Treats Are Important

March 1, 2012

A few weeks ago, we went over to some friends’ house for dinner.  They had been living in China for three years so we had a lot to catch up on.  They have three children, two girls and a boy, and our boys thought they were in heaven with all the fun and attention.

We had a delicious dinner and a wonderful time catching up and as we were starting to move toward leaving, Spencer burst into tears.  “But we haven’t had dessert!” he wailed.  Our friends were a bit puzzled.  Dessert doesn’t happen on a regular basis in their house but they gamely pulled some Girl Scout cookies out of their freezer to appease my traumatized son.

We got in the car and Randy said to me, “Maybe we give them too many sweets.  They shouldn’t expect it.”  So we had a little talk with the boys about how not every family has dessert every night in addition to occasional other treats – hot chocolate, ice cream cones, jelly beans, never all three!- during the day.  We suggested that they are lucky that Mommy likes to bake and that they should appreciate the treats that she makes, not expect them.  It is a difficult concept for a seven and five year old to grasp.  Why would a family, a perfectly normal seeming family, not have treats every chance they get?

I know that many people think sugar makes children hyper or it is terribly unhealthy for them.  I respectfully disagree.  For the most part, my kids eat healthier than a large percentage of the population.  I make almost all of their meals, they don’t eat meat, they eat very little processed food, they have never had even a sip of soda, they have to eat a fruit or vegetable with all meals, snacks have to start with something “healthy”, and dessert does not come without finishing dinner first.  And we have the rule in our house, a rule which is terribly hard on them when there is Valentine’s Day candy still sitting in their little Valentine’s card boxes, that if there are homemade cookies in the cookie jar, or homemade ice cream in the freezer, then that is what is for dessert.  It’s not perfect but I do try and my kids are thriving healthy little beings who very very rarely get sick.  (I just knocked on wood.)  I’m not patting myself on the back – I, like most moms I know, am doing the best I can to nourish my children.  I just happen to believe that nourishment also happens to include food that nourishes the soul, the kid in all of us.

I’ve mentioned this before, but in my house growing up, we had all kinds of junk food.  Ice cream, chips, cookies, full size candy bars.  My mom is a good cook and we had healthy meals and we also got dessert every night.  Sugar was not something forbidden or evil, it was just a part of our lives.  My friends would come over and gawk at the pantry – so much good stuff in there!  But because I was always around sweets, they didn’t have any mystique for me.  And so I grew to love and appreciate dessert, but not be ruled by it.  To this day, both my brothers and I prefer dinner to dessert.  We all three have much more savory palates than sweet.  My brother Alex has an anything-lemon weakness, cookies are Michael’s kryptonite, and I can’t say no to brownies or caramel – but other than those things, we are salty people.

So I believe in treats.  I believe in de-mystifying sugar and not making it something forbidden.  I believe in allowing my children the pure unadulterated joy that only a cookie (or brownie or ice cream) can bring.  I love when Graham comes home from school, takes a big sniff, and says, “Mmmmm, it smells so good.  What did you make?”  I love that Spencer has an opinion about his sweets.  This brownie for example.  He told me, “I like the top part but not the bottom part.”  Hmmm.  The top part is chocolate brownie and the bottom part is kind of shortbread-y and has macadamia nuts in it.  Seeing as there is a gene in his gene pool for not liking nuts in sweets, his dislike is not all that surprising.  But I was happy to hear that he could taste the difference in the two parts, that he had an opinion about that brownie, that it wasn’t just a sugar fix.

For the record, I kind of liked these brownies.  Brownies are indeed my favorite treat but even I will say that they can sometimes be a little monotonous.    Some people might think that walnut chunks are a great way to break up all that chocolate but I say No Way.  A little buttery crust on the bottom with some very small chunks of crunchy nuts is a little different story and I thought these were lovely.

One Year Ago:  Dal with Winter Vegetables
Two Years Ago:  Grilled Haloumi with Cheese and Lemon, Brownie Chunk Cookies
Three Years Ago:  Rosemary Flatbread with Blue Cheese, Grapes, and Honey, Smoky Cashews, Pappa al Pomodoro

Macadamia Shortbread Brownies
Adapted from Bittersweet
Makes 25 brownies

For the crust:
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
2 tbsp. sugar
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
¾ cup all purpose flour
½ cup untoasted unsalted macadamia nuts, chopped medium-fine

For the brownie batter:
6½ ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
7 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into 7 pieces
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
¼ tsp. salt
2 large eggs
½ cup all purpose flour

Make the crust:
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350ºF.  Line a 9-inch square baking pan with foil and make sure the ends extend up over the sides by several inches.  (This will serve as handles to remove the brownies from the pan once they are baked.)

Combine the melted butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt in a bowl.  Stir in the flour to make a dough.  Scrape the dough into the prepared pan and, using your fingers, press the dough all over the bottom of the pan and just a bit up the sides.  Bake until the crust is nicely brown all over, 15 to 20 minutes.

Make the brownie batter:
Combine the chocolate, butter, and sugar in a medium heatproof bowl.  Place the bowl over a pot of simmering water.  Stir frequently until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test.

Remove the bowl from the pot.  Stir in the vanilla and salt with a wooden spoon.  Add the eggs, one at at time, stirring until the fist one is incorporated before adding the next.  Stir int he flour and beat with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until the batter is smooth, glossy, and beginning to come away from the sides of the bowl, 1 to 2 minutes.

Assemble the brownies:
Spread the brownie batter evenly over the hot crust and bake until the edges puff and begin to show fine cracks, 20 to 25 minutes.  Let cool completely in the pan on a rack.

Remove the brownies from the pan by lifting up the ends of the foil, and transfer to a cutting board.  Cut into 25 squares with a heavy knife.



  1. I believe in treats for kids and for me! Of course, everything in moderation and homemade treats are best! Caleb is going to have treats and I am going to have these brownies very soon!

    Comment by Maria — March 1, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

  2. I love that you wrote this – I also grew up in a “junk food” house, and I watched so many of my friends from “healthy houses” come over and just binge on my food because they didn’t know how to pace themselves. Now, I’m a nutrition major and eat very healthfully, while still enjoying dessert now and then (ok, honestly, on more days than not!). Life is about balance and exposure to many things, some good and others not so great in excess. I’m not a parent yet but I hope to raise my children similarly. You’re certainly not alone.

    Comment by Jessica — March 1, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

  3. Yep, treats are important! Denying them is just plain unnatural.
    I love your rule about homemade over store-bought desserts! I kind of have the same philosphy going in my head but don’t have anyone to enforce it on in my house (yet). Your kids really are lucky to have a mom who feeds them so lovingly! I’m sure they are growing up healthy as can be!

    Comment by Rachel — March 1, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

  4. yes treats are very important
    they rule my life here. LOL
    I grew up in a house where no one cooked, we pretty much ate out all the time since we were always traveling, hence my love for french food at a VERY young age.
    I do love that there are macadamia nuts in here

    Comment by vanillasugarblog — March 1, 2012 @ 11:26 pm

  5. Those look amazing – and yes, I agree that treats are totally important! Without them, the soul starves a little bit. In the end, they balance out with the other nutritious dishes :)

    Comment by Faith @ For the Health of It — March 1, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

  6. oh man, these look AMAZING!!! : )

    Comment by linsiloo — March 2, 2012 @ 12:58 am

  7. you know i don’t know what to say – other than thanks – for putting my thoughts about sugar and eating in general into words. “food nourishes the soul” speaks so loudly to me.

    Comment by jacquie — March 2, 2012 @ 1:59 am

  8. I think you know where I stand on this. I eat healthy 90% of the time so that I can have treats 10% of the time (sometimes more :P) and I fully intend for my kids to be nourished the same way. Besides, reality check – it is absolutely NOT homemade treats that are causing the health problems in america. And, dare I say, I think if more people were making homemade treats…our problems would decrease…greatly.

    Comment by Joanne — March 2, 2012 @ 3:00 am

  9. Totally agree with this post. You write so well! Now I need to make some chocolate treats!

    Comment by Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar — March 2, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

  10. Story about not forbidding children anything: when I was about 5 I was so desperate to have chewing gum because I thought it was cool, but my mother wouldn’t buy me any. One day I scraped a wad of old gum off the sidewalk outside our house, cleaned out the grosser bits and started chewing. When my mum asked me where I got it I told her and burst into tears! She still says it was one of her guiltiest parenting moments – we were *occasionally* allowed gum and other treats after that!

    Comment by Hilary — March 2, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

  11. I don’t blame Spencer one bit! Every time we go to a friends house and dessert is not served or we go out to eat and everyone votes to skip dessert I also throw an internal tantrum. Sometimes I solve that problem by offering to bring dessert. :) I’m glad you treat your darling boys to lots of little treats – sometimes that’s what makes the world go round!

    Comment by Emily — March 2, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

  12. I grew up in a house with no soda and no chips and spent much too much time as an adult consuming more than my fair share of both. My boy has never had soda mainly because it isn’t in our house but I do a lot of baking so there is usually baked treats to have. I don’t think a bit of cake now and then is going to hurt anyone as long as everything else is in balance.

    Comment by Charlotte — March 2, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

  13. I grew up eating dessert at the end of every dinner. Sometimes it was fancy, but often it was just a bowl of home canned peaches or pears – or if the pantry was getting low, a little fruit cocktail and cottage cheese. My mom was a big believer in dessert. Today I am more likely to wrap things up with a good cup of decaf coffee or tea, but it still serves the same purpose – a wonderful finish to my evening meal. Dessert is the period at the end of the sentence. It’s how I know to stop eating!

    I can tell from your posts that your kids are eating really healthy homemade food all the time. Dessert is just a special part of that. Keep it coming!

    The brownies look delish.

    Comment by Mary Miller / A Passionate Plate — March 3, 2012 @ 1:12 am

  14. I totally agree with everything in moderation. I was a healthy and thin child, ate home cooked meals, but grew up with sweets around. Ours too was the house that those deprived of sweets couldn’t wait to visit. And I was more of a savory person until I got older and began depriving myself of sweets. Now I have unhealthy and constant cravings for anything sweet and or chocolatey, and I’m convinced its a direct result of my later in life deprivation.

    Comment by atg — March 3, 2012 @ 5:47 am

  15. I’ve been struggling with how to “do” food since my little one started eating solids. My mom was a serious sugar addict, so we didn’t have treats around when I was a kid (she have up sugar for good five years ago and has maintained a 90lb weight loss.). I really resonate with the approach you take and I live when you share about your food philosophy and guidelines, such as jelly beans, or hot chocolate, never both. These rules probably seem obvious when you were raised by someone with a healthy relationship to sweets, but I wasn’t, so a little sharing lends a lot of insight.

    Thanks again. I love your blog, and have read if for a long time, though this is my first comment.

    Comment by Amy — March 4, 2012 @ 4:25 am

  16. A lot of what you said I believe too and yet, at the same time, I am afraid Spencer would cry out loud at our house too as dessert is not something we have and in fact, our treat sizes are minute.
    I am trying very hard to allow my stepchildren to eat sweets while breaking off that habit of rewarding behavior with sweets/food (everyone around them is doing that) and it’s also the reason for some overweight issues.
    Limiting their intake also means that also sweets are available I am convinced they would binge if they were allowed to eat as much as they please. It’s hard to strike a balance.

    From what I have read you really don’t need to justify how or what you feed your children. Someone so knowledgeable about food as you are certainly knows best what to give (and which quantities) so your children strive.

    Anyway, I am surprised to see nuts in your sweets and will bookmark this recipe. And maybe even consider introducing dessert. (I wish a piece of fruit would be considered dessert in my stepchildren’s eyes but that only works with strawberries and cream.)

    Comment by Annika — March 5, 2012 @ 8:29 am

  17. THANK YOU for posting this. i definitely believe in treats and this made me feel a little more normal in a world full of sugar-haters! :)

    Comment by natalie@thesweetslife — March 7, 2012 @ 2:57 am

  18. My daughter, a vegetarian, left for college this Fall. We had many discussions about how she could continue to eat a healthy diet. Not being able to cook her our favorite meals is difficult. So, I send her delicious homemade cookies filled with healthy ingredients. They are my way of thanking her for being a great student and awesome daughter. It’s me sending some “mom love.” And, it makes me feel good to know that she is having something homemade between college breaks!

    Comment by Diane — March 7, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

  19. I will be making these for a potluck this weekend and as I went over the recipe, I couldn’t figure out when the nuts come in to play.
    I see them in the ingredients list but not in the directions. Could you clarify that?

    Also, do you think I can use almonds instead? Or would brazil nuts be better? They don’t have the same textural quality but I can only get macadamias salted where I live.

    Comment by Annika — October 10, 2012 @ 11:23 am

  20. Sorry about that Annika. You sprinkle the nuts over the uncooked dough. I will fix recipe when I am back home.

    Comment by dana — October 10, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

  21. Thank you for getting back to me!

    Comment by Annika — October 11, 2012 @ 9:14 am

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