A Treat Is Only A Treat If I Feel Good Afterward

I love treats. Especially if said treat involves chocolate or chips or peanut butter. I like non-food treats, too. Like reading a book long past my bedtime or binging on a great documentary series.

But here’s the thing I’m learning about treats.

A treat is only a treat if I feel good afterward.

There are treats that are anticipatory – things that are most enjoyable when being considered. There are treats that are most enjoyable in the moment. There are treats that we enjoy primarily in retrospect (I’m thinking of a very jet-lagged trip to Denmark with a toddler; the pictures gloss over the horrors of sleep deprivation).

But I’m recognizing something fails to be a treat if it ultimately leaves me feeling unsatisfied physically or mentally.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of food – likely one of the most common sources of troublesome “treats”. I like to blame my recent cravings on weather (#TheWinterThatNeverEnds) or my hormones, but I was categorizing my evening meeting with a tub of ice cream as a treat. But here’s the thing – even while I was eating it, I knew I’d regret it (too much dairy really sets off allergy symptoms, and I also have mild lactose intolerance). One week I ate ice cream four times. Once is a stretch, and four was at least three times too many.

For me, ice cream day after day isn’t a treat…because I don’t feel good afterward. Ideally, I want to seek out treats that have staying power.

A slice of cherry cheesecake (not too big, and made with lactose-free cream cheese, ideally) is a treat. Binging on Twizzlers a handful of times a year is a treat. Because I enjoy the anticipation, the actual event, and remembering the special and tasty “treat.”

Sometimes I can’t tell, of course, when an activity is going to veer out of “treat” territory and into something with negative implications. Sometimes a plan that looks like it will be a treat – a coffee date with friends when I’m too tired to enjoy it, the second serving of pie when I’m already full, the extra hour in bed that leaves me feeling sluggish and down for the rest of the day – ends up backfiring. And sometimes I need to eat ice cream four days in a row because it’s an imperfect, but functional, way to cope with something.

But at least now I can use the right definition.

For now I’m trying to listen to my body and mind, aiming to be honest with myself in recognizing that a treat is only a treat if I feel good afterward.

Your turn. How do you handle this idea of treats? What are your favourite treats and how do you manage them so they remain special and a positive force in your life?

Header photo by Daniel Öberg on Unsplash

28 thoughts on “A Treat Is Only A Treat If I Feel Good Afterward”

  1. Last night, I self medicated with half a row of Oreos and thought of it as a treat for being so darn patient with everyone at bedtime even though I was internally screaming. But then I felt gross after the cookie high was gone. So, I understand this completely and also have no healthy way to approach treats. I am excited to read more ideas from others. I do really like your reframe– sometimes a coping mechanism is necessary and not a treat at all.

    1. For SO long I would have some dessert every night at 7:30 after I got the kids to bed. I still do this sometimes, but it was totally my reward for surviving. Even if I didn’t keep my cool, I’d eat dessert (maybe two helpings).

      It’s so hard and something I really, really struggle with (mostly with regard to food). And while I’m trying to eat more “intuitively” it can be so hard to tease out treat/emotion/coping mechanism. I don’t have any great answers, I guess personally I’m just trying to be more aware/be honest with myself?!

      Like you, I’m excited to see what others might suggest!

  2. Ah yes- I like to call it the “treat with consequences.” Last night I broke my “chips only on Fridays” rule and had chips and salsa with my dinner, knowing full well that I would regret it. Why do we do these things? I definitely don’t have any answers, but I think next time I’ll try to stop and ask myself, “Is this REALLY a treat?” Because you’re right- it’s not a treat if you feel worse afterwards.

    1. Treat with consequences! What a great phrase. I think it’s just important for me to call a spade a spade – and at least go in to it knowing that it’s not going to feel like a treat at the end? And I do think sometimes I just need to do this (stay up late knowing I’ll be tired – and accept the consequences).

      One other thing to think about is WHY I feel bad about something. As it relates to eating, this is a tricky topic when we factor in intuitive eating. Sometimes we can put such rigid goals in place that something that is likely a treat becomes a hurdle for us. Like something isn’t a treat because we won’t let it be (or always have guilt around it). I guess that’s why I love my Twizzlers binge because I would feel guilty about eating a package of every other candy but since I’ve okayed this in my mind and know it only happens twice a year…there is none of the emotional baggage I might have with, say, eating 2 Mars bars in a single sitting.

  3. This is a good way to think about treats. I bet Gretchen Rubin would approve! I have been guilty of eating ice cream too frequently, too, and it really doesn’t meet your definition of a treat. I think the best treat and the one I indulge in most frequently is a weekend nap. It’s become pretty critical lately with how early our day starts, but it’s not a given that I will get to nap every weekend day so it is really quite a treat that usually leaves me feeling far more human. I could think of my runs with my neighbor as a treat, but I also view that as kind of mandatory/essential because exercise is so important – whether alone or with a friend.

    1. Naps are a GREAT example of a treat (though, sometimes if I take a long one if really backfires so even with naps I have to be careful!).

      I don’t see exercise as a treat. Maybe a leisurely hike through the woods that feels especially unique but, like you, I see exercising with the kids and/or weekly walks with friends part of my exercise bucket which is a positive force in my life but doesn’t quite reach “treat” level for me!

  4. I feel this so hard. My husband has celiac and can’t have gluten. Cross contamination is an issue, so we don’t have gluten in our house and sometimes I think it might be a treat to go enjoy some bread, have a doughnut, or whatever. Well, it turns out that if you don’t eat much gluten, you’ll feel crappy if you eat it, even if you don’t have an intolerance! Gluten is hard to absorb. Most people are used to it because they never stop eating it, but it’s not worth it to me to eat it, for the most part.

    I LOVE Reese’s peanut butter cups, but they are definitely a “pay for it later” treat. Sometimes it’s worth it, but most of the time it’s not!

    1. Anticipating a treat and then not feeling good after is such a letdown. I don’t eat much gluten and can easily overdo it when I’m travelling. More of an issue for me is dairy. I can handle a little, but not a lot. I don’t even LIKE dairy foods that much, but somehow I still manage to overdo it.

      Reese’s cups used to be my absolute favourite chocolate treat but I get the weirdest chemical aftertaste now and basically never crave them anymore. I wonder if the recipe changed or it was just my tastebuds? I really enjoy a cup of coffee with soy creamer but it almost always makes me feel sick after. I indulge every month or so and it does “feel” like a treat but it’s not because it leaves my stomach upset and gives me a headache.

  5. This is such a good attitude. My family struggle with the idea of treats. We are more “if you want it, have it” people… although I do NOT agree with that! I think treats should be occasional, which makes them special. But it’s hard when I live with two sugar addicts lol.

    1. I find I get into a rut of constantly craving “treats.” And then those treats become “habit” – so they’re not a treat at all, but a daily event…but I don’t want to admit they’re a habit, so I try to call them a treat and it becomes this messy vicious cycle!

  6. What great insight and so thought-provoking. I’m learning to appreciate treats, and (for me) that happens when they’re infrequent because they’re much more anticipated:-) Hence, my chai lattes… I love the taste & the comfort of feeling the hot liquid as it goes down my throat. But, if I indulge too often (like, three of these in a single day), my tummy feels off. And I’m sure all the sugar is not a smart dietary option. ((Sigh))

    1. Mmm. Chai lattes are SUCH a treat. I only get them occasionally but I can see the appeal! But agree that three in a day might not feel so great!

  7. External portion control helps me keep treats under control. A Cadbury crème egg is the perfect size and specialness to feel decadent without being over the top.

    Also I have a hidden bag of butterscotch hard candies and when I don’t think I can handle the toddler shenanigans anymore I sneak one of them. It feels like a treat even though it’s tiny.

    1. What a great point! There are lots of pre-portioned “treats” or this can be replicated at home. I actually do this with tiny (about 2T) dishes which I fill with nuts. I used to have a stack of them all portioned out and LOVED grabbing one per day from the cupboard for a pre-supper snack.
      That said, I have a hard time with portion control in general so even if I told myself I could have one Cadbury egg, when I finished that one I’d want another and feel cheated somehow if I told myself I couldn’t. So one might not feel like a “treat” but two or three would make me feel icky. But I have no trouble sticking to one little dish of nuts, so maybe the sugar content has a lot to do with this?

  8. This is an interesting thought! In general, I follow this as well, and it also took me many years to learn. I also have issues with dairy, and no longer eat cheesecake because of the horrendous effects. Ice cream, sometimes; but although I know it may upset my stomach, there are just some times when it’s worth it. Yep, sometimes ice cream is SO GOOD I am willing to accept whatever happens. It sounds like you are looking into intuitive eating, and I’ve found this has helped me immensely. Once I learned to listen to my body and either have a dessert because I wanted it, or decide not to have it because I knew it would physically make me feel bad, my relationship with food totally changed. I also stopped drinking (not that I drank much anyway) because alcohol gives me a headache. To me, it’s not worth it.

    My ultimate treats are 1) taking a day off of work to spend by myself when everyone else is at work or school, and 2) buying a book or magazine I’ve been wanting for awhile (since I hardly ever spend money on those types of things.)

    1. Both treats you mention (having a day alone and buying a book) are big treats for me too. Especially the being home one. I LOVE having a day home to just putter…

  9. When I think of the word treat I think of things such as the oranges I ate as child that were only available at Christmas as that was the only time they were in season and available in the shops. Treats were things that we had on special occasions but were never labelled as such, you knew that they were special and most likely expensive. I have continued this with my own family (not with oranges but with other things including food)

    If we eat something that is bad for us either because it makes us ill or we perceive that we should not really be eating it for whatever reason, is that really a treat? I would suggest not! So I would agree that a treat has to make you feel good afterwards or be really special and something to treasure or savour. Something you don’t do very often. It also doesn’t always have to be food as you have so rightly said..

    I also wonder if the reasons why we treat ourselves are mixed up in this too, why are we needing to do that and why are we calling it a treat, does that mean we don’t feel we deserve it and who has decided that, someone else perhaps? Is that getting mixed up with a reward, something that we might have been given as child for being ‘good’, that goodness was in the eyes of the person giving out the treat (I would like to note here that I find the whole notion of rewards really problematic, I really do not like them and the behaviours that they induce in those that are both giving and receiving them). Perhaps I should end there before the waters get too deep or a tread on too many toes on my way out 😉

    1. You raise such a good point here about treats/rewards. It can be so hard to navigate; giving a child a cookie as a reward because they didn’t have a temper tantrum at the grocery store can be a slippery slope (I haven’t done that but I sure have bribed them with candy during family pictures, so I’m lumping myself into the sled heading down the slope).
      I don’t necessarily use the word “treat” out loud for myself, but I definitely will label something as a treat. I loved Sarah’s mention of a day alone – this is a HUGE treat for me. Especially if I get to be home; I putter endlessly – I’m usually hugely productive but it never feels like work because I can just move about as I want. One of my favourite treats.
      There is a lot to unpack in these ideas…!

  10. this is so true. I’ve learned about this lately and keep remind myself to do more things that are good for me in the long run. Those short term treats usually lead to not so good long term consequences.
    this applies to food, habits, thoughts, relationships.

    1. Thoughts and relationships are another really interesting point! The definition of treat really can encompass so many categories!

  11. My main rule about treats is don’t have them around. haha. I usually have some chocolate covered nuts and eat a few after dinner. One bigger picture eating habit came from one of my favorite chefs Rick Bayless. He thinks that humans have evolved to feast, not everyday but regularly, followed by times of eating less. He says nothing wrong with a feast every week or so. I love that concept and try to put it into practice. We freeze leftovers from a feast day. If we make a dessert, I share it with friends and neighbors so it’s not sitting around the house (or now that covid is waning, invite them over to the feast!) I think this is a healthy way of looking at food – sometimes it’s ok to be extra full and there’s no reason to feel guilt about it! And then you feel even better eating less after the feast. I find that this helps to learn to moderate excessive consumption that doesn’t feel good.

    1. I have a hard time (now) with just a few; ironically, when I was in university I would dole out 10 chips to myself a few times a week or I’d buy a package of Halloween candy and have one or two a week. Not sure why it seems harder these days.
      Avoiding treats tends to work better for me OR have healthy treats. I have a muffin recipe that is about 80 cal per muffins (I don’t actually count calories, but just for reference point); they’re very filling and only have oats, bananas, eggs, dates, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. I’ve even stopped adding chocolate chips. Instead of rationing them or even calling them a “treat” they have become my daily dessert. I feel good about eating them, but they’re also delicious (and feel like a treat)!

      One note – maybe this is weird – I almost NEVER feel like I’m over-full. I know I have some hormone imbalances, but I wonder sometimes if that’s part of my challenge. At just about any given moment I could eat a full meal. I’ve heard the comment about eating until you feel 80% full…but I always have to tell myself what seems reasonable, because I don’t actually feel full (maybe once every few months I’ll think my BODY is telling me I’ve eaten enough/too much where the rest of the time it always has to be me/my mind).

  12. I can absolutely relate to this. Ice-cream is one of my favorite treats, but I also know that too much of it doesn’t make me feel good. I am a big advocate of intuitive eating, so I am really trying to “hone in” on cravings and I will only treat myself with something if I can tell that my craving for the treat is very strong. If I feel like it would be just “nice” to have it, then I usually try not to indulge, because I know I won’t feel good – sometimes physically, but sometimes also mentally for having given in when I didn’t really crave it. It’s something that needs practice, but I am getting better at it.

    1. I think I’m getting better at this too, especially in the sense that I find it easier to get “back on track” when I get out of routine. Say, coming back from March Break where I indulged on all my Mom’s cooking. In the past I would have spiraled in to my own treats at home; it’s not necessarily EASY, but it’s easier than it used to be to jump back into where I left off which feels like positive growth?!

  13. Oooh! I struggle with the concept of “treats”, especially with my kids. Food treats are such an easy way to celebrate or rewards a kid, but I do wish I had other just as accessible methods.
    “Yay! you got an A! You can go to your room and sit quietly to celebrate!” would work with none of my kids, though it might be a very indulgent treat for to me.
    Sometimes after a late rehearsal, I will eat half a bag of chips or a handful of Twizzlers, and I might call that a treat for getting through a tough night, but really it’s just stress eating.
    My husband makes fun of me because I love buying fancy chocolate for special occasions, but then it languishes in the pantry because I’m the type who saves things for a special occasion but then occasions never seem special enough.

    1. Food is such an easy “treat” – especially with kids. We just had a birthday party last week and one of my thoughts when I was preparing was – it is so hard to avoid a steady stream of treats.
      I also think we just have easy access to treats now; a chocolate bar was a RARE thing for me as a child. Even for people with lower disposable incomes…treats (especially of the junky food variety) are so accessible. In reading something like the Little House books or Anne of Green Gables, things like candy, fruit, and ice cream were so rare they REALLY felt like treats. Ice cream can barely register as a “treat” now because it’s so easy to access at any time of the year.
      I have definitely done the “keep a treat until it’s no longer edible” but I’m getting better at this.
      And I could NEVER just eat a handful of Twizzlers. I’ve said this many times, but Twizzlers is my one binge-without-guilt food and since I get them twice a year they are TREATS!
      Also – “You can go to your room and sit quietly to celebrate” sounds very indulgent to me too. Especially if I can go there with a really good book 🙂

  14. This is so very interesting to me – your post, and the replies from others. I completely agree that treats should be things we enjoy… things that make us feel good, physically, mentally, and emotionally. And I do (in contrast to some, I think) think that treats are something to work into one’s life, with frequency determined by one’s preferences. (For some, daily! For others, maybe… annually?) I also think that treats are highly individual.

    My biggest issue is that I consistently *deny* myself treats. Food-based treats (ice cream, peanut butter, etc.) I just eat regularly, in smaller portions. But a day on the couch with a book honestly sounds like heaven, but I regularly deny myself the pleasure of even an hour doing so. Why? Well, I’m still trying to figure that out.

    So I can talk a good game about treats, but living it is another matter… 🙂

    1. I’m trying hard to give in to treats like reading on a couch…I often feel like I have to “earn” that sort of thing, but really…it’s okay to do things I love!

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