Are You Over-Restricting Foods From Your Kids?

May 20, 2020

Feeding kids is no easy feat. They don’t come with instruction manuals, and parents get no training on the subject. Our adult brains are so flooded with false or fear-mongering information about nutrition that we can’t help but pass those messages on to our kids; “sugar is bad,” “vegetables are good,” “white flour is bad.” These are just some of the things I hear from parents, especially about the “bad” foods. Some of you may have been told by your child’s pediatrician that your child has high cholesterol, high blood sugar, or is gaining weight too quickly. When you hear news like this, you can’t help but jump to “what can I do to stop this immediately!?” You go home and toss out all the candy, cookies, and chips in the house in order to help your child. While this may seem like the answer to treat your child’s health condition, eliminating all “play food” (as we dietitians like to call it) is not the answer. I’ve had counseling sessions with families where parents go on and on about all the healthy foods the child eats, and when they finish I think to myself “where is the fun?” In this blog post I’ll talk about the drawbacks of over-restriction and clarify how you can incorporate sweets and snacks into your child’s diet in a healthful way.

Have you ever been told “don’t look in the garage, that’s where your Christmas presents are hidden!?” I have, so what did I want to do? Look in the garage, of course! (I didn’t, by the way). This is exactly what happens to your kids when you tell them they can’t have x food that you have deemed “bad.” When we are told we can’t have something we think about it constantly. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume we’re talking about a food item. When we do finally get our hands on that food, we gorge. We binge. We can’t get enough, because we’ve been restricted for so long. This is going to happen to our children if we don’t teach them how to self-regulate their intake of play foods. We need to remember that we can only control what goes in our children’s mouths for so long. You can decide whether you are going to breast feed or formula feed or whether you will let them have any added sugar before a certain age. Eventually, though, your child is going to have their first overnight at grandma’s, start daycare or school, or attend a friend’s birthday party. Try as you might, you can’t influence everyone else’s feeding practices. Let’s imagine the child that has never been allowed to have a sugary cupcake or juice box. They are now 5 years old, and they’re attending a birthday party where cake, ice cream, juice, and soda are the norm. What will happen? That child will eat all the cake, ice cream, and sugary drinks they can possibly eat because they know they can’t get it at home. If they continue to be over-restricted at home, this cycle will continue throughout their childhood and adolescence, and follow them into adulthood. It may set them up for a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting (on again off again diets that don’t result in any long term weight loss or health benefits) and an unhealthy relationship with food. I recently had a friend (adult, in her thirties) tell me that she grew up in house where sweets were restricted, and it is very hard for her to limit herself around sweets now. Her husband, on other hand, grew up in a house where sweets were allowed, and he can now walk by a bowl of candy and leave it alone.

So, what can we do? I am in no way suggesting that you should let your kids have a free for all when it comes to what they eat. You’re the parent, you’re in charge. Remember Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility; the parent decides what food is offered, when, and the manner in which it is presented. The child decides if and how much they are going to eat. You can choose to serve a play food, or not. When you do serve play foods, you serve them on your terms. What we should NOT do is label foods as “good” or “bad.” All foods serve a purpose and are appropriate at certain times. That chocolate chip cookie that your child begs for every day, paired with a source of protein like string cheese, will give your child the energy they need to make it through their soccer game. Consider this: instead of your child begging you all day for a cookie to which you say “no” each time, you can let your child know “cookies aren’t available right now, but we are having cookies with dinner tonight.” This tells your child that you are in charge while still being considerate of their preferences and desire for sweet items. How to serve sweets and snacks while still encouraging intake of healthful fruits, vegetables, and other recommended foods could be another whole blog post, so I won’t go into that here. If this post has left you wondering if you are over-restrictive with foods (or maybe a little too lenient) reach out to me! I’d love to chat with you and help you navigate this tricky child feeding topic!