Cravings to Habits: The Science Behind Children's Love for Sweets and Practical Tips for Parents

Cravings to Habits: The Science Behind Children's Love for Sweets and Practical Tips for Parents

17 Jun 2024

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This informal CPD article, ‘Cravings to Habits: The Science Behind Children's Love for Sweets and Practical Tips for Parents‘, was provided by Maria Kardakova, RNutr, PhD researcher at the University of Surrey, and the CEO at iCook, who specialise in providing advanced nutrition and culinary solutions.

Children's preference for sweets over other types of food is a common observation and a topic of interest for many parents and nutritionists. Understanding the underlying reasons for children's preference for sweets is crucial for promoting healthier eating habits. Let’s explore the factors contributing to this preference and discuss effective strategies for managing it.

The Natural Affinity for Sweetness

From a biological standpoint, humans have an innate preference for sweet flavors. This preference is believed to be evolutionary, as sweetness typically signals energy-dense foods that were crucial for survival. Breast milk, the first food for most infants, is naturally sweet, which further reinforces this preference from an early age. The inherent preference for sweetness is thus hardwired into human behavior, making sweets a universally appealing food choice for children.

As children grow, their inclination towards sweetness can be influenced by both innate and learned factors. Innately, sweet taste is associated with positive emotional responses and reward pathways in the brain, which can lead to an increased preference for sugary foods. Learned preferences also play a significant role; early exposure to sweetened foods and beverages can further enhance a child's liking for sweetness and shape their eating habits.

Excessive sugar consumption in children can lead to behavioral changes and symptoms similar to addiction. Signs of sugar dependence in children include cravings for sugary snacks, irritability when they do not get their sugary treats, and a preference for sweets over more nutritious options. These behaviors suggest that the natural affinity for sweetness, if not moderated, can develop into unhealthy eating patterns that persist into adulthood. Understanding these tendencies can help parents and caregivers make more informed decisions about their children's diets, promoting healthier eating habits from an early age.

Developing a Healthy Relationship with Sweets

A healthy relationship with sweets means that children can distinguish between genuine hunger and a craving for sweets. However, if a child habitually consumes sweets, they might overeat and prefer sugary treats over more nutritious options like whole grain crackers with cream cheese. This can lead to unhealthy eating patterns and potential long-term health issues, such as obesity and dental problems. Parents play a crucial role in guiding their children towards balanced eating habits by setting examples and offering nutritious alternatives.

It is also important to note that complete restriction of sweets can sometimes have the opposite effect. Children who rarely get sweets might develop an intense craving for them. When sweets are finally available, they might overindulge, preferring sweets over other foods and eating in excess during special occasions. To prevent such behavior, it's essential to build a balanced relationship with sweets, making them a part of the diet without allowing them to dominate it. Moderation is key, and allowing occasional treats can help children understand that sweets are not forbidden but should be enjoyed responsibly.

Build balanced relationship with sweets

Strategies for Managing Sweet Preferences

1. Home Preparation of Sweets

One effective strategy is to prepare sweets at home. When sweets are readily available, it’s challenging even for adults to resist them. By preparing sweets at home, you can control the quality of ingredients, portion sizes, and the amount of added sugars and fiber. For example, you can bake cookies using whole grain flour and reduce the sugar content by a third. This not only makes the sweets healthier, but also involves children in the cooking process, making them more aware of what goes into their food. Involving children in baking can be an educational and fun activity, fostering a sense of accomplishment and encouraging them to make healthier food choices.

2. Gradual Reduction of Sugar Intake

If a child is already accustomed to a high sugar intake, it's essential to reduce their consumption gradually. The benefits of this approach will be noticeable within one to two weeks, with reduced cravings and a more balanced diet. Key steps include:

  • Eliminating sugary drinks: Replace sodas and fruit juices with water or milk.
  • Reading labels: Find sugar-free alternatives for common products like bread and cereals.
  • Replacing sweet snacks: Offer fruits, nuts, or yogurt instead of cookies and candies.
  • Removing desserts after meals: Encourage children to feel satisfied with their main meal rather than looking forward to dessert.
  • Ensuring fullness from regular meals: Make sure the child is eating enough during main meals to reduce snacking between meals.

Gradually reducing sugar intake can help reset a child's palate, making them more receptive to less sweet foods over time. It's important to be patient and consistent, as sudden changes can lead to resistance and frustration.

3. The Swedish Approach to Sweets

In Sweden, there's an interesting concept called "Saturday Sweets" (Lördagsgodis). Children have a certain number of coins to buy the sweets they want, fostering a trusting relationship. This method allows children to enjoy sweets in moderation and on a specific day, reducing the impulse to overconsume. The concept of "Saturday Sweets" teaches children the value of moderation and delayed gratification. It can be a practical approach for parents looking to manage their children's sweet intake without making sweets a forbidden fruit. This practice can be adapted in various ways, such as designating a specific day of the week for a sweet treat, which can help regulate consumption and prevent daily indulgence.

4. Encouraging Vegetable Consumption

Many children are reluctant to eat vegetables, which can be a significant concern for parents. However, this can be changed by regularly offering a variety of vegetables. For example, serve a colorful vegetable plate daily to make vegetables more appealing. The method of preparation is also crucial; children often prefer lightly steamed, crunchy broccoli over overcooked, mushy vegetables. Presentation matters, and making vegetables visually appealing can significantly increase a child's willingness to try them.

5. Creative Serving Methods

A study conducted in Germany found that if children stay at the table for just 10 minutes longer during meal times1, they are likely to consume more fruits and vegetables. The key takeaway is to let vegetables compete with other vegetables rather than more favored foods. Serving vegetables before the main meal, when children are most hungry, can also increase their consumption. For example, having a platter of raw vegetables available as a snack before dinner can encourage children to eat more of them, as they are more likely to try something new when they are hungry.

Get children involved in the preparation process. For example, let them help cut vegetables, which can be a fun and engaging activity. This involvement can make them more interested in eating the vegetables they helped prepare. Additionally, allowing children to choose which vegetables to include in meals can give them a sense of ownership and increase their willingness to try new foods. Making meal preparation a family activity can also provide an opportunity to educate children about nutrition and healthy eating habits.

Children experience food differently than adults, often relying on texture and color. Introducing a variety of textures and colors can make food more appealing. Different colors indicate different phytonutrients, which are beneficial for health. Encourage children to eat a rainbow of foods to ensure they get a diverse range of nutrients. For example, a plate with red bell peppers, orange carrots, yellow corn, green broccoli, and purple cabbage is not only visually attractive but also nutritionally balanced.

6. Creating a Competitive Edge for Vegetables

Using the same marketing techniques that make sugary snacks appealing can also work for vegetables. For instance, creating fun names for vegetable dishes, using colorful plates, and making food art can make vegetables more enticing for children. Involving children in gardening or visiting a local farm can also increase their interest in vegetables by giving them a firsthand experience of where their food comes from.

Rather than labeling foods as healthy or unhealthy, focus on a balanced diet. Use terms like "balanced diet" and emphasize the importance of vegetables and legumes as the foundation of a healthy diet. Treat sweets and snacks as occasional treats rather than staples. This approach helps children understand that all foods can fit into a healthy diet when consumed in moderation. It also reduces the risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with food, where certain foods are seen as "bad" and others as "good."

Emphasize the importance of vegetables

Practical Tips for a Balanced Diet

  • Incorporate a variety of foods: Ensure each meal includes a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, along with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Teach portion control: Use visual aids, such as the "plate method," to help children understand appropriate portion sizes.
  • Promote mindful eating: Encourage children to eat slowly and pay attention to their hunger and fullness cues.

For families with multiple children, serving meals in a way that accommodates different preferences can be challenging. One effective approach is to serve meals "buffet style," where each component of the meal is presented separately, allowing children to choose what they want. For example, a vegetable platter with various dips can allow each child to choose their preferred combination. Using a "build-your-own" approach, such as grain wraps with different fillings, can cater to individual tastes without compromising on nutrition.

The "build-your-own" method can be applied to various meals. For example, a taco night can include options like seasoned chicken, beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and salsa, allowing each family member to create their own taco. This method ensures that everyone gets something they like while also promoting variety and balance.

Involving the whole family in meal planning and preparation can make mealtime more enjoyable and educational. Assigning each child a task, such as setting the table or mixing ingredients, can give them a sense of responsibility and involvement. It also provides an opportunity to teach children about nutrition and healthy eating habits in a practical, hands-on way.


By understanding and addressing the reasons behind children's preference for sweets, we can encourage healthier eating habits. Home preparation of sweets, gradual reduction of sugar intake, creative serving methods, and involving children in food preparation are effective strategies. Fostering a positive relationship with food from an early age can lead to lifelong healthy eating habits. The goal is to create a balanced and enjoyable approach to eating that allows children to develop a healthy relationship with food.

We hope this article was helpful. For more information from iCook, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively, you can go to the CPD Industry Hubs for more articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.


  • 1 -
  • Birch, L.L. & Fisher, J.O. (1998). Development of eating behaviors among children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 101(3 Pt 2), 539-549.
  • Dallacker M, Knobl V, Hertwig R, Mata J. Effect of Longer Family Meals on Children's Fruit and Vegetable Intake: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2023 Apr 3;6(4):e236331. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.6331. PMID: 37010871; PMCID: PMC10071335.
  • Fisher, J.O., Wright, G., Herman, A.N., Malhotra, K., Serrano, E.L., Foster, G.D., & Whitaker, R.C. (2019). “Snacks are not food”. Low-income, urban mothers' perceptions of feeding snacks to their preschool-aged children. Appetite, 137, 165-172.
  • Schulte EM, Grilo CM, Gearhardt AN. Shared and unique mechanisms underlying binge eating disorder and addictive disorders. Clin Psychol Rev. 2016 Mar;44:125-139. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2016.02.001. Epub 2016 Feb 4. PMID: 26879210; PMCID: PMC5796407.
  • Ventura, A.K. & Mennella, J.A. (2011). Innate and learned preferences for sweet taste during childhood. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 14(4), 379-384. 

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For more information from iCook Ltd, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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