How I Teach My Kids Moderation with Food

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on June 14, 2013

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This is The Feeding Diaries, a new ongoing series detailing the feeding escapades in my house

We were at a birthday party when I noticed a mom trying to keep her two girls to one cupcake each. She announced that “everyone only gets one.” When she left the room, Big A came to me, asking for another cupcake, and I said yes.

Two minutes later Big A came back, with a couple of bites taken (see picture), saying “I’m full mommy.” Another few minutes passed by and the other children came back in begging for another cupcake but the mom stood firm.

This got me thinking about how we live in a society that talks about moderation, but has a hard time executing it. So I’m dishing on what I believe are the 3 things children need to practice good old fashion moderation.

#1 Permission to Eat

Nothing makes moderation more difficult than lots of rules and regulations around food. Treats that occur seldom, or only allow for a certain amount, are hard to eat without the panic of when they will be eaten again. The irony is that when we put much of our energy trying to keep something in check, it instantly becomes more powerful. Evelyn Tribole, co-author of Intuitive Eating, sums it up perfectly in this Eating Disorders Today piece:

If you look at just the health merits of any food or meal, it is a one-sided view that does not take into consideration the importance of fostering a healthy relationship with food. Paradoxically, it’s only when you truly know that you can eat any food, whenever you want, that the food becomes less compelling.

When we go to parties or have sweet items for snack, my kids can eat as much as they want as long as they sit at the table. We do have times we have small amounts, like a “little bit” of chocolate after certain meals. While there is an unspoken rule in our house that it’s usually one sweet item daily, this is not a strict rule because there are days (usually weekends) when we might have more and some days none at all.

#2 No Judgment

One key element with practicing mindfulness is the removal of judgment. It’s the ability to look at something for what it is without letting perceptions color reality. Helping children understand what a balanced diet looks like is one thing, but doing it with judgment can negatively effect eating. When I interviewed Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, she said that when we label something as forbidden or “bad,” the brain associates it with pleasure. And pushing healthy or “good” food can negatively affect intrinsic motivation to eat healthfully.

“Cookies, candy, donuts, extra helping of starches – anything I was denied as a kid I can’t control myself around,” says Melissa. “I was bombarded with so many negative messages about foods as a kid and was rarely allowed dessert.”

So in our house food is just food. I stress eating a variety and rotate food groups but there’s no “you’re having another serving?” “You ate WHAT at grandma’s?” “You barely touched your vegetables!” or “You haven’t been eating any fruit, and it’s good for you — remember?” My kids simply enjoy what they eat from carrots, to fruit, to chocolate. No guilt!


#3 Structured meals

What brings the concept of moderation together is the prioritizing and structuring of meals. If parents allowed kids to choose what and when to eat they would have a limited variety and might choose to eat when bored or because the tube is on.

Instead, parents show kids how food is balanced by how often different items are served. And the structure of eating at the table helps children get the right amount of food for their body. This predictability of meals also helps children to feel secure around food, eat for hunger and enjoyment and listen to their body.

So in our house we eat most meals at the table or breakfast bar. If my kids are hungry and it’s not time to eat, they know they can have some fruit. Eating in front of the TV is only for special occasions as is eating in the car. And there’s no reading or playing while eating as I tell my kids “food deserves all of your attention.”

Putting it all together

When just one of these three elements is missing moderation can get thrown off. Say you have a child who has no judgment with eating and eats with structure but his parents limit him to small portions of his favorite treats 1-2 times a week. When he gets them outside the home, he goes hog wild, and begs for treats all week.

Another child who has permission to eat and structure may experience lots of judgment around food. For example, the parents might make frequent comments about how good or bad certain foods are.
The child starts to feeling guilty for liking the bad foods and even starts to sneak them because he knows how his parents feel and he wants to please them.

And lastly, you can have permission to eat with no judgment but a loose feeding schedule. A girl who knows all she has to do is say “I’m hungry” and gets handed whatever she wants, is learning to eat for other reasons than hunger. She eats when she’s watching TV, is bored and isn’t exposed to enough variety.

The key is to observe how your child acts around food, remembering that each kid (and family) is different. For example, some kids might be okay with a treat once a week while others will not.

Do you feel your child is on the right track with learning moderation?

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsay Stenovec June 14, 2013 at 8:42 am

Fantastic article Maryann!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 14, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Thanks so much Lindsay!


Jana J June 14, 2013 at 9:47 am

I really like this way of feeding kids, but I think I have a hard time putting it into practice, particularly because I tend to limit the amount of treats they can have. I try to hold back, but after the 3rd doughnut at grandma’s house last night, I said, “no more.” My kids will eat treats forever if given the opportunity. I don’t know how to teach them when to stop without being controlling and being the person that sets limits. I will give myself credit for having lots of healthy options, offering the “fun treats” occasionally and structuring mealtime (fruits/veggies in between meals).


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 14, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Jana — just know there is no one right answer. When my kids eat at grandma’s and want more sweets I make sure they eat them at the table and aren’t coming back and grabbing more. Sometimes they do eat quite a bit but I notice I don’t hear bout sweets for some time after. It sounds like you are doing a good job and just need to find the right balance for your family.


Melanie Silverman June 14, 2013 at 10:13 am

Thank you SO much for this. Personally, I do exactly what you say with my kids and have had many second or third cupcakes come to me barely touched. I keep my mouth shut. It’s their decision how much they eat or even if they eat at all. They seem to have a positive relationship with food, which I am grateful for, but it took work on our part. Professionally, I teach this concept to clients almost every day. It’s so freeing and fun to watch when families really embrace the concept. THANK YOU again.


Jessica @ nutritioulicious June 14, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Fabulous article all parents should read!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 14, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Thanks Jessica!


Lauren O'Connor June 14, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Great article Maryann! It really is important to have a positive relationship with food and not impose overly-strict expectations. I think what you are doing and sharing is wonderful.

<3 Lauren (registered dietitian and mom of twin 4 year olds)


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 14, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Thanks Lauren. I appreciate it!


Angie June 14, 2013 at 2:14 pm

I love these suggestions but have a hard time putting them in to practice sometimes. How do you deal with the idea that selecting a cupcake and then not eating it is wasteful? Do you save the cupcake for later? Throw it away? This morning I let my 4 year old son control the amount of cheerios & milk he ate, but when he said “I’m full,” there was an entire bowl of cheerios & milk. He told me not to worry, I could just throw it away. How do you discourage such a wasteful mindset? With a tight grocery budget, I cringe when he takes thirds or fourths, and then leaves them on his plate to be thrown away. Ideas? Suggestions? Thx for the site! I really have gotten a lot out of it.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 14, 2013 at 4:28 pm


Thanks for the comment. I think encouraging him to only take on what he thinks he can eat. So starting small but knowing that he can always get more if he wants it. Make sense?


Mindy June 14, 2013 at 5:03 pm

I’m kind of in the same boat as Jana. When offered dessert, if allowed to my kids will eat as much of it as they can even if they are full, and my daughter would only choose to eat dessert and nothing else, and still ask for multiple servings of it. How do I approach this while still trying to give my children complete control over their eating? Would you recommend letting them have limitless servings of dessert, hoping that dessert eventually loses its power and they bring it back to balance?

Also, what is your perspective on saving a child’s uneaten food at a meal to have later when they are hungry and ask for a snack? (I typically serve meals already plated, in their-size amounts, so my kids at least see each food choice on their plates, and then they can have more as they are hungry.) My daughter asks for a snack maybe an hour after having not eaten nearly any of her meal, and when I offer her the peppers strips and grapes, for example, that she did not eat at lunch, she throws a fit because “that’s not a snack” (her words). Sometimes I serve sweet treats for snacks rather than as dessert at a meal, and any time I do, my daughter falls into the habit of assuming she will get sweet treats any time she asks for a snack…and even grapes or other fruits don’t qualify, in her mind.

Any advice you have would be very much appreciated! Thank you!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 15, 2013 at 7:39 am


I wrote a whole series on managing sweets below providing different strategies. This post may be most helpful

One thing you could try is serving dessert with dinner. That would be only a small portion and you could allow you daughter to eat with the other food. I have found that makes dessert less of an issue. We don’t have dessert every night so what I do is offer it at different times. Sometimes in the afternoon snack or we have ice cream day where we eat it out (Friday). You really have to find something that works for you.

I think most kids are just not interested in old meals for their snack. You could try a rotation for snacks and show it to your daughter asking for her input each week. That way she feels involved and will know what to expect. When she complains tell her she doesn’t have to eat it and that it’s more polite to say no thank you. Explain that you don’t eat the same things every day. Good luck!


OliviaB June 14, 2013 at 8:02 pm

I’m wondering if this advice is applicable to our situation. Our daughter is just over two. Before eighteen months we noticed she had an incredible (incredibly scary) appetite. We met with a nutritionist who believed we were causing food anxiety by not providing her enough portion sizes (she believed the foods we were providing were in a right balance, and given her young age, lots of fruit was included but treats only on very very rare occasion (her birthday, for example – Not that we tell her no, just that we don’t expose her two them)). After six weeks of taking her advice, our daughter’s weight increased 5x the amount it was supposed to and her behavior (obsession with food) had not changed (and yes, we follow the structured meal rule). Fast forward, and based on the nutritionist’s follow-up advice, we’ve gone back to limiting her portions since that time, trying to find the lowest calorie options we can, keeping her on a well-balanced diet, etc. She’s now 27 months, 99% weight for height (her weight continues to climb up and her height dropped dramatically in percentiles), and only gets the healthy calories I give her (lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, veggies). I’ve also done my best to target the calorie range provided (around ~1100 calories a day) without being a natzi about it. I’m at a loss. I love the advice and don’t want to create psychological issues with my daughter when it comes to food, but fear the psychological impact on her (not to mention cardiovascular) if I don’t do what I and to keep things in check. Anything you put in front of her – with extremely rare exception – she will eat and ask for more (and more and more). And despite my balancing her calorie intake, her weight gain hasn’t stopped. We’ve met with pediatric endocrinologists who don’t have much advice other than to “manage her best I can”. I’ve been running in circles, and don’t know what to do. Behaviorly we’ve made some progress, but I never feel like I satiate her, I never feel like she has freedom with food, and I am just desperate to get this figured out before she starts having access to treats when she’s out socializing with others. Thoughts would be incredibly appreciated.


Mindy June 15, 2013 at 11:46 am

Thank you so much for your response. That post on managing sweets (which was written before I found and started following your blog!) is exactly what I was looking for. I’m going to go back and read the other posts in the series as well. Based on that, I think the biggest thing for my family is to relax more about the sweets and let our kids take more control over it, so they gain some control!

My husband and I talked about how sweet treats were approached in each of our homes growing up. His mom (a farm wife) often had homemade cookies and bars available for snacks or dessert, he had more choice in how much of it he ate, and doesn’t have a huge obsession with sweets the way I do. I did not have the same access to treats and when I did get to have some, I approached it like I was stocking up for a drought. So hopefully making sweets a non-issue will help my kids develop a better relationship with them.

I also like the idea of involving my kids in creating a snack rotation. I think that would help…..and is do-able for me!

Thank you so much for your help! I really appreciate all the information, advice, and the perspective you offer in each blog post!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 15, 2013 at 4:34 pm


I’m sorry you are having a hard time. I’m not sure exactly what the nutritionist recommended or his or her background, but I’m assuming it was a pediatric dietitian.

In my book, Fearless Feeding, we help parents with special issues in Chapter 7. We discuss weight and what can be going on. There’s the what (food being provided), how the child is being fed and other reasons (medical/medicines etc.). There’s also Elyn Satter’s book Your Child’s Weight, Helping Without Harming which I highly recommend. Reading some of the reviews on Amazon and you will see how her Division of Responsibility helped parents finally find freedom with food.

I personally would not limit calories or use low calorie foods — kids in general need more fat and it is satisfying. The problem, as you are experiencing, is that it is impossible to control a child’s weight. If you decide to go that route, you will need to be the food police the rest of her life. I know it’s hard but you may just have to trust that she will grow into the body that was meant for her, which may be bigger than average. It could be that when you tried to let her decide when done, you still used some controlling practices because it can be really hard to do it when you have a big child. Here’s a good article summing up the research on restriction and kids

I can recommend someone for coaching in this area if you are interested. You really need the support to execute it properly. You can email me at


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 15, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Thanks Mindy! Good luck with everything and don’t hesitate to ask questions!


Anon June 16, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Firstly, thank you very much for this interesting and informative article.

I’m still uncertain about how to completely stop restricting my 3 year old son’s eating. He’s a great eater and we serve exclusively home-cooked unprocessed foods, including weekly (naturally sweet) cakes or treats. For today’s (later than usual) afternoon snack, I served fruit salad with cream. It was only 1.5 hours away from dinner, and he wanted multiple servings (which I gave him). This usually means that he’ll eat little dinner. I told him that dinner was just around the corner and that we can eat more fruit salad tomorrow, which he was fine with. Is this restricting? Should all snacks be completely open-ended in terms of multiple helpings?

Later at dinner, he had already eaten quite a lot of butter on his slice of bread, and then wanted to eat more butter just by itself. I ended up gently limiting the amount he took as I wondered whether the quantity might make him feel ill. What’s the best approach here? What’s restricting and what’s guiding?

Any help would be much appreciated – we really, really want to get this right with our son!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Anon — There are no right and wrongs but I think the best way to tell is your son’s reaction. If you guide him and doesn’t fight it, it’s probably fine. But if he keeps saying he wants more of something that’s on the table than you can give it to him. You might want to check out my new book, Fearless Feeding. We have lots of case studies and example dialogue for parents. It’s set up by age so we tackle key challenges based on development (i.e., picky eating at toddlerhood etc)

As for the late snack, if you child can understand that dinner is soon, than it makes sense to keep the snack small. I just try to make sure the snack is at last 3 hours before dinner. If it’s not I offer a piece of fruit to hold them over.

I hope that helps!


Marci June 16, 2013 at 9:40 pm

It sounds like a lot of parents have the same issues when it comes to wondering if we need to interfere. I came across your website when I was struggling to know how to help my girl and her obsession with food. I’ve learned so much from this website and your book and realized, looking back, at how I’ve treated my 3 year olds eating, I was definitely restricting too much assuming I knew the proper servings, and she didn’t.

So I’ve backed off, let her eat at snack and meal times til she was satisfied, and am shocked at the positive effect it has had. But I continue to have issues with her when we’re in party type atmospheres or when she is at preschool areas where snacks are given. She eats so much more in these situations than she does at home and her repeated handfuls of desserts tonight just about shot my anxiety through the ceiling. I never stopped her, but I did eventually distract her by going to play in a near by creek. And in preschool, the teacher tells me every time what a eater she is and how she eats more than adults do. It’s like she’s learned trust with me, but in these other environments, still fears that she won’t get enough and eats quickly and endlessly. I would love advice or a post on how to deal with situations outside of the home. I can’t figure out why she panics so much when she’s with others.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 18, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Marci — It might be that she eats more because the food being offered is not something she has very often. I know that will happen to my children at parties. If you notice something she particularly likes, you can serve it at home to make it less of a big deal. You can also check with the preschool teachers to make sure they aren’t using food as a reward or other feeding practices that aren’t desirable.

I will keep your post request in mind!


sallyjrw June 18, 2013 at 4:20 am

I’ve been reading your website since my daughter was a few months old. she’s always had a large appetite but I never stopped her from eating, letting her eat till she felt full. Now that she is 4 1/2 her appetite is starting to slow down. Its rewarding to see her eat her salad. And french fries? she likes em but at least she’s no longer obsessed with them


Marci June 19, 2013 at 6:27 am

I had that thought after I sent that message to you. The foods she usually indulges in outside of the home are almost always foods that don’t make much of an appearance in my home. But at home she never complains about it, and seems to enjoy the foods that I offer her. So how have you learned to be “fearless” when your children eat a lot of the treats at parties and such? I read your post about grandmas house, and while it brought me some comfort, I still worry that she’ll continue to overindulge. But I do know I’ve seen a huge change in how much calmer she eats at home, and so I know I’m at least on a good track. I wouldn’t say I’m fearless yet, but I pray I’m steering her down a good track and that if I continue in a no pressure, non restricting, structured manner, that she will learn moderation.

And yes, I have been very frustrated with the preschool because every time I pick her up I’m told how my daughter was scared and missing me or bored so they gave her another cookie or some crackers to distract her. I’ve debated if I should say anything and how I would say It for some time. It makes me crazy.


Megan June 20, 2013 at 1:55 pm

This article is so timely in my house. The kids wanted $ to buy food during field trips when at camp (3 days/week). Besides the free money aspect, I hate the constant snacking. . . . kids get an am snack, lunch, snack bar purchase, then a pm snack. If I don’t provide funds then they are left out. . .which I think makes the snack food more taboo. In addition to feeling pressure to finance unneeded empty calories, I am feeling a lot of stress since I have a child who will eat when full.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 23, 2013 at 8:39 pm


In this case, I would work with your kids on what they choose for the snack. Since they are taking over your job you can guide them in their choices. Have you tried that?


Cindy June 20, 2013 at 6:50 pm

What a wonderful article! I already knew that I was guilty of #3, but now I realize that I am guilty of the first two also. You have given me a lot to think about. Thank you!!!


Megan June 24, 2013 at 10:56 am

Thanks Maryann! We did talk about it and I realized it was complicated. . . .it involves a lot of issues you discuss this week. . .it is not only the snacks, but being part of the crowd. I was focused on my part and I didn’t see thier side of it. I realized I was trying to control the snack by controling the amount of money . . .and it was stressing out all of us. Once I let go. . .we were able to talk and come up with a plan that seemed to work for all of us. . .everyone was happier going off to camp this morning.


Lindsey April 17, 2014 at 7:48 am

Do you have suggestions for older kids? And reversing the negative relationship they have already formed with food? My special needs daughter is 7.5 now and she had a real hard time eating (low muscle tone and digestive problems when she was a tiny baby) and now she eats voraciously! My other kids I have no problems with as far as eating, but I really don’t know what to do with my oldest.


Kate April 17, 2015 at 1:24 pm

My three year old son’s daycare does an ok job with weekly menus but one area where they fall short is snacks. About 4 times a week their 5pm snack is dessert, often a big piece of cake filled with chocolate chips…right before these kids are sent home for dinner! We don’t eat that way and I don’t think it’s a good idea for multiple reasons. Plus, we, as parents, would like to offer the treats at home instead. To deal with it I’ve been packing his afternoon snack so he has it for the car ride home. This has worked until recently. He now wants the school snack (which they do allow the kids to take with them) and will cry and throw a fit. What the heck can I do ?


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 20, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Of course he wants the school snack! I would talk to them about your concerns. I wonder why they choose 5pm for snack-time? Even if a child eats healthy food, they are still likely not to be hungry for dinner that is likely an hour later. Good luck!


Eve April 21, 2015 at 3:45 am

Excellent article. But I’m unsure about how to foster *emotional* neutrality about certain foods when not all foods are *nutritionally* equal. I find myself saying “No” (or a range of diplomatic and attachment-parent-ish variations on “no”) repeatedly to requests from my sweet obsessed 3.5 year old for ice cream, chocolate, cake, lollies… I am sure that saying no (or variations of no) several times each day gives these foods exactly the same emotional power as labelling foods as “bad”, but if I said yes every time, my daughter would eat nothing else. Any advice?


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 22, 2015 at 2:30 pm
sallyjrw April 21, 2015 at 9:10 am

When I noticed my 3.5 year old asking for sweets all day, I started telling her she can only have dessert once a day. Sometimes she will eat it after breakfast and sometimes she will eat it after dinner. I did try serving it with dinner but that didn’t work for me. I let her have her fill but she has to sit at the table while eating. If she asks for junk food later, I remind her she already had her dessert that day. I tell her that desserts are a fun food but they don’t help her body grow big and strong. And cavity bugs like sugar so they will try to eat your teeth. I bought a rainbow chart at and we both try to get 5 colors of fruit or vegetables every day. She loves singing Today I Ate a Rainbow when she gets all 5.
I started giving my 5 year old an allowance and she usually buys Popsicles or candy with it. But it’s nice to be able to say, “Where’s your money?” when she asks for sweets at the store.
We always keep fruit in the house so they both eat a lot of fruit. And we never use food, especially sweets, as a reward.
I feel like these allow them to have sweets with some easy guidelines that they can follow. Kids don’t inherently know anything about food. They focus on taste and feelings. They start on feeling of huger/ fullness, but many will switch to emotional feelings of fear, sadness, happiness because of how they are raised.


Lauren June 15, 2015 at 8:27 pm

Is there a way to to get a 12 MONTH old to eat in moderation? I feel as though I have the only toddler ever who can’t seem to regulate himself and gorges on food. He screams at mealtimes and will clear his tray by the fistful in just minutes. I admit I have never let him eat all he “wants” because I don’t know how far it’d go. He’s been this way since birth, even just with formula bottles. Daycare has to plan what to do with him so he doesn’t see other kids eating when he’s done! He is otherwise a very happy guy!

He has jumped to the 91st percentile for weight rather quickly, which is not concerning to me on it’s own, but I do worry about whether he is destined to have an unhealthy relationship with food. I have had my own struggles with food (dieting/overeating) since my teen years.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 21, 2015 at 1:45 pm

Hi Lauren,

I have seen this many times. Unless your child has something medically. he can regulate. the reasons he wants to eat all the time is because he isn’t able to eat until he is satisfied. Remember, this is the largest growth spurt of his life. If you don’t allow hem to get full, when growth slows he will keep eating instead of decreasing her appetite. I suggest you read Fearless Feeding or one of Ellyn Satter’s books. the sooner you work this out the better as it doesn’t get better with time.


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