The 90 – 10 Rule for Sweets and Treats

Learn how to balance sweets and treats using my 90 – 10 Rule for Food.

By far one of the most popular concerns parents have today is around managing sweets and treats in their children’s lives. Fun Foods, as I like to call them, are those sugary, sweet or high fat fried foods (or sometimes both!) that are prevalent in our children’s modern-day diet.

I use the 90 – 10 Rule to help families put sweets and treats in their place.

And it’s pretty effective. 

little boy licking a lollipop

What are Fun Foods (Sweets and Treats)?

Fun Foods are those foods that contain high amounts of sugar or fat, and as a result, calories. They are yummy, attractive, and sometimes irresistible.

The are high in flavor, and low in nutrition. They’re sweets and treats such as birthday cake, cupcakes, cookies, soda, candy, chips and fried foods.

Fun Foods can be problematic in a child’s diet because they may tip the diet to the unhealthy side if too many are consumed regularly. Because they’re generous in calories and a poor source of nutrients, some parents may think they need to be wiped out of a child’s diet, but that doesn’t really work either. 

Tightly controlling sweets and treats can backfire. Children can perceive this approach as being too restrictive, and this may lead to sneaking food, and overeating it when the opportunity arises.

What is the 90 – 10 Rule for Food?

Many kids can’t get through the day without getting offered treats. These foods show up at school, on the athletic fields, at church, friend’s houses, and more.

Quite honestly, kids and their parents need an easy way to manage these foods in the diet. 

The 90 – 10 Rule helps separate nourishing foods, which are those foods that are nutritious and help to make up a balanced diet for kids, from Fun Foods.

The 90 – 10 Rule makes it easy to sift through foods, categorize them, and decide the what, where and when of eating Fun Foods.

Food balance is easily achieved, resulting in a healthy diet that maximizes nourishing foods and moderates indulgent ones.

The best part? Kids are able to grasp this concept and begin using it.

the 90 10 rule for sweets and treats

Managing Sweets and Treats in Kid’s Diets

The 90 – 10 Rule is a concept that I developed in my work with families in my practice. I developed it to help families who were working on healthier eating.

Families found it helpful, easy to understand, and practical to put into place. Kids could easily grasp the concept and begin to make thoughtful decisions about which Fun Foods they would eat, and when they would eat them.

Here’s how you can put the 90 – 10 Rule in action for your family:

Step One: Choose Mostly Nourishing Foods

Understand which foods are Nourishing Foods. Nourishing Foods come from the MyPlate guide, including: 

  • Lean protein sources such as egg, beef, chicken, lamb, and beans
  • Dairy products such as milk, and milk products like yogurt
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables  
  • Whole grains such as whole wheat bread, whole grain cereal, pasta and rice

Step Two: Plan Meals and Snacks

Plan meals and snacks to include mostly these foods.

Ninety percent (90%) of your child’s food consumption during the day should come from nourishing foods.

Step Three: Identify Sweets and Treats (AKA Fun Food)

Identify the Fun Food in your child’s diet, including: 

  • desserts
  • candy
  • sugary beverages 
  • fried food such as chips or French fries 

Step Four: Determine the Food Balance

Determine with your child which Fun Foods will be eaten and when they will be eaten.

10% of what your child eats during the day, on average, comes from Fun Food. For most healthy kids, this ends up being 1 to 2 Fun Foods, on average, each day.

The Goal: 90 percent Nourishing Foods + 10 percent Fun Foods

Real Life Scenarios Using the 90 – 10 Rule

When you start using the 90 – 10 Rule, make sure your child understands which foods fall into the Fun Food category and which foods he should be eating most of the time. One key here is to let your child choose which Fun Food is important to him when possible.

This builds autonomy, letting your child have a say in the matter. 

For example:

Will your child choose the soda at the school play, or the ice cream afterward? Encourage her to choose the Fun Food that is most desirable and meaningful for her. 

Let’s explore how this could play out:

Sally knows that she will have the opportunity to have donuts after church on Sunday, as well as cake and ice cream at the afternoon birthday party she is attending.  Following the 90 – 10 Rule, she opts for cake and ice cream at the party and skips the donuts at church.  

Brent is playing baseball this afternoon and as tradition has it, he grabs a slushy drink. He passes on the bowl of ice cream later that night, remembering he chose his Fun Food earlier at the ballpark. 

the easiest rule for managing sweets and treats

Wouldn’t It be Easier to Get Rid of Sweets and Treats?

As parents, we know there are endless options for treats, sweets and snacks throughout the day.

Eliminating them is not practical, reasonable or effective. As I mentioned earlier, food restriction, or tightly controlling food, is a negative feeding practice.

Research tells us that some children may become more responsive to restricted foods, potentially sneaking or overeating them when they have the opportunity to do so.

Balancing Fun Food with a diet full of nutritious food is really the key to healthy eating. It’s the best of both worlds — balanced, nutritious food for growth, development and health plus indulgent food to satisfy desire and help children learn to navigate these foods in their diet.

Sweets and treats, sugary drinks, and fried foods are not going to disappear. They are prominent in our modern world and they will continue to be.

While you may try to control treats or your child’s eating, it’s likely you’ll soon find that you’re struggling with your child over food.

The Benefits of Limits for Sweet Treats

Not only does the 90 – 10 Rule curb the unhealthy foods in your child’s diet, it also empowers her to make choices and self-regulate the amount of less-than-healthy foods she eats.

The goal is to help your child pause and think through what she will eat during the day, and give her an opportunity to think ahead and practice decision-making skills with eating.

This means you are shifting a bit of the food decision-making over to your child, in an area that may be most difficult for you and her to manage single-handedly.

Kids are black and white thinkers, and the 90 – 10 Rule aligns with their thought processes. Kids are able to  identify Fun Food quite easily (and we don’t use judgmental names like this is “bad” or “toxic” food).

They can make choices about which Fun Foods they want to eat, and fully enjoy their treats.

I’ve seen kids implement the 90 – 10 Rule and manage Fun Food well. 

Have you tried the 90 – 10 Rule? How did it go?

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This article was updated from its original in October 2020.

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  1. Great post Jill! My 18 month old son goes to home day care during the day, where he typically gets one or two FUN FOODS (chocolate chip cookies are his favorite!). Rather than prevent our care provider from allowing him these occasional goodies, I simply just scale back on offering FUN FOODS once we get home. That way, he gets to enjoy what the other kids are having during the day while still getting the right amount of important “growing foods” that he needs. As a parent I really appreciate this balanced perspective…thanks!

  2. What a great post! I love the phrase “Fun Foods”! I agree that it is so important how we label foods to kids at a young age. I remember as a kid given “Fun Foods” as a dessert if we ate our dinner. I know now they encourage parents not to use Fun Foods as a treat so that it isn’t valued higher than healthy foods.

    I’m glad that I found your blog! Can’t wait to read more!

  3. Nice post, Jill! And while I like and appreciate the concept of fun foods, I hope it doesn’t imply that healthful foods can’t also be fun and enjoyed–popcorn, fruit kebobs, frozen grapes etc. In my own home, fun foods are referred to as treats or desserts and foods that for into the healthy food groups are snacks. Whatever you call it, I think 90:10 is a terrific ratio and support any ideas to help parents guide and empower kids when they make food choices. 🙂

  4. Yes, I agree that healthful foods are fun too! This is a classification system that I believe is more positive than the usual “good food, bad food” and works well with kids–they can really get this concept and use it. Thanks for your perspective! 🙂

  5. Jill – With two two-year-olds, I have found that creating a working vocabulary is really important! I am going to add FUN FOODS to ours.

    We call our 90% foods our “always” foods — the ones you want to eat often, that help you grow, that are always in our house, on our plates, etc. Adding the FUN FOODS to this will round out our terms! Thanks!

    And Elisa – I agree, making our always foods fun and tasty is the goal!

  6. Thanks for your comments, LeAnne! Yes, we use “growing foods” for “always” foods…and “healthy foods” and “not-so-healthy” foods…and on and on. I think it’s important to give kids lots of tools to identify foods–because just like there are different ways to learn, some words “click” with kids and some don’t.
    The important point is that there is room for everything, and everything has its place (and time).

  7. I think labeling nutrient deficient treats and splurge foods as “fun foods” – does exactly what this article is trying to discourage – labeling foods as good or bad! I think teaching kids to connect to how food make them feel is the best approach. Foods that make our bodies, moods and brains feel terrible, and leads to diseases – exactly how are those “fun?” I think many healthy foods can be made more fun – cutting fruits and veggies into fun shapes, putting them on skewers, making smoothie pops, etc. So in my mind, labeling foods that are devoid of nutrition as “fun” – is exactly the opposite of what we want to do. I am a big fan of the 90/10 rule however – because I think the average kid should be able to enjoy a cupcake at a birthday party, or a bowl of ice cream if they have had a day filled with plenty of foods that are nourishing their bodies. Instead of calling them “fun foods” – the 90/10 rule calls them “splurge” foods. It is kind of like your bank account. You need to pay the mortgage and electricity, but if you have a little left over, you can “splurge” and get something extra from time to time. Lets strive to make healthy foods fun! And teach kids to listen to their bodies so they know what foods make them feel and function better.
    – Sara, Clinical Nutritionist,

  8. Thanks Sara, for your thoughts. I definitely see your points and agree that we should make healthy foods more fun. However, when working with children, for some reason, they really “get” the fun food concept…and are able to use and implement this guideline. Maybe it just speaks to their level? The word “fun” is intended to eliminate the “good vs bad” stigma–and kids can relate to fun…more-so than “splurge.” Thanks for weighing in.

  9. I see what you are getting at. I work with kids myself and I agree that we need to talk to kids in a language that they understand and can connect to. But I still think “fun” and “good” are fairly synonymous.

    Labeling foods that are not good for kids “fun” might not be a 100% win. How about “sometimes” or “party” foods?

    Some people call them “s” foods – because they should be reserved for days that start with an S. Or “treats” is fairly straightforward.

    Just my 2 cents. I struggle with this issue a LOT, and I do not think there is ONE “right” answer about “treats”. For some people – such as those with diabetes or those that can’t stop at one small bowl of ice cream – perhaps they need more of an all or nothing approach and shouldn’t have any treats at all. Others who are extremely active and naturally reach for healthy choices can possibly handle a few more than inactive people, or those that don’t eat many plant-based foods.

    I think what you are doing to provide parents and kids tools for being healthier is great though, keep up the good work.


  10. I love using Fun foods for adults….eat myplate during the day and have that FUN beer at night. ONE FUN!
    Even for people like me who are from Milwaukee and worked in a brewery!
    You rock Jill! You rock!

  11. I like the 90:10 idea and I have to say that the idea of choosing one thing seems to work. We have done that for a while and now when someone offers my daughter something like a lollipop (a treat that she doesn’t really love), she will say no because she knows that it means she won’t be able to have something she really likes later. I’m wondering what exactly qualifies as part of the 90. The other day we had soup, salad, and plain goldfish crackers. My daughter kept eating the crackers. They certainly aren’t that unhealthy but I don’t know if that could be considered “growing food.” I guess it’s all relative.
    Anyway, I love your blog and am looking forward to the book!