tested by Toni Sandys; e-mail questions to

Chocolate Beet Mini-Cakes

Makes 18 mini-cakes

Beets are among the most healthful vegetables, and their presence in these chocolatey mini-cakes is undetectable. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

The mini-cakes can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days. Adapted from “The 10 Things You Need to Eat,” by Anahad O’Connor and Dave Lieberman (William Morrow, 2009).


1 cup spelt flour

2/3 cup cocoa powder, preferably raw

11/2 teaspoons baking powder (non-aluminum)

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon sea salt

3 large eggs, preferably cage-free

1 cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B

1 cup coconut oil, melted, or grapeseed oil

8 ounces red beets, roasted, peeled and finely grated

1/2 cup whole plain yogurt, preferably organic


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 18 muffin tin cups with paper liners.

Whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Combine the eggs, syrup, coconut oil, beets and yogurt in a separate large bowl, stirring to mix well. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture, stirring to combine. Fill each muffin cup two-thirds full with the batter. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a mini cake comes out clean.

Transfer the pans to a wire rack to cook for 5 minutes, then tip out the mini cakes and allow to cool on the rack to room temperature.

NUTRITION | Ingredients are too varied for a meaningful analysis.

Recipe tested by Kendra Nichols; e-mail questions to

Related stories:

6 ways to help kids have a healthy relationship with food

‘Ice cream’ with a peel

Teach your kids why protein is important

Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company.