A Sugar Challenge for Kids

The last in my series of sugar posts (at least for a while) this one targets where change might be needed most…a sugar challenge for kids!

Seems these days kids are made of more sugar than spice. This MSN article says that average Americans eat 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, and teens eat 34! This article on child sugar addiction cites an AHA study that children as young as 1 exceed daily recommendations, typically consuming 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. What?!

Where are they getting it?

sugary snacksSome of the most common sources of sugar for kids:

  • beverages (sodas, sports drinks, juices that aren’t 100% fruit)
  • breakfast cereal (for fun, check this slide show for the worst offenders.)
  • Fruit snacks, Candy (yes, I lumped those together!)
  • Desserts, Cookies, Ice cream, etc.

Keep an eye out for hidden sugars in other favorite “kid foods”:

applesauce, dried fruit, popcorn, yogurt, instant oatmeal, trail mix, pasta sauce, canned fruit, jams, etc.

reboot a sugar mouthWhat to do?

Most parents, would agree it is our job to feed our kids healthy foods. By extension, have we failed them if we raise them to crave artificial levels of sweet? What if you could take your child’s name of the long roster of sugar addicts? Training kids to like natural flavors, subtle sweetness, and a variety of whole foods might be one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

If you have done a sugar fast of your own, you know what withdrawals can feel like. How on earth do you get your kids on board?

  1. Talk openly about how harmful sugar is in our bodies. Don’t sugar coat it.
  2. Ask them for ideas. Kids are creative. They will think of ways to cut down or what to replace sugar with.
  3. Issue a challenge….a double dare, if you will. What kid won’t rise to a dare? Here is what we did in my home.

double dare your family to take the sugar challenge!Family Challenge: No Sugar for One Week.

I know I advocate 2 weeks in an adult sugar fast, but one week is a great length of time for kids. It feels long to them, but is easy enough to visualize. You can always extend if you think your kids are up for it.

The idea is simple, no sweets for a week.  With four kids ages 2-8 (the first time), we did a formal challenge, with rules and incentives.  See if it gives you any ideas…

Psych Up

Any mom who has survived potty training can tell you it is all about enthusiasm. Just like you may have cheered in a public restroom when your toddler finally did the deed, be prepared to be your kids’ biggest fan.  If they hear you complaining about missing sugar, will they stay on board?  Get your head into the game before you pitch this at the kids.  Be prepared to celebrate the successes! Pour on the praises! Be the sweet they are missing.


Prep is much the same as for an adult sugar fast. See my 12 tips for sugar fasting. With kids, you want to be even more proactive, leaving less to willpower.  Have healthy snacks ready after school.  Be ready to pack healthy home lunches for school. Focus on variety, make sure they don’t feel like they are “missing out.”

no sugar? Eat broccoli

We didn’t even know Zaida would eat broccoli until she chose it as part of her healthy meal.

Try new things. The day before we kicked off our sugar fast, I pulled out all my healthy cookbooks and magazines and spread them on the floor and let each kid pick a meal they wanted to try. It was fun to see the variety they chose on their own.  I scheduled the week’s meals incorporating their recipes, and let them help make it. Instead of bemoaning the sugar they missed out on, they were bragging about the meal “they” cooked for the family (as if I had nothing to do with it.)  This served a two-fold purpose: distracting them from the changes we were experiencing, and helping them (and me) see that healthy food can be fun.

Set the Rules.

If they can memorize all the rules of Monopoly, complete with the homemade free parking clause, they can keep track of some simple rules (and even help make them!):

No sugar, No soda, no sweet cereals, no candy. No chocolate milk at school.

Establish Incentives:

The Big Prize:

Nickel Arcades...gold!Here in Utah we have nickel arcades—Nickelmania or Nickelcade. Depending on where you live, you may have to adjust and choose another arcade.  I suggest you pre-purchase the booty. For example, if Chuck E Cheese (I hate that place) is your destination, go there and purchase a load of tokens ahead of time. Use coupons, pull out all the mommy tricks; you want to dazzle them! I loaded on rolls of nickels beforehand and put them out so the kids could see them.

Along the way:

nickels...sugarless currencyWe hung a bag with each kids name on it on the fire place (stocking style!) and put 20 nickels in it to get them drooling. As the week goes on, they report their progress. They earn nickels for sticking to the plan. I even purchased candy off them for nickels. The kids would bring home fun size candy bars or tootsie rolls, even cupcakes from school and eagerly cash them in for Thomas Jeffersons.
If they cheat, you remove nickels from their bag. I would say one nickel for each infraction. As it was, we didn’t have to use this feature!

Bonus: Enjoy Inflation!
Suddenly nickels were the hot item in the house. I am not kidding. My kids aren’t the most motivated at times. There are days you could light their back pockets on fire and they may or may not get up to put the flames out; but attach a nickel to any deed, and suddenly they are unstoppable. Shea came home to a super clean house one day (shocker!) and I had to confess I hired help. “Really? How much did you spend?” “Well,” I explained, “the bathrooms cost me a nickel each. The laundry, a nickel per kid per load. The dishes….” you get the idea. My house sparkled for about 85 cents in cold hard 5-pieces. (Please don’t report me.) Sigh, I miss the nickel days.

facebook like signTake it over the top with social media:

Use Facebook! The first time we did this sugar challenge, it was such a ground breaking concept (wait mom, is that even possible?) that I wanted to do something really big. I posted on Facebook about our upcoming challenge and invited any of our friends to sponsor the kids…put a buck in the pot for each kid who didn’t cheat at all NOT EVEN ONCE. We ended up with an extra 12 bucks per kid, a fortune to them! It was also fun for them to see the support come in from aunts across the country, and even friends from Down Under. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to make this a habit, but I can’t think of a better bonus to kick off a sugar challenge…support and cash? Any kids dream come true!

Here is my FB post from January 30, 2012:

For family night tonight, we are kicking off a 7 day no sugar challenge. The kids are excited, as of now. (But then they are still high from their last fix.) Grandpa is kicking in 1 big buck for each kid who makes it. Anyone else want to sponsor this impossible task? I am doubting you will have to pay up, but the prospect is exciting!!!

 I posted periodic updates like this one on January 31:
Day one of no sugar with kids 2, 6, 7,and 8 years old is over. They are all wearing their reminder bracelets.  No cheats yet but some close calls. Zaida emphatically tried to convince me that there is no sugar in Airheads at the store today. Tayler almost sold her soul for a snickers but hung on. I love seeing them try hard!
and this final post made me laugh. Shea is never ornery, so seeing the sugar challenge irritate DAD of everyone was pretty funny….
Feb 6: Last day of the no sugar challenge. Seriously amazed that my kids have endured! The most surprising aspect of this challenge were the sugar withdrawals that made someone grumpy. And I don’t mean me. And I don’t mean the kids.

Just Do it!

All aboard! This is a team sport. Mom, dad, everyone.  Pick your dates. Get prepped. Do it.  Stay engaged and have a good time!  Try to laugh off the hard moments, and keep spirits up!

Sugar challenge gets 2 thumbs upSo how did it go?

The kids surprised me with their dedication to the cause. They would come home from school and triumphantly tell me about turning down a jolly rancher or choosing “white” instead of chocolate milk. Some of them earned accolades from their teachers who were amazed any kid would refuse a sugary handout. Some of them were a little high on the attention they got from friends dumbfounded by their bravery: “I can’t believe you are doing this, I would DIE!”
Even Zaida, who was only 2 1/2 at the time, would wake up and say “Is we eating sugah today mommy?” “No honey.” “Oh, okay.”

They loved our sugarless treats and snacks.  Watermelon was a huge hit.  Oranges tasted like candy.  They still ask me to make my homemade trail mix and ants on a log…never before heard of!
There were hard moments. On the day before our big finish, a kind and unknowing neighbor brought us over a homemade blueberry cobbler. Shea came home from a meeting to find his wife and kids circled around a pyrex dish staring, possibly drooling, intently. We agreed to save it for our end celebration, but no fruit dish was ever so ogled since Chiquita banana first donned ruffles.

Pay Day: KaChing!

The day we went to Nickelcade was so, well, sweet. The kids were triumphantly holding their bulging bags of nickels and swapping war stories. I can’t remember having more fun at a dirty low-end arcade in all my life. They pooled tickets and bought prizes together. They laughed and there was no fighting! It was miraculous! After, they made plans for the jackpots they had earned from their sponsors. The enthusiasm was electric. We spent all in all maybe 25 dollars in admissions and nickels. That was the best 25 ever spent!

kids eating watermelon after a successful sugar challengeThe Aftermath

Are we a sugar free family now? No. But the week challenge did a lot to raise awareness and overall we consume much less. Even the kids decided they liked how they felt off sugar and will pass on candy unless it is an absolute favorite. I noticed their moods were more stable and their attitudes were sweeter. The very next day after eating cobbler and a few celebratory confections they were bouncing off the walls and squabbling once again. It was pronounced enough for me to wish we were sugar free 100%!
On occasion, the kids will actually ask me if we can do another sugar free week challenge. We did one by request a couple weeks after Halloween. They even asked to extend it to a two week challenge! Can’t argue with that! The week sugar fast was worth it in so many ways. We give it 2 thumbs up and wish you sweet success!

Modifying for older kids:

If arcades with mom and dad aren’t floating their boats anymore, ditch the tokens and go for an all or nothing. An Amusement park? A new skateboard? Take your budget into a pass for 3 cheatsaccount and get creative. I did a week long no sugar challenge with my youth group at church. 14-15 year old young women: it was easy to pick an incentive….homemade spa night complete with eye brow waxing, mani/pedis and chick flicks!

I offered each girl 3 cheats. Because it was associated with a church lesson, I handed them out 3 “sweet forgiveness” cards.  The challenge was totally voluntary.  Most of the girls at least tried it.  About 50% of the girls completed it.  That is pretty impressive!  Overall, it was a great way to open up discussion and awareness.

Teaching kids to choose the apple over the chocolate barWhatever you do, it is worth the time to promote consciousness and educate your kids food choices. Imagine the advantages they will have in life if they learn early on to curb the sugar habit! I wish I could go back in time and tell my teenage fast food working self to sever the line to the Dr Pepper tap and make eat healthy instead!

Kids are surprising. They can do it. They may even help you do it.


Don’t forget to share your ideas and stories with us!

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