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How to Reduce Sugar in Your Child’s Diet

January comes as a welcome relief for families who might have overdone it on sweets and treats in December. Parties, holiday meals, and breaks in routine can make it hard to choose healthier foods. And, we’re not just looking at you, adults! Kids can use a menu refresh too!

“Small children have small stomachs,” says Courtney Hines, our KinderCare nutritionist. “You want them to fill up on nutrient dense foods, not empty calories like sugar. When children eat lots of sugar, they get used to overly sweet flavors and might start to reject other flavors that are part of a well-balanced diet.”

Added sugar is hard to avoid, and it can be difficult to monitor what your kid is eating all day. If you’re looking for some guidance on how much is reasonable for your child, check with your doctor or The American Academy of Pediatrics. They recommend the following guidelines:

• Ages 24 months and under: no added sugar 
• Ages 2 to 18 years: less than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day

We’re always looking for ways to improve the food we provide to our students, and the way we serve it too. We have taken big steps to reduce the amount of added sugar on our menu, eliminate fried foods, and serve meals family-style so even mealtime is learning time.

But, let’s be honest—some days are going to be easier (for you and your kids) to stick to than others. The big picture is what really matters. If you can cut back on added sugars in your own home and routine, you’ll get your little one to practice healthy eating habits now for a healthier long-term lifestyle. 

Here are some recommendations for how to make meaningful meal adjustments that will help cut back on added sugars for the whole family: 

• Serve water or milk for beverages instead of juices or sodas
• Use herbs, spices, and fresh fruit zests to add flavor instead of relying on sauces or dips 
• Snack more on fresh and seasonal foods and less on processed and packaged foods
• Cook and eat at home more often so you can control your ingredients

child pouring milk

You can also get started on these four kid-tested, nutritionist-approved alternatives for weekend pancake feasts, plus four more dressing and dip recipes to help your family cut down on sugar without compromising flavor! 


No-Sugar-Added Pancake Toppings

1. Nut butters (peanut, almond, cashew – whatever your family enjoys) and banana slices
2. Warm fruit compote (a mix of warmed berries)
3. Applesauce and cinnamon (Look for no added sugar on the applesauce label or make your own!) 
4. Nut butter, vanilla, and plain yogurt blend (Swirl 1-2 tablespoons of nut butter and/or ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract into 1 cup of plain yogurt if you want a sweet flavor.)

Low-Sugar Dressings and Dips

1. Ranch Dressing
Makes 3 cups for serving over salad or to use as a dip for vegetables.
• 1 cup mayonnaise
• 2 cups buttermilk*
• 1 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. dried parsley
• 1 Tbsp. garlic powder
• 2 tsp. onion powder
• 1 tsp. each salt and pepper

Whisk all ingredients in a bowl or mix in a large mason jar until incorporated. Cover and chill until you’re ready to use it.

*Kitchen Hack: Don’t have buttermilk on hand? No problem. You can make buttermilk with regular milk! For every cup of whole milk, add 1 Tbsp. lemon juice or vinegar and let the mixture stand for 10 minutes before using in your recipe. 

2. Teriyaki Sauce
Makes 1 cup for serving with lo mein, chicken wraps, or fried rice.
• 1 cup water
• ¼ cup soy sauce or gluten-free tamari sauce
• 2 Tbsp. honey*
• ½ tsp. ground ginger
• ¼ tsp. garlic powder
• Cornstarch slurry: 2 Tbsp. cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup cold water.

Place all ingredients, except cornstarch slurry, in a small saucepan and bring to a low boil. Stir in cornstarch slurry and simmer for 5-7 minutes. Use sauce immediately or allow to cool completely and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2-3 weeks.

*Hold on …honey? How is that any better than sugar? The truth is, some recipes need a sweet element to balance other flavors or ingredients. Using honey at home will achieve this with a lot less added sugar than what you’ll find in a store-bought item. And, while recipes tend to make a large amount (in this case, 3 cups) you’re only using a fraction of that amount per serving (1-2 Tablespoons). Children under age 12 months should not consume honey, but it’s perfectly safe for those over a year!

3. Honey Mustard Dressing
Makes 3 cups for serving over salad or as a sandwich spread.
• 2 cups plain yogurt
• ¾ cup milk
• ¼ cup honey
• 3 Tbsp. mustard (regular or Dijon)

Whisk all ingredients in a bowl or mix in a large mason jar until incorporated. Cover and chill for 30 minutes before serving.

4. Coleslaw Dressing
Makes 2 cups for your favorite shredded cabbage slaw.
• 1 cup mayonnaise
• 2 Tbsp. honey
• 3 Tbsp. lemon juice
• 2 Tbsp. vinegar
• 1 tsp. pepper
• ½ tsp. salt

Whisk all ingredients in a bowl or mix in a large mason jar until incorporated. Keep dressing in a sealed container in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it (store for 2-3 days).

If you’re wondering about the facts that make this issue so important, check out this recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that 99% of toddlers age 19-23 months ate an average of seven teaspoons of added sugar daily —that’s more sugar than you’d find in an entire Snickers bar! And, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, excess sugar consumption can lead to a whole host of health problems. 

To learn more about how we introduce KinderCare students to healthy eating habits at a young age, visit here.

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