|PRINT |||SHARE: |||
Illustration by Sandy Nichols
Last night, with candles still aglow from the evening’s meal and the new Lady Antebellum CD playing softly in the background, my girls and I sat around the dinner table enjoying the creamy chocolate pudding we’d made earlier in the day— with real Dutch cocoa, no less.
Because it was Wednesday, we were eating dessert.
We haven’t always been a once-a-week dessert family. When the girls were little, I would desperately utter that line to which many parents resort: “Eat those two broccoli spears and that little clump of rice and peas and you can have a chocolate chip cookie for dessert.” In a flash, that caught on, and I found myself fearing the dinner hour, knowing that it would end, against my will, with each girl triumphantly eating a small bowl of strawberry ice cream, a handful of M&M’s or a Chips Ahoy.
I seldom ate dessert as a kid. My mother made (still makes) an amazing chocolate sauce for ice cream that she occasionally offered us, but that was a real treat, and not something we did every night. I also teach nutrition at Towson University, so I’m keen to the health consequences of too much sugar, especially for growing youngsters. When I realized that we truly were eating a small, sweet food after every dinner, I made the unpopular decision to restrict desserts. Breaking the nightly cycle when the girls were still pretty little, I reasoned, would reinforce the belief that sweets are treats and not a daily occurrence— and, as a bonus, would reinforce my favorite rule that when dinner is over, the kitchen is closed. I told my girls that if we shifted to one dessert night each week, it would be special, like birthday cake on birthdays or pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. I made this little proclamation on a Tuesday in 2003, ending my speech with, “And the good news is, we start tomorrow! Wednesday is Dessert Night!”
“Yippee!!” they sang.
Unfortunately, our first Dessert Night was a disaster. The girls wanted doughnuts (doughnuts head my most-useless-food list), so we went to Heinz Bakery near our home and selected two. That night, sitting on my table were two large, gooey things with icing dripping down and bright sprinkles poking out. I had to leave the room while my girls ate them.
Thus I realized that even Dessert Night needed limits. Next time, it was one doughnut cut in half, and that became the rule: We can have whatever we want, just not as much as we might want. And over the past eight years, as long as I stay light on my feet, allowing for the occasional piece of leftover cake, a small bowl of Teddy Grahams after school or a baggie of yogurt-covered pretzels during a long car ride, Dessert Night has gone pretty smoothly.
But how to distinguish between being a food-obsessed mother and a reasonable parent aspiring to raise self-governing kids who know the limits of snacks and treats when I’m not there to enforce them? For one thing, I’m not restricting foods, I’m simply putting a treat in its place. Fair to wonder why I offer the heavy hitters such as pie or half an éclair instead of smoothies, fruit, yogurt or sorbet in the first place. The simple answer is we’re already eating those foods as part of a varied and balanced diet— at dinner, our plates are made up of mostly seasonal vegetables, whole grains and lean meats or beans. But cakes, pies and cookies are also a part of life, and because we eat them (sparingly), we have an opportunity to actually talk about the ingredients, fat or sodium grams and serving sizes— all for better or worse.
Towson resident Lynne Smith, mother of four, has shifted her idea of the after-dinner treats, as well. Several years ago, Smith became aware of trans fats in processed foods and began making her own desserts, often swapping ingredients like whole wheat flour for white flour, or dark chocolate for milk chocolate in her recipes. “I try to make healthy desserts fun, something they look forward to,” says Smith. “I say, ‘OK, kids, what was in that?’” referring to the chocolate mousse she makes with avocado. “We all laugh when I tell them, but they love it.” Although she ate dessert nightly as a kid, nowadays her family only has dessert when they gather for a family dinner two or three evenings a week.
Dessert was no big deal when Catonsville Village mother of three Susan Casciani was growing up. “It was sort of random,” she says. “We never knew what the ‘dessert criteria’ was. Sometimes we had it; often we didn’t.” One of her main “criteria” with her own kids is that they can’t “earn” dessert. She doesn’t base treats on how well they empty their plates or the fact they tried a new vegetable. In her mind, dessert is often a celebration of a successful day and not necessarily that of a successful dinner. “I have three little kids [ages 6, 5, 5] and Hostess makes those packages of three little cupcakes,” she says. “One for each, and everyone is happy, happy, happy.”
Then there are those who feel as strongly about offering dessert on a daily basis as I do about restricting it. Towson mother of four Mary Lord is a firm believer in the nightly dessert ritual. “Yesterday, we made snickerdoodles,” says Lord, whose childhood was filled with her mother’s homemade breads, muffins and crepes. Lord loves to bake cakes, ginger snaps and French custards, staying away from highly processed and refined pre-packaged snack foods. “I believe there are healthier sweets than others,” she says. “We love to bake together using ingredients that we know— none of that high fructose corn syrup.” She also limits serving sizes. “We had one snickerdoodle each.”
“I’m a cookie monster,” admits Ann Jung, Timonium resident and mother of three elementary school kids. “I love those refrigerated slice-and-bake rolls of dough you buy.” Does she share these cookies with her kids? “The answer is a big fat yes! I admit it! We eat dessert every night, often before bed, and often it is cookies.”
Jung, who grew up in a large family where “food, food, food was a big part of every celebration,” and dessert happened nightly, allows her kids to have almost anything, but places limits on how much they eat. “No gold stars for finishing a whole plate of something,” she says. “We don’t eat the whole pie, we eat a piece.”
Recently, I overheard my daughter Nelle whining to her sister that “even on Wednesday nights we don’t always get dessert.” Perhaps we had “traded” our treat for another evening, and she’d forgotten. For example, on the rare occasion we go out to eat and the girls split a dessert, then that is our Dessert Night. If we have dinner with my folks— where dessert is almost always fresh fruit and cookies — then that’s it for the week.
When we visited the Maryland State Fair this past September, we passed a booth serving “deep-fried, chocolate-covered peanut butter balls.” This booth, of course, was next to the deep-fried Twinkie stand. As we stood there looking, I said, “Shucks, it’s too bad it’s not Wednesday.”
You can imagine my surge of pride when both girls agreed that even on a Wednesday they would pass those by.
Desserts don’t have to be sinful to be delicious. Towson resident Lynne Smith relies on these “healthy” desserts that her four kids love.
Chocolate Mousse with Avocado
1/2 cup maple syrup
4 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon agave
3 tablespoons coconut oil
1 cup raw cacao powder (available at Whole Foods)
Water for desired consistency
Blend first 5 ingredients together then blend coconut oil and cacao into other ingredients. Add water for desired consistency. Pour into 4 serving dishes and refrigerate until serving.
Chocolate Mousse with Tofu
Serves 4 to 6
1 package of silken tofu
1 12-ounce package of semi-sweet (or dark chocolate) chips, melted
1 teaspoons vanilla
1 -2 teaspoons agave (or to taste)
Water for desired consistency
Puree the tofu until smooth, add the other ingredients and mix well. Pour into serving dishes and chill until ready to eat. Serve with strawberries or blueberries.