My Flawed Sugar Compromise

On my son’s first day of 3rd grade last month, I stayed to watch in the morning with the other parents, as the kids met their new teacher and over breakfast, he gave us an overview of what the kids would be learning throughout the year.

I was standing next to my friend Eve, whose daughter is in the class.

Our eyes met for a brief moment, as we watched our children dive into their school breakfast. Both of us, without even having to speak, knew what each was thinking: how many grams of sugar do you think are in this one, little, breakfast?  I calculated in my head about 70 grams, if my son was to eat all of it.

There was the chocolate milk one could choose.

There was the flavored yogurt.

The graham crackers (that were actually cookies).

And the cereal.

Thankfully my son chose the white milk, and didn’t eat all his breakfast because he’s a very slow eater, but that’s another story…

Eve spent a full year avoiding sugar, along with her family, blogged about it, and wrote a book about it that will be published soon. I have an interest in sugar because over the past 5 years, I have become an evangelist about my own diet. Constantly monitoring what I eat, weeding out the bad, and adding foods I think will benefit my health. Also, I continually assess whether my current diet works well alongside my fitness goals. I wrote a post earlier this year called My Food Evolution, about how my current philosophy towards food originated.

I read a ton of labels.

Avoid added sugar and sodium.

And if I can make something myself, I will. The less processed, the better.

My son has a food allergy, as many of you know, I just wrote a long post about it. It’s really difficult for him to eat out, we always bring our own food to ensure his safety, and I know that gets a little boring for him. But at school, the cafeteria is nut-free and finally offers him a chance to eat something other than what I give him. He feels included. And can eat safely. He often will try a new food at school, let me know about it, and I can try to recreate my own version at home. Because of the positives, I didn’t get too hung up on the fact that the foods he ate at school might not be the same quality as what we have at home, because it was only 5 meals a week.  It seemed like a good compromise.

Until Recently.

I am ashamed to admit since making this decision as a parent, allowing him to have school lunch, rather than make it at home, I never really re-evaluated the fact that since kindergarten, he’s been eating breakfast there too. No longer 5 meals a week, now 10.

And I never really looked at the menu consistently. I recall glancing once or twice thinking: fruit, cereal, milk…sounds healthy enough, right?

But until I saw that breakfast at school in person, the realities of this decision, or non-decision, became more clear. My child is not one of those kids who sits nicely at his desk and raises his hand to be called. He’s the one who is hanging off his chair. He’s the one blurting out answers to every question. He’s the one swaying back and forth into everyone’s space. And last year, he complained often about how tough it was to stay focused in math, right after breakfast.

He is a powerful little force, on the move…

It didn’t once occur to me that the food he ate prior to his lessons might be an issue.

When I learned about this sit-still-during-math problem, we started to do “jump around” time in the mornings, before school, and we have kept it going this year. Some days when it’s nice out we take a few laps up and down our steep driveway. Sometimes we will run down to the river and back. If the weather is bad, we throw all the couch pillows on the floor and do a few rounds of “pillow hopping”. We do a few squats. Stretches. Waking up the arms and legs. Sometimes we only have 10 minutes, but it appears to help.

I read a book earlier this year by John Ratey called: Spark, about exercise and the effects on the brain, because of my own interest in exercise and fitness. I know the fact that I incorporate formal exercise and lots of movement into my own day, I feel so much better. I’m less anxious. I’m more calm. After a session, I’m centered on the task at hand, no questions asked; where I’m jumpy and always feel the need to stretch or move around if I wait until later in the day. But my takeaway, aha moment, after reading the book, centered around what I need to do with my son.  The book described a fitness experiment in a school in Naperville, Illinois, clearly proving, in the form of measured grade improvements, how much better kids are able to focus and learn when they participate in “fitness” time first thing in the morning.

I hadn’t thought much about school food or his fidgety tendencies for a week or so, he came home happy everyday and said he loved school. And I was elated to finally have a few moments to myself to breathe, to enjoy some late summer hikes, and to have some moments to myself to figure out my personal goals.

But about a week after school started, Brett came home and mentioned he didn’t really like school lunch anymore. The Sunbutter at school tastes different, and he didn’t like it as much. My guess is that the school serves the sweetened kind, whereas he is used to the unsweetened version we have at home. And lately, he has been choosing sandwiches more often than the hot lunch. I told him I’d be happy to make his lunch on days he would opt for a sandwich.

I hung the lunch menu on the cabinet so he could check it out and decide each morning.

And every day since, he has opted for home lunch; I don’t bother asking anymore…

On Monday, as we were driving home from school, Brett mentioned he had a breakfast cereal that he didn’t like; it was too sweet. It made his stomach hurt. I asked him what it was called.


Hmm, I remember Trix is one of those sugary cereals I used to see commercials for when I was a kid. Why in the world would that be a choice at school?

The first thing we did when we came home that afternoon was look up Trix on the web, I wanted to see what the nutrition label looked like. Once I did, yup….lots of sugar (13 g). I asked Brett what other choices he had, that he could remember. He named 4 or 5 different brands. I looked them up and we decided, for breakfast at school, your best bets are Kix (3 g), or Rice Krispies (4 g).

But as we discussed it further, we thought, this is silly, let’s just bring in our own cereal (Erewhon Brown Rice (0g) mixed with Enjoy Life Flax (2 g)) So he has done this for the last few days and is perfectly happy.

With so much media play on the need to lower obesity rates in children.  And so much documentation about how sugars make kids unable to sit still, to focus, along with the fact they do not get enough active movement during the day, you just have to wonder, why do they even let these  sugary options through the door?

Whether this breakfast change will make a difference in his focus, or his need to move around so much, who knows. But at least we can be confident now that the foods he eats each day are not contributing to the problem.

I still am mad at myself for being so complacent for the last few years. Maybe it’s because I am so “on it” with the foods stocked in my kitchen, for both health and allergy reasons, it felt good to take a deep breath, and delegate, just for a few meals each week.

But if someone swapped out my plain yogurt with a super-fake-sugary one. Or gave me graham cracker cookies instead of my typical seedy low-sugar brand, I certainly would not let it happen.

I’d feel like a blob all day.

And so do our kids.

My son knew this stuff didn’t taste good. His stomach felt odd. He could tell he needed something different and we worked together to make better choices.

I hope you all don’t think I’m some scrooge, never allowing my kid treats, making him eat Brown Rice & Flax cereal. Believe me, when sugar is necessary, I’m all for it. I have this one espresso brownie recipe I’m embarrassed to say I make more often than I should. It calls for 3 1/2 cups of sugar! And we have chocolate in the house. And I make cookies. Maple syrup and honey are everyday staples.

I like sugar for dessert, but not hidden in basic meals.

Brett and I had a specific conversation about the terms: Appropriate and Not appropriate yesterday.  He wanted to wear a pig mask he made at school during recess. I had to explain, it wasn’t that the mask was in itself bad, it was just clearly not appropriate to wear at that time. These same terms came up again later in the afternoon when he wanted to bounce on the cool adjustable chair at his dentist appointment. By the horrified look on the hygienist’s face when she saw that chair wobble, we clearly know bouncing is ok outside, but at the dentist, we can file under: Not Appropriate.

He understood quickly. Not appropriate is when the timing is wrong.

And the terms apply perfectly in the case for sugar.

Too much of it during the school day? Not appropriate.

After school? Appropriate.

On the weekends after lunch or dinner? Depends on what we are doing, but mostly: Appropriate.

For adults at work? Judging by how many of us eat poorly and want to fall asleep at our desks in the afternoon after a big lunch, then need a 3 pm coffee pick-me-up? I’m going going to say sugar isn’t really all that appropriate here for adults.

Sugar before bedtime? For kids; Not appropriate.

And for me? I have started getting insomnia on nights I have a late dessert. File under: Not appropriate.

Timing makes all the difference.

I used to have a few minutes to myself in the mornings. To write. To think.

To drink coffee and think about the day ahead.

I didn’t have to make Brett’s lunch for the last few years; but now I do.

Apparently, I’ll now be making him two breakfasts each day too, one for home, one for school.

And that’s ok.

I’m proud of him for speaking up. He has proven he has a strong instinct regarding his own health; an instinct as good or better than my own.

He reminded me we should never become complacent with our own nutritional needs.

If something isn’t working, we can stop, think, ask questions and reevaluate to make positive changes.

And that sometimes a compromise is just not worth it.

 How do you approach sugar, for you, or your family?

Are there foods you notice help or adversely affect your moods or focus? How about exercise and movement? Would love to hear your thoughts!

22 thoughts on “My Flawed Sugar Compromise

  1. My son was on a traveling soccer team and had huge issues with restaurant and fast food affecting his stomach and performance. I was a SAHM and made everything from scratch. His body couldn’t deal with the garbage food the team ate at restaurants and fast food joints. I would bring a jar of peanut butter and jelly and a loaf of whole grain bread on overnight trips so he could have a healthier option. I’d also pack fruits and wholesome snacks. Week long overnight soccer camps were the worst.

    • I just realized I didn’t answer your question about sugar. We ate healthy cereals for breakfast and did not add sugar to them. But I baked cookies and cakes and did not alter the recipes the way I do now. Soda was forbidden. Ice cream was always allowed. So, although I made everything from scratch I wasn’t doing my family any favors by minimizing sugar.

      • Amazing how much we know now isn’t it? I remember we were never allowed “sugar” cereals except when we were camping, or some special occasion. My mom was pretty good about it, as I remember. But I don’t know, I wonder if the “added sugar” problem was as bad back then? Not sure….sounds like you did a great job dealing with your son on his soccer team. I know I’m so great 99% of the time–just wish I knew what I was up against sooner on the processed foods….thanks again for your great feedback!

  2. Robin, our sons’ school starts out every school day w/20 minutes of “morning exercise” for the entire school — also based on that study you referenced. It has been fantastic for everyone. And luckily, our school does not provide their own food. We have to pack lunches every day, and even the snacks for the younger kids (2-5 yr. olds) are provided by the parents on a rotating basis. We are always reminded not to bring cookies or sugary treats for these purposes, too. The kids also have “tastings” of different fruits and veggies in the pre-school years to get them used to healthy stuff that they may not get to try otherwise. It’s been fantastic.

    I am finding it a delicate balance between healthy knowledge and unhealthy obsession, however. I try to just put stuff on their plates and not talk too much about it, limit the sugars and sweets and just talk about needing “fuel” for our bodies first. But my oldest son — very conscientious, and sometimes too much so, at the exclusion of just being a kid — takes everything too much to heart. Between all the obesity warnings on the news, the P90X commercials on TV that tell him he needs ABS, and all the other conversations surrounding him (all well-intentioned, but maybe too numerous when you count up school, PE class nutrition, the news, Mom vs. grandma, etc. etc.). I want him to be knowledgeable and aware, but don’t want to exacerbate his slightly OCD nature.

    I think your “appropriate timing” approach may be a better conversation. Especially when I’m arguing with my younger son who is trying to sneak in the gummy snacks at dinnertime because he has no problem just being a kid and ignoring the whole thing. Parenting two extremes, I need as many “down the middle” solutions as I can get. 🙂

    • TIna, thanks so much for your comment. Wow, your school sounds like they have it all together! I am impressed about the morning stretch specifically. Do you know if this is part of the BOKS program, that they do? Or did your school set up their own program? I’m intrigued with it, but can’t imagine having kids wake up an hour earlier to do the program. I think your school has the right idea about 20 minutes and within the school morning…..

  3. Robin, loved this blog. My husband and I often discuss some of the food we fed our boys as they were growing up and am appalled when I think about it. Much like what Christine wrote, I always made everything from scratch, but often baked cookies and cakes and did not alter the recipes. As well, our boys did not like the fast food options when they travelled for sports, so we often had a cooler of “healthier” food options.

    • SIlvana, so glad you liked it! I know, amazing what we know now about foods that we didn’t then, I want to cringe sometimes at what I ate when I was a teen….or even in college. This was never top of mind for young people but I think this next generation thinks about it so much more, now that we have so many voices in the media covering “conscious” and healthy eating. Thanks so much for your comment and your support!

  4. You are doing a great job with him! So wonderful that he picked up on the sugar content. I think I’d like to try the early morning exercises. My son scooters up and down the sidewalk till the bus comes – does that qualify?
    I was raised on mostly home cooked, unprocessed foods. That did include a lot of baked goods, though, heavily laden with sugar. I always thought it was healthy, and it certainly was compared to what many people eat. But my scientifically-minded husband pointed out the evils of sugar, and I swerved away from providing my son with the same kind of diet I had had. We now eat mostly fruit for dessert during the week and avoid juice, choosing water instead.
    I read the labels, too, and am always annoyed when those “healthy” products really aren’t. I’ve been equally annoyed with our school’s offering of “healthy” snacks – sugary yogurt and granola bars and those Oreo thins. I tell my son that I pack enough snacks (plain yogurt mixed with vanilla, honey, cinnamon and berries; fruit; vegetables and hummus; cheese curds and crackers) and he doesn’t need to take what the school offers but, as you point out, kids at this age don’t want to stick out. Still I’ve been proud to find him reading the ingredients and arguing with product slogans that claim their products are “all natural.” We certainly eat sugar as well, we just make sure we’re all aware that that is what we’re eating.

    • Thanks so much for your comment and the compliment! It’s funny how you try to hard with parenting on so many levels but then silly oversights like this happen….I’m pretty sure my mother cooked well for us, and we had minimal sweets but there was soda!! Definitely evil stuff! My son too doesn’t do juice, just water, and will never step into a fast food restaurant. But sometimes I see older boys, like pre-teen, teen and it’s like they are a whole different species…..I hope my guy can resist the urge to go along with some of the madness. I think he will, because of his upbringing and his allergy, he will always have to be on alert. Oh, and I do think scooting around is a great idea for your son in the mornings! I do think the sqats and stretches help too to get that blood flowing. We did something funny today–do you remember Monty Python, the ministry of silly walks? We did silly walks like those up and down the driveway. Our hearts were racing! 🙂

      • Yes, I’ve seen the older kids heading off to the corner store for sugar and my son, like an addict, is definitely interested in doing the same. Although after a few bites, he usually stops and says it’s too sweet. I think we’re definitely on the right path as parents – and I don’t think your oversight is really so awful. It gave your son the opportunity to find out for himself where his limits are and that is a very valuable lesson to have learned already at 8!
        We love Monty Python! We watched the Holy Grail with our son earlier this year and he quoted it for weeks after. I showed him the ministry of silly walks not too long ago and we killed ourselves laughing. What a great idea!
        Today (it’s our Thanksgiving weekend up here) we biked all over town stopping at every book store along the way. Exercise for mind and body!

    • Very smart! My son still hasn’t had soda, ever! But our favorite thing in the world is fizzy water with the sodastream….fantastic gadget. Thanks for your comment!

  5. It’s great to read about someone being so mindful of what their child eats, especially a young child. This is when it matters to educate your child about food, not when they are 10 years old and already overweight because the overly sugary & high fat foods are what they consider as normal fare. I am almost 33 and a solid 70lbs+ overweight & have very recently started paying a lot more attention to what I am eating, one of the main things I have cut back on is added salt (I have always loved salty food) after only about 2 weeks I was given a handful of cashew nuts which when I threw them into my mouth I almost spat right back out because they were too salty. I wish someone had taught me as a child that too much salt/sugar/fatty food is bad for you.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. Definitely know what you mean about salt, and sugar for that matter. If you wean yourself off one or the other for a few days, it’s really striking how different everything tastes. My biggest change over the last few years was saying no to flavored yogurts. I now do plain with a little maple syrup. But if I’m traveling and I buy one while i’m out, they are sooo sweet! I appreciate what you are saying. I know now my little guy is so good with this stuff: never will touch soda, fast food, etc….I just hope it sticks during those rebellious years. I think with his nut allergy he has to be careful anyway, so that may keep him away from most fast food by default anyway even if he decided he wanted to. Sounds like you are making amazing changes so far –congratulations on your journey!

  6. Great post (Discovered via MFP) I’ve never been super strict about my diet (and it shows), I am a good 70+ lbs overweight, I really wish someone had taught me when I was young that too much salt/sugar/fatty food was unhealthy. I’ve always loved fresh fruit & vegetables but also have always loved sweet & salty foods, I’ve just never managed to get the right ratio. I am now paying more attention to what is going into my body, I have stopped eating sugary cereals & switched over to Kallo ‘rice crispies’ (there is literally nothing in it other than puffed wholegrain rice), I no longer add salt to anything (I had a bag of ready salted crisps a couple of days ago & almost choked on the taste of salt), I’ve stopped drinking soda & now have either still water with a splash of no added sugar lemon squash or sparkling water (Instantly I have noticed that the problem I’ve been having with my stomach gurgling all the time has stopped) & now 90% of what I eat is fresh, I just wish I had known all this before I got to 215lbs

    • Jenn, thank you so much for your comment. I was hoping this post would be good not just for parents but for people who just have an interest in healthy food and staying active…so I’m glad you found it interesting! It sounds like you are on the right track. It’s amazing what you learn when you read those labels, isn’t it? We do the same thing: fizzy water with our sodastream, that does the trick. You know what? it’s not too late, you are doing great, and can turn things around in a shorter time than you think. If you want to connect on mfp, go back to that post and send me a request…would love to support you.

  7. Excellent post Robin! Yes, you DID read my mind that first morning of school- “how can they allow this much sugar in the kids’ breakfast??!!??” And what a good job Brett did of speaking up- I am proud of him.

    • Thanks Eve. As you know and learned in your year experiment, unless you open your eyes to it specifically, it’s so hidden, nobody really notices. I think that’s why some of this stuff does get through the door, and why I think it’s great some schools are starting to see changes. I have had some comments off this page, regarding what Michelle Obama has been doing in schools to make the offerings more healthful. From what it sounds like, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and it doesn’t appear to have rolled out in places like where we are, but it’s so great someone is at least working on it. One mom (in NY) mentioned to me she’s working with her school on getting nutritional information on all the offerings up on the school website….can you imagine?? That would be amazing.. .

  8. Very informative post, thank you. It’s got me thinking that I should be careful about the amount of sugar I give my nearly 4 yr old especially in the morning and for his snack. He’s a real fidgety fellow at home but his teacher has never complained of lack of focus or not being able to sit still. I should definitely be making healthier choices. I checked his lunch at school and it seems to be a healthy choice. The exercise in the morning is a great idea and I will be trying it out for my son.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. At 4 they may get enough movement throughout their day. In preschool, there is more of that. I have found since my son is a little older and required to sit at a table or desk, a little more focus is required and it’s getting harder! Sounds like you are doing a great job keeping up on everything already, but knowing things might change and being ready for it, will keep us all ahead of the curve hopefully, or at least not surprised when it happens …

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