A Unique Child

Understanding sugar in the early years

  • Understanding sugar in the early years

In the seventh part of her series on nutrition, Patricia Pillay suggests healthy sweet alternatives to share with your children…

Sugar is essentially a ‘natural’ product produced from the sugar cane plant. However, what we use day to day and call ‘sugar’ is actually a highly refined end product that has almost no nutritional value for young children.

Indeed, sugar is more likely to damage the health and wellbeing of young children.

Excessive consumption of sugar, including drinks sweetened with sugar, leads to tooth decay, with increasingly large numbers of children having damaged milk teeth extracted under general anaesthetic.

In addition, whilst children’s bodies need lots of energy, and sugar consumption is renowned for providing energy, our bodies are designed to use the easiest supply of energy first.

If young children consume large quantities of sugar their bodies will use energy from the sugar first, leaving energy from carbohydrate sources to be stored in the body as fat.

Alternative dietary sources of sweetness and sweeter flavourings, such as fruits and some herbs and spices do not pose the same health risks and also bring valuable nutrients to children’s diets.

Remember that the less sweetness young children (and indeed adults) have in their diet the less they will want over time. Without the instant energy of sugar to draw on their bodies will use the slower-burning energy from carbohydrate foods.

These are absorbed by the body at a steady rate. This means that the peaks and troughs in mood and the behaviour and emotional issues associated with excessive sugar consumption, are avoided. This leaves children better equipped to play and learn throughout the day, and to manage their own behaviour effectively.

How to help children to establish a healthy relationship with sugar and sweet foods:

  • Avoid using high-sugar foods and drinks, such as sweets, cakes and chocolates, as a reward.
  • Avoid using sweeter foods, such as desserts, as a reward (“If you eat all your dinner you can have pudding…”).

Below you will find cooking activities to help you explore alternatives to sugar in your setting.

Indoor cooking – sweet lassi

Lassi is an Indian drink made with thinned yoghurt. Here the yoghurt is thinned with milk but it can also be thinned with water for a lighter drink. It is not suitable for babies under one year old as it contains honey, which is not recommended for this age.

You will need:

  • Jug to mix the lassi in
  • Spoons or whisks to mix with
  • Pestle and mortar or rolling pins


  • Equal quantities of plain, unsweetened yoghurt and milk (or dairy alternative milk and yoghurt)
  • Cardamom seeds (these add an interesting flavour but can be omitted)
  • Honey

What you need to do:
Grind the cardamom seeds in the pestle and mortar or by rolling firmly with the rolling pin. This will create a spicy aroma for children to enjoy as they mix their drinks.

Put equal quantities of milk and yoghurt into a jug. Children can measure their milk and yogurt using a cup, or the marks on the measuring jug, or any other way that will enable them to see that they have equal quantities.

Add a small pinch of the ground cardamom seeds and, for each cup of lassi, half a teaspoon of honey (runny honey is best). Mix well with a spoon or whisk and pour into a cup. It’s ready to drink straight away.

Outdoor cooking – pancakes with blackberries

This is a really good activity for those late summer/early autumn days when blackberries are ripe, sweet and readily available on many outdoor walks.

When you go blackberry picking, provide each child with a small tub or bag for the berries that they pick and make sure that children know which berries are blackberries. Keep a close watch on children as they pick – they may forget.

Afterwards, get the children to help you carefully check the berries before using them.

If there are no blackberries available near the places where you walk with the children you could use any commercially available berries.

For settings confident lighting fires with children, and keeping them burning until there are hot embers, this makes a great snack-time outdoors. However you could also cook the pancakes for the children, either over a barbecue or indoors. Remember, all your usual safety rules for fires apply.

You will need:

  • Colander
  • Bowl and wooden spoon for mixing the pancake batter
  • Small frying pan
  • Spatula


  • A small amount of oil for frying the pancakes
  • 4 tablespoons of plain flour
  • 1 egg
  • ½ pint of milk

These quantities will make about 10 small pancakes, so double the quantities if you need more.

What you need to do:
Wash the fruit just before you use it and leave it in a colander to drain.

Put the flour in the mixing bowl and break the egg into it. Slowly add the milk, beating all the time with the wooden spoon.

Heat a little oil in the frying pan over the hot embers of your campfire. To the hot pan add enough pancake mix to coat the frying pan.

Pancakes cook very quickly. If your frying pan is hot you will be able to turn the pancake, to cook the other side, using the spatula, after 30 seconds to one minute.

Put the pancake onto a plate, add fruit, roll and eat. If children roll their own pancake they will be able to judge how hot it is by how it feels on their fingers, but make sure that younger and less-able children are well supported to do this.

If you use a long-handled frying pan, children should be able to cook their own pancakes but it is a good idea for an adult to add the batter to the hot pan and to transfer the hot pancake to the plate.

Using herbs as sweeteners

You can reduce or eliminate the amount of sugar in traditionally sweet foods, such as puddings, by using herbs to add flavour and sweetness.

Growing the herbs, either in your nursery garden, or in pots indoors or outdoors, will further enhance the experience for children. They will be able to make their own choices about which flavouring to use, as well as learning how to care for the plants.

A well-stocked garden centre or plant catalogue will provide a good range of herb plants. Lemon verbena and lemon balm both make good sweeteners for milk puddings (remember to reduce or remove the sugar from the recipe), as do the leaves of rose or lemon-scented geraniums.

Sweet cicely leaves, finely chopped, make an excellent alternative to sugar when cooking fruit. Adding an edible flower or two will create colour and the illusion of sweetness – try day lilies, pinks, or rose petals.

Indoor cooking – sugar-free lemon buns

You will need:

  • Mixing bowl
  • Fork or spoon
  • Baking tray
  • Cooling rack


  • 250g self-raising flour
  • 90g butter
  • 150g raisins, sultanas, or chopped dried apricots. Alternatively use a combination of these dried fruits
  • 1 egg
  • ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  • Big handful of lemon scented leaves – such as lemon verbena or lemon balm

What you need to do:
Heat the oven to 200℃/400F/gas mark 6.

Measure the flour into a bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the flour. Rub the butter and flour together between your fingers until it looks like fine bread crumbs.

Next, cut the lemon scented leaves into small pieces – very clean scissors are good for children to do this with. Add the dried fruit and chopped lemon leaves to the bowl and mix.

Now beat the egg, add it to the bowl and mix everything together thoroughly using your spoon or fork.

Lightly oil a baking tray. Make the mixture into 10 or 12 small buns and put these onto the baking tray, then bake in the oven for about 15 minutes.

Cool the buns on a rack before eating.

Children’s Craft Boxes

For more engaging activities, look no further than Children’s Craft Boxes by Davies the Elf.

Delivered by post for £5.50 each, including postage, in letterbox-friendly packs, the boxes feature a story, recipe, game and craft activity, plus full instructions.

Order online from Etsy or Folksy, or email daviestheelf@outlook.com.

Patricia Pillay is an early years consultant and qualified forest school leader.