Do As We Say, Not As We Eat

April 1st, 2013 · 13 Comments · Baking and Sweets

We wish we could tell you we raised our kids to think of dessert the way one is supposed to think of dessert: as a “treat” in the true definition of the word; as something you get rarely, if you’re lucky; as part of a celebration – say, an ice cream cone after a hard-fought soccer game, a slice of cake at a birthday party, or some cookies, dipped in milk, on a Friday night. But the sad truth is, our kids consider dessert – like water, shelter, allowance — their birthright. It’s gotten to the point where Phoebe, will finish her dinner, rise from her chair, and begin plunking packages down on the table: Dark chocolate peanut butter cups, a box of shortbread cookies, a bowl of leftover Easter or Halloween or Christmas candy. The question she asks is not: “Can I have dessert?” It’s: “How many can I have tonight?”

We tell ourselves we’re only partly to blame. Back when the girls were toddlers and we were mired in an extended picky eating phase, we had no choice but to ignore all the expert advice and go primal. We were desperate, don’t you see, forced to leverage dinner with something sweet – If you don’t eat that chicken, no dessert tonight. If we’re honest, though, the more likely root of the problem is the fact that we, the supposed grown-ups, are chronic violators of the cardinal rule of parenting: Do as I do, not as I say. The only reason the kids think it’s normal to celebrate “No Cavities!” with a bowl of pudding or finish lunch with a chocolate chip cookie is because we — the Providers, the champions of kale, quinoa and omega-three-rich fish — are guilty of the exact same behavior.

We want to stop eating so much dessert, but those chocolate-covered almonds from Trader Joes are so good. You know the ones with the fleur de sel? We would stop, if we could. And these slice-and-bake oatmeal raisin cookies are our first attempt to establish some limits. The idea is to control the portion size on the front end — to slice and bake only as many cookies as there are mouths to feed – then into the toaster oven they go. As soon as dinner is over, four cookies are warm and ready to be savored with a cold glass of milk. Or crumbled atop a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But that’s all. We swear.

This is our Provider’s column for the April issue of Bon Appetit. Head over to their site for the Slice-and-bake Oatmeal-Raisin Cookie recipe. Photo by Brian W. Ferry for Bon Appetit.

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Kicking the Dessert Habit

March 6th, 2012 · 114 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Cameos, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

You want to know what’s fun about being an editor? You get to live vicariously through people who are smarter, better traveled, and more interesting than you. Charles Duhigg is one of those people. Charles is an investigative reporter at The New York Times — if you haven’t been following his series on Apple, it’s really worth your time — as well as the author of a book I worked on, just published last week by Random House, called The Power of Habit. I know I’m not an objective source on this — I’m probably closer to a cheerleader — but the book was a total blast to work on and is full of ideas and stories and case studies that make you think about your life — including the way you eat, exercise, shop — in a different way. More than 40% of what we do in the course of any given day, it turns out, is not the product of rational decision-making; it’s habit. And that’s scary. Charles was kind enough to take a moment from his all-out media blitz to guest-post for us today about a particular DALS weakness, dessert. Tell us how to be better, Charles…

Let me be completely honest with you: I like dessert.

Not just a little bit. A lot. Basically, I would rather eat dessert than dinner. In fact, I have often had dessert for dinner. I’ve become accustomed — scarily so — to dessert every night. And it turns out I’m not alone.

This wasn’t a big problem before I had kids. Now, however, I have a 3-year-old (or, as he points out, a three-and-three-quarters-year-old). And guess what? He loves dessert, too! And not just a little bit. A lot. What a coincidence! We once went to Costa Rica so that he could see some monkeys and a white sand beach, and all he remembers is the chocolate I let him have after dinner each night. I am not kidding: if you ask him about Costa Rica today, he will tell you it’s a place where you can eat chocolate every night.

That isn’t good.

So, a few years ago when I started researching the science of habits for my book, one of my goals was to figure out how get a handle on my dessert habit (and my son’s). Not to go all Official Book Summary on you here, but in the last decade, our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been transformed. In particular, we’ve learned that every habit has three components: a cue, which is like a trigger for an automatic behavior; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and a reward. Scientists refer to this as the “habit loop.”

When we’re talking about dessert, the habit is pretty obvious: There’s a cue (“dinner is over!”) a routine (“ice cream time!”) and a reward (“oh my god, this chocolate chip crunch tastes good, oh my oh my god”). What neurologists have learned is that habits are powered by cravings. In fact, if we could stick electrodes in my brain (which I wouldn’t recommend – very messy), we would see that as soon as dinner is over, my brain starts anticipating – which is another way of saying craving - that chocolate chip crunch. And if the ice cream doesn’t arrive? My brain gets unhappy, and starts giving off patterns that look a lot like anger — or even depression. (more…)

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