Should Toddlers Eat Dessert?

eating cake
Image by pinprick via Flickr

Over at Super Healthy Kids, Amy answers a question about toddler servings:

My friend and neighbor Liz, asked me this week, what appropriate portion sizes are for a toddler.  It’s tough to use the old rule of letting their appetite dictate how much they eat, because when my kids were toddlers, they would often be “too full” for the rest of their dinner, but somehow have plenty of room in their little tummies for dessert!

In her answer she  gives a sample menu with quantities and calorie counts.

I still like the old rule. We can’t control what our children eat, but we do decide what is available. And toddlers don’t really have room for dessert on a regular basis. You can argue that if you are too strict about sweets and snack foods it will backfire but I’m not convinced. Even if you feel that way, though, offering desserts on a daily basis is too often.

I am fairly strict about what I buy, but don’t ask my children (except for toddlers) to refuse sweets when they are offered. I still respect parents who are strict about sweets all the time. No one can say how much sugar or processed food is okay for a child to eat.

Many of us enjoy sweets and want them in the house. But part of being a parent is modeling good habits for our children, so I suggest keeping those foods on a high shelf and saving them for after the kids are in bed. Desserts other than fresh or dried fruit can be for weekends or birthdays.

Amy and I agree that if a child is eating healthy food, it’s safe to let a child decide how much.  But how much do you offer? My rule of thumb is one tablespoon of each food at every meal, multiplied by the age of the child. So a two-year-old can get two tablespoons each of meat, potatoes, and carrots. If he wants more, give it and if he doesn’t, the meal is over.

Counting calories or portion sizes is unnecessary and can become an obsession or a power game. It’s more important to notice whether a child is growing and developing normally, especially if there are changes.

If you enjoyed this post you may also like:

Feeding Babies Frugally Series:

Part I: The Early Months

Part II: Starting Solids, When and Why.

Part III: Starting Solids the Easy Way

Part IV: Making Your Own “Convenience Foods” for Babies

Ten Frugal Strategies that Pay off as Your Children Grow

Toddlers and Weight Gain


  1. in our family, the general rule is that we pretty much never have dessert except fruit. If we do have dessert, though, then everyone has dessert.

    When we had a birthday this week, I made small cupcakes. It’s easy to make serving sizes when a serving size is a “whole cake”

    My kids tend to be on the large side. My 2.5 year old will eat an entire package of cottage cheese and half a tomato at one sitting, which I think is quite a lot of food for a kid that little, so I try really hard to make sure it’s healthy stuff, but I really don’t think that the one krembo a week that my daughter gets at shul or the piece of cake she gets at a birthday party once in a month or two is going to make the difference.

  2. Sorry but calorie counting for a healthy, active 2-3 year old makes me cringe.

  3. Aviva_Hadas says

    I think that my 13 month son has a hollow leg. He recently ate (with gusto) the amount of meatloaf that I gave my husband, several small latkes with apple sauce & a serving of green beans. & this was not unusual…

  4. I agree, calorie counting for a toddlers is mentally unhealthy. A child should be given a balanced diet and taught from an early age healthy eating habits. It is also not a big deal to let them have a cookie.Being able to balance healthy eating and sweets is something that will last them a lifetime. Sometimes you need to let kids be kids.

  5. My struggle is not comparing one day/meal/minute to another in worry that they aren’t eating enough the day they only have half a yogurt when usually they eat yogurt, cereal and a sandwich for breakfast. Hubsters is of the “clean your plate” style of parenting, need to better explain that since I serve it’s not them wasting, it’s me wasting.

  6. having had two very large children and a family history of obesity, calories counting sometimes sounded like a good idea. But i spoke with my Dr, who gave me very sound advise. Feed your children good healthy food (snitzel is not one of them) and keep them active. Instilling good eating Habits and exercise habits are more important in the long run than a cup cake at a birthday party.

  7. We have the opposite problem around here – the little guy (2 years old) eats like a bird. My own policy is high-quality ingredients and homemade as much as possible, rather than pro- or anti-dessert (although dessert is only after filling up on the healthy stuff). I often use sweeteners other than refined sugar and usually cut the amount of sweetener by half. That being said, I agree that it’s important to limit, though I’m a little more lenient – I can’t wait for just holidays to eat chocolate!

  8. Hannah, there was an article in this week’s makor rishon newspaper about breakfast cereal (and how unhealthy it is). I was shocked and upset and interested in your opinion.

  9. What a wealth of information your blog is. I agree that parents modeling healthy eating habits is very important. Dessert should be in moderation for any of us. Thanks for this post!