My daughter knows the drill, "treats are treats" and "healthy food is food that is good for you".
She gets both, yip, I give my daughter sugar sometimes. I've been a nutritionist long enough to know that if I deprive her of something that everyone has she is going to develop FOMO (fear of missing out) so bad, that junk food will be elevated to this inevitable pedestal that only makes it more desirable. Ever restrict yourself from certain foods, ever eat more than ever- when you inevitably cave? Most of us have been there, deprivation and overly restrictive diets are usually a one way ticket to a binge.
So the way we do it in our family is focusing on getting the healthy food in. Most of our eating is focused on "eating to nourish". A little bit like "the crowd out" approach. We keep our tummies full, our nutrient levels up and most of the time this keeps cravings at bay. And, we make sure that we eat great tasting food, so healthy eating never feels like punishment or a chore, it's one of our greatest joys. Then when we do feel like a treat, that we're eating for pure pleasure and indulgence, it's O.K. because if we tally up our nutrient intake for the day, we've done alright.
Some of our food rules include "eating a nourishing breakfast". We all eat breakfast before leaving the house. We all have to have some green veges on our plate every night (my daughter gets to pick from what's available but she has to have something). I pack a healthy lunch box of food she enjoys eating, and there's always something a little bit "treaty" in there, and that's the smallest part, again I do this to keep the "FOMO" monster at bay. Maybe it's 4 mini dark chocolate coated rice crackers, maybe it's a bag of savoury rice crackers, maybe it's an apple juice popper, maybe it's a fruit flavoured yoghurt, maybe it's a home made cup cake.
When she finishes school in the afternoon she's usually hungry and always asks for a treat. Most of us identify with a 3pm energy slump, or wanting a food "pick me up", many kids are the same.
So I try to have fruit or crackers or a healthy snack like nuts available for pick up and a little treat planned for after that. Maybe it's soy crisps, sometimes it's chocolate coated nuts and sometimes she asks for ice cream. This is the time she most wants her treat, and this is the time when she can eat it without affecting her appetite for dinner, and without spiking her sugar so that she is too wired to sleep.
Eating sugary treats after dinner is not a great idea for a number of reasons, so we try to plan the time of day when the treat has the least impact on our nutrition. Sometimes it's mid morning and sometimes it's mid afternoon. And then we do the treat, with full commitment. If it's ice cream, we sit outside together and enjoy our ice cream and each others company, if it's a piece of cake we make tea and stop and eat cake. If it's chips, we eat and share and savour each mouthful. We generally avoid desserts other than for special occasions.
Research shows having treats earlier in the day is better than having them later in the day because you are more likely to over indulge later in the day. Research also shows if you start the day with a healthy breakfast you are less likely to eat as much junk food through the day.
Counting calories doesn't cut it in terms of a nutritional milestone, it's easy to have a low nutrient high calorie eating pattern and it's easy to have a low calorie low nutrient diet.
So instead of focusing on "what not to eat" try focusing on "what to eat" during your day, everyday to ensure you are achieving your maximum nutrition potential, and then throw in an indulgence when you need to.