Got a Food-Obsessed Kid? Research Warns: Don’t Restrict Them

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on April 29, 2014

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Last week, the New York Times ran an article about the Lure of Forbidden Food.  It’s a topic I know all too well because I regularly get questions like this in my email:

“We have a toddler who is absolutely amazing, but has an insatiable appetite and who I fear is addicted to food.”

“My son’s first thought of the day is what is there to eat? When he is done, he asks what is for the next meal.  His favorite part about the baseball game? THE SNACKS!”

“As soon as one meal is done my daughter is already thinking about what she wants for a snack.  If I say  ‘no, we just ate,’ she stomps off to her room, yelling and crying.”

Unfortunately, parents of food-obsessed kids often struggle in silence.  That’s because the typical advice to cut portions — and swap sweets for healthy fare — often make matters worse.

The Research on Restriction

Researchers Leanne Birch and Jennifer Orlet Fisher first examined the effects of food restriction in 1999. When restricted from a palatable food item, preschoolers increased their selection and intake of the target food. In their 2000 study, seven year old girls ate a standard lunch followed by free access to snack food afterward.  The girls who were restricted at home not only ate more of the snack foods, they had negative feelings about their eating.

Population-based studies show parental restriction is linked to higher weights and poor eating habits in children.  In one study tracking eating in girls from ages 5 to 9, high levels of restriction at age 5 predicted what researchers call “eating in the absence of hunger”  from ages 7 to 9.  Additionally, the girls who experienced the highest level of restriction at age 5 were the heaviest at 9.

“Parents need to know how to use feeding practices that not only promote fruit and vegetable intake but also food regulation” says Brandi Rollins, PhD, Post Doctoral Scholar in Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State.  “What doesn’t work is ‘forced compliance.’ There are fewer opportunities to practice self regulation, learning how to manage those palatable foods.”

There is also the chicken and egg question.  Are parents reacting to a big eater that may also be larger than average, or is the restriction the cause of the food obsession?

Rollins and colleagues designed research to replicate Birch and Fisher’s 1999 study, but teased out the effects of restriction based on children’s appetite and temperament. The children who found palatable food highly desirable and rated low on inhibitory control ate the most in response to restriction.

“Their inability to self-regulate means they go crazy,” Rollins says about children lower in inhibitory control.  “Controlling feeding practices only make this worse.”

She explains that keeping palatable food in sight, but off limits, is the most problematic.  But she makes it clear that research to date shows more about what doesn’t work than what does. “We know very little about what works — it just hasn’t been tested,” she adds.

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What Parents Can Do

Rollins encourages a positive approach that includes structure, routines, timing and limit setting.  Kids learn to expect those items and, in return, feel more relaxed. She adds “This provides a safe environment to learn about self regulation.”

International feeding expert Ellyn Satter provides specifics on how to handle low nutrient foods that you can read about here. It includes meal structure (planned meals and snacks at the table), allowing children to decide when they are done, a small serving of dessert with dinner and periodic offerings of sweets at snack time, allowing children to eat until they are satisfied. This shouldn’t be confused with an indulgent feeding style that is also not good for kids’ eating habits.

Giving children this type of food freedom means they will eat more, right?  At least one study shows this is not the case.  One group of children were restricted from sweets, the other from fruit and the third was told they could eat as much of they wanted.  When the food was made freely available, the unrestricted kids consumed the least.  Not only that, they reported less desire for sweets compared to the other two (restricted) groups.

Andrea, mom of a sweets-focused preschooler, decided to give it a try.  “We have noticed big changes even in just one month.” she says, adding that her daughter’s interest in candy decreased after about 10 days without restriction.  “The control over her food (specifically sugar) had become quite a stress in our lives and changing our ways was also a challenge.”

Megan, who adopted Satter’s Division of Responsibility when her child was one, found that allowing her child to decide when she was done with meals put the kibosh on her growing food fixation.  But when she tried to bring sweets in the home on a regular basis when her children got older, the whining became unbearable.

“We can have dessert once every week or two without incident, but more than that doesn’t seem to work,” she says. “I wish it were different but I really do believe a lot of this is their natural tendency to crave sweets more than other kids might.”

Another popular strategy is to have kids choose one treat food each day.  Jane, mom of 3 girls found this worked well for 2 of her girls, who would often forget about the treat.  But her youngest child reacted to this strategy by sneaking food. “I see now that to my 5 year old, she probably feels that it is being restrictive and maybe not enough to even satisfy her.”

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Looking at it from the child’s view

Jane was able to see food through the eyes of her child, which can be difficult for parents who don’t view what they are doing as restrictive.

Jill Castle, pediatric nutrition expert, recommends parents talk to children with some questions like: “It seems like you might be hungry after meals, want to talk about it?” or “are there foods you really love that we aren’t having?”

“Make it clear that it’s your responsibility to make sure everyone in the family is happy,” she says. “Of course, if your child expresses that she wants chocolate all day long then you have an opportunity to discuss how your family eats and your food philosophy.”

Another key factor is children learn to see food the same way their parents do, which may not always be healthy.  Research shows that parents who eat for emotional reasons, feel out of control with eating (called disinhibition) and worry about weight (their own and their child’s), not only are more likely to utilize controlling feeding practices, but tend to have children with similar issues.

And lastly, a child’s increased desire to eat may mean there’s something else that is bothering them or, in more rare cases, a medical condition like Prader Willi.  In Fearless Feeding, we help parents trouble shoot potential causes.

Restriction is not the answer

A 2013 study in Childhood Obesity showed that nearly 60% of parents of overweight children approve of controlling feeding practices, like restriction.  But restriction only distracts from what’s really going on and makes food an issue.

Rather than restrict a child’s intake, parents need to ask why their child is acting out when it comes to food.  It could be a child’s perception of restriction, a lack of structure and limit setting or something else entirely.  Dealing with the underlying issue will be met with the most success.

Now it’s your turn.  What are your experiences with restriction?



Click on links to see studies


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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Casey April 29, 2014 at 11:26 am

I think it’s more an issue of helping them avoid feelings of deprivation:


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 29, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Casey — this article is really about kids who are food obsessed. If a parent is able to control amounts a child eats and the child doesn’t sire to eat more or have a problem, then that’s fine. But if a child is sneaking or eating out of control at parties, a parent needs to address restriction. Each child is so very different. I hear from adults who say they didn’t get many sweets growing up and now they don’t crave them. I also hear adults say they hardly got sweets and now have issues around eating them.

I don’t think parents have to choose between letting a child go crazy and restriction. There is a middle ground but each parent/family needs to decide for themselves. I appreciate the link.


Casey April 29, 2014 at 12:53 pm

I get that and think we’re all trying to avoid creating kids who are food obsessed in a marketing environment that does it’s best to do just that. Looking at it from helping kids avoid feelings of deprivation avoids the “one size fits all” view of restriction. Many parents are looking for a set answer to what’s not restrictive but also not too permissive. But what that looks like for one child will look different for another based on their feelings of deprivation. Also parents have more tools at their disposal when it comes to addressing feelings of deprivation than just addressing restriction.
You hit on this when you talked about the child’s view but I’m concerned the good recommendations from the research will be overlooked by many parents: “Stock the house with healthful foods, and then allow children access and a reasonable amount of control over what they eat. At snack time, for instance, give them a choice between an apple or orange or vegetables with different dips.”
Those recommendations would be viewed by many parents as restrictive.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 29, 2014 at 1:36 pm

I think that would depend on how the child views it. Of course all parents should stock up their kitchens with healthful whole foods. But if they never provide sweets or low nutrient foods at home, and the child goes crazy eating during outings or begs for these foods, that strategy is not working. In those cases, the parent might want to consider bringing some of those foods in the house to devalue them. For instance, I always have ice cream in the freezer, some dark chocolate and tortilla chips for Mexican night. Those are our favorites. Do I offer them at every meal? No. But they are part of our balanced diet. I like that they can be in my home and my kids are fine with it. In Fearless Feeding, we help parents figure out how often to offer low nutrient foods.


Casey April 29, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Yes, how the child views it is key. I see that from traveling to other countries where the diets would be viewed as restrictive in the United States. The children don’t feel deprived eating that diet because the environment is not geared to making them feel deprived. I think this is why I’m such a proponent of ending junk food marketing to kids.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 29, 2014 at 10:20 pm

Casey — I’m not sure that everyone would view how other countries eat as restrictive. For example, Europeans often use plenty of butter when cooking and eat dessert most nights with dinner. The difference is is they choose quality ingredients and have smaller portions. A key issue here in America is the extremes in eating — people tend to eat extremely healthy or go to the other extreme of unhealthy eating. There is a lot of guilt when eating which leads to overeating. Paul Rozin conducted a study many years ago showing that out of different countries Americans were the most interested in eating for health but derived the least pleasure from eating. This is unlike the French who focus on moderation and food enjoyment. So it’s not just what other countries eat, but their healthy approach to food. You can see the study here


Cate April 29, 2014 at 6:21 pm

Thanks for this article. I grew up in a highly restrictive home (where both healthy foods and sometimes foods were limited) and I have been overweight/obese my entire adult life.

In raising my daughters, I try to offer healthy food (cooked from scratch) and a smattering of sometimes food. We are supported by great school policies: “brain food” is the first snack of the day and must be fruit or vegetable (it’s eaten as a quick snack between sessions, while the children share their work); the school encourages — via a “golden lunchbox” prize awarded each week to the class with the lowest amount of rubbish from lunch (and yes, the students in each class count every piece of rubbish) — lunches that do not come in disposable packaging; there is no school canteen; and the school has a kitchen garden programme.

We’re also fortunate to have children who have, on occasion, eaten too many “sometimes foods” at parties and who are now aware of how that feels! We chatted about that feeling at the time and related it to too much of what I would call junk food, but is termed “sometimes food” when chatting with the children. Now all it takes is a gentle reminder for my youngest before a party (my eldest doesn’t require this reminder anymore) to curb junk related over eating.

We have children who are the envy of many parents: they’re not picky eaters and eat a great mix of foods; they’re (usually) not afraid to try new foods. Because of this, I find it difficult to discuss the issues we have around food (conversations with other parents usually revolve around trying to get their children to eat at all and I don’t know anyone who has a similar situation to us).

My issue is related to volume: it seems that they just eat too much. To this end, I’ve tried to ensure that, with the exception of “brain food”, there is always protein (e.g., dairy, dips, meat, quinoa, or nuts) included in each snack/meal. We try to have a balanced meal (1/4 protein, 1/4 carbs, 1/2 vegetables) in our evening meal and a similar distribution throughout the day at school. I’ve also tried to incorporate the notion of sufficiency: it’s ok not to eat everything offered (i.e., the plate doesn’t need to be empty).

My eldest is slightly overweight (BMI= 19) and she almost always asks for seconds at dinner time. It seems like she doesn’t really know where her off switch is. Obviously, there are short-term measures we can take to ensure she doesn’t gain more weight until her growth in height pulls her BMI back into the healthy range but I’m more concerned with the longer term issues.

Have you any advice? Or suggestions for sources of additional information?

Thanks for reading this epic post!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 29, 2014 at 10:02 pm

Cate — in addition to Adina’s questions I would ask about fat. Fat is a satisfying part of a meal and you don’t mention food sources of fat, although they may be present in the protein sources you provide. I’m not sure how vegetables are cooked etc. but fat is filling and if your meals are low fat, that could be why you child wants more.

But it could also be that she is hungry and that is her natural appetite. I’m not sure what your family tree is like in terms of size, but if they are genetically bigger her weight shouldn’t be an issue, especially if she’s always been on the bigger side and is active and healthy like it sounds she is.


Adina April 29, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Cate, I’m sure Maryann will have an excellent response. In the meantime I can’t help but wonder:
1) Does it bother you that she asks for seconds?
2) Do you freely let her have seconds?
3) What makes you think she doesn’t recognize her ‘off switch’?
4) How do you response (if at all) when you get a sense she is eating with no off switch?


Marci April 30, 2014 at 6:00 am

About 10 months ago I started practicing this ellyn satter style of feeding and I have to say it has made a world of difference. My 3 year old daughter doesn’t obsess over food nearly like she used to and will even leave a half of a cookie or pasta, or toast left on her plate which never happened in the beginning. But I continue to see a treat/candy obsession on days here and there that always makes me wonder if I’m doing something wrong. We have a general rule that we have one treat a day with a meal or about once a week we have a treat snack where she can have what she wants of it. But still at parties and holidays etc she seems to always consume more treats and has a higher interest in them then the other kids. I’ve also noticed that during certain times of abundance of sugar at school, parties etc that it creates and even higher interest in them. I will say though that she is much more relaxed around treats now and that after she ate 2 sugar cookies and the frosting off a peanut butter bar at a recent family get together, that she never looked at the treat table again and didn’t ask for anymore even when she was playing with other kids that were walking around with cookies in hand. Am I doing it wrong? Is it crazy to let my kid have that much sugar at an event? I constantly wonder if I’m still creating a mess for my daughter to have to learn how to deal with later on in life.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 30, 2014 at 12:58 pm

Marci — I think you switched because the other way wasn’t working and you have seen some benefits. Remember your daughter is only 3 and I think it gets easier as they get older and you can talk to them. I find that at age 3 is when parents often complain that their children start asking for more treats etc. This was peak for both my kids. That’s because that is a time children become more aware of food in the outside world. When my kids were young, I made a point to limit bday parties because it can be too much to handle. I had one time Big A had 3 parties in one weekend. I decided to never do that again.

So hang in there and realize you are doing the best you can. There is no perfect or right way to do this.


Casey April 30, 2014 at 6:04 am

I agree with you but my point was that many people would see a diet without all the junk food marketed to kids in the U.S. as restrictive. Our discussion has led me to ask the question, “What if the problem isn’t really the parents?” Here is my post about it and thank you for the discussion:


oliviab April 30, 2014 at 10:42 am

Cate – my heart empathizes with you. My daughter has been insatiable since a very very young age (before a year). At 18 months we met with a pediatric nutritionist to make sure i was giving her the right mix of protein, grains, fruits / veggies, and fat. My daughter is and was obsessed with everything food related and I couldn’t satiate her for the life of me. While the nutritionist did tweak my menu a little, she instead suggested i was putting my own issues on my daughter, and to follow Ellen S’s division of responsibility. We did, giving her only the healthiest of foods (yes, including fat) for six weeks. We set the meal times (and followed her schools’ schedule), set what food was on the plate, but let her tell us WHEN she was all done (which by the way, doesn’t really happen with her). She went from being 75% weight-for-height to over 99%. In the six weeks (before the age of two), she gained FIVE TIMES the amount of weight she was supposed to gain and showed no signs of slowing down or becoming less obsessed with food. The nutritionist was in shock. With fear in her voice, she told me she now understood what i was talking about and thought I should actually restrict the quantity. Since then I’ve had doctors tell me I’m doing a “good job at keeping her near the chart – usually by now it’s a much harder battle with these types of kids”

I’ve read everything there is to read that a relatively educated but non-medically savvy person could read. we’re going through a host of paths to make sure there’s not something with more science around it – type i diabetes, gluten intolerance, etc. So far, nothing. It just it was it is. And it is HARD. We’ve worked hard (with quantity restriction – she’s only now three) to get her back on the charts by maintaining her weight while her height “catches up”, which is what our pediatrition and our nutritionist recommend we do. Every day is an effort, dare I say struggle. What I would give to be able to drive up to a chick-fil-a for the occasional convenience!!

On the behavior side, she was and is obsessed, although it’s gotten better. We’ve veered off Ellen S’s division of responsibilities. I figured if I can’t let her control the how much (i have to), I CAN let her control the WHAT (within reason). i’ll pack her lunch but let her “revise” as she wants to. And I teach her along the way. I don’t let her have two fruits for breakfast but instead try to tell her “they’re the same kind of thing” and veer her towards protein choices for her second choice. We talk about “good energy food”. I try not to talk about bad or junk food. With all the candy being thrown at her every day from society, we’ve taught her that candy is for holidays and cupcakes and cake are for birthdays, so we do our best to let her have those on the right occasion and do what we can to keep it out of the house otherwise. She wants candy for breakfast and has more from her (school acquired) Easter stash? Sure, no problem. When she does have candy we try to teach her how to eat it – to take her time, to enjoy the taste of it (as we do with all food). I try to remove the stigma around it where I can, while managing within our limits.

We don’t have all (or any) of the answers. What we do have is a situation that no one seems to understand or be able to help solve, and so we manage it best we can day to day and – no offense to the research out there – make the best decisions we can the best way we know how.

The words in this article that are the most relevant – in my mind – are these: “Unfortunately, parents of food-obsessed kids often struggle in silence.”

This is because we’re the few, not the many. Other parents look at me in envy as our daughter chows down on green beans en masse. Everyone says (out loud and in front of her) what a “good eater” she is. While don’t envy the parents of the picky eater, I certainly think there is little knowledge or empathy for the kids on the other side of the spectrum.

The second line that resonates the most is: “But she makes it clear that research to date shows more about what doesn’t work than what does. “We know very little about what works — it just hasn’t been tested,” she adds.”

That’s what we need to know. Because until then we’re just doing our best. My husband and I made the decision that while we understand restriction doesn’t work based on all the research and best expert advice, it’s the best we can do with the information we have to keep her within a normal range of weight for height (and overweight is fine in that range). And let me be clear, I don’t care if my daughter is bigger or big. I do care if my daughter can’t enjoy running and playing with her friends because she’s out of breath (which I’ve already seen), if she’s bullied or has low self-confidence as a results of societal messages and pressures, and most importantly, if she’s putting her long term health and lifestyle at risk. And so with that, I do what I can.

I am not telling you this to get you to restrict your oldest. I am not a doctor nor a nutritionist.I am sharing our story because you’re not alone – I am another mom desperate to figure it all out (and giving blogs like this advertising revenue and an audience as a result) that are at a loss, and for who the typical advise may (or may not) fit.

Best of luck to you and your family. If you ever want to connect live and chat (more from a “we’re not alone” perspective), I’d be happy to. It’d be nice to have a sounding board.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 30, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Lori — I know that not everyone has the same experience so thanks for sharing yours. I think Ellyn Satter’s advice can work for many but it is by no means a cure-all — and if there’s anything I have learned each child is different. It sounds like you are already doing other things besides restriction such watching how you talk about food, keeping structure, helping your child eat mindfully and trying to keep things positive. As she gets older, you can try different strategies to help her. Maybe choosing one treat per day will work for her as she gets older? Also, there’s been one study on educating kids about hunger and fullness that helped children regulate their intake.

We need more research on things parents can do instead of what doesn’t work. I know you emailed me before. If you want to discuss further free free to contact me at


Heather May 1, 2014 at 1:09 am

My son is only 2.5, so I have no idea what the future holds, but …

We didn’t give him anything with refined sugar until well after his 1st birthday. Very few bread products as well.

We don’t have junk food in the house and rarely eat it out.

If he sees cookies or chocolate or ice cream, he wants some. Assuming the situation is appropriate (it’s available not just visible, for example), he can have some. 99% of the time, we’ll tell him prior to his serving how much he can have (“You can have one bowl of ice cream”). He eats it and respects the boundary. Every now and then, he totally melts down because he wants more. Most of those meltdowns are when he is tired.

All that said, if he had two pounds of washed, cut strawberries at his disposal, he’d eat them all. There are plenty of mornings when he’s had the same or larger breakfast than I (eggs, fruit, yogurt, something like that—we don’t do cereal). He’s eaten as many as 8 clementines in one sitting.

Last night while washing the dishes, I asked him if he’d like to make some ice cream when I was done. He was excited. We took bananas out of the freezer, tossed them in the Vitamix, and had some “ice cream.” (I gave him the opportunity to add peanut butter or other fruit, but he wasn’t interested.)

We don’t make a big deal out of sweets — they’re really just mostly absent. And we have fruit for dessert.

So far, so good…


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 1, 2014 at 10:23 pm

Heather — Thanks for your comment. It is not recommended to give children under 2 regular offerings of sweets because their nutrition is so vital and their stomachs are small. The research shows that around 3 kids become more aware of environmental cues around eating. So just be on the lookout for that — and always restricting the amount may cause more interest in the future. Your son will let you know. Good luck! See this post for more information


Marci May 1, 2014 at 8:49 pm

So obviously every kid is different and different techniques will work better for each kid, so what gives you confidence in how you do things with your kids or in what you teach other people? I love the title of your book but what helps you to be fearless and confident in what you do? I know things are definitely better, but I still see many other kids with not near the interest in sweets and junk food that my daughter has and I can’t help but wonder why their techniques of bribing or rewarding with treats doesn’t seem to have backfired. I definitely can’t say I am fearless.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 1, 2014 at 10:16 pm


What I mean is each kids’ food preferences, appetite and temperament will be different but the basics of feeding applies to all kids. The what of feeding is understanding nutritional needs and how to meet them in your child. The how is following an authoritative feeding style that is not too strict or permissive and the why is understanding development and your child’s individual differences. The different strategies I refer to are mainly around sweets — dessert with dinner versus one sweet treat a day etc.

Being fearless means that you feel confident that you are doing the best you can based on the available evidence and having a big picture view of feeding. Most people make decisions based on the what only but don’t understand about the how of feeding or why kids do what they do. For example, the parent who rewards their child with dessert is just worried about getting veggies in their child without thinking of the long-term implications.

Honestly, a parent may not know their way of feeding backfires until a child is an adult on their own — that is why we ask parents to have a long-term view. Restricting a child can cause some kids to eat in the absence of hunger — and the negative effects of this may not be seen until adulthood.

I feel confident because I am making informed decisions about feeding my family. I also feel good about my relationship with food. That is why we wrote the Parent Trap Chapter — sometimes our own food challenges can cloud our feeding in ways we don’t expect. If I had kids much earlier when my eating was different, feeding my children would be much more difficult.

If you are having doubts, and they are bothering you, feel free to email me again.


Adina May 2, 2014 at 8:03 am

Maryann, I love your answer about why you are confident. As an RD, I totally agree :-)


Cate May 10, 2014 at 7:26 pm

Thanks so much for your thoughtful and insightful comments!
Oliviab: it IS nice to know that we’re not alone. Like you, my concern is for health (& I include mental health in this too). I’m concerned that my daughter will drop further out of physical activity, and the friendships that may come from team activities, and may be bullied.
Adina: thanks for your questions. It bothers me when my daughter asks for seconds IF I know she’s had more than adequate food for the day. But it’s more from concern that she doesn’t seem aware of her off switch than anything else. Having said that, I mostly let her have seconds, but if we’re having a meal that is full of sometimes food (I’m thinking here of the last time we bought pizza), I have been known to say no. On that occasion, she’d eaten more than an adult portion of food (and had eaten well the rest of the day, so I knew she wasn’t physically hungry). I guess I think about her off switch going unheeded because she’s almost always the child sitting at a table eating when other kids are off playing. She’s also a “seagull” in that, she’ll eat food provided by other parents, even when I’ve just fed her lunch or a snack. It seems to be lacking in mindfulness; if it’s there, she’ll eat. Regarding my response, I’ll often ask her to slow down and will ask her to refrain if she’s vaccuuming up whatever is available (this is more about eating snacks than in a formal meal).
Maryann: thanks for the comments about fat. I guess I just assumed that the dairy, avocado, nuts, etc. would provide enough fat to satiate her. This is something to ponder more…


Susan May 14, 2014 at 10:55 am

I am so relieved to have seen this excellent post and discussion. I can completely relate to Cate’s situation with my 12 year old daughter and to a lesser extent, my 9 and 6 year old children. Since birth, all three kids have had voracious appetites (funny how back then, it was seen as a source of pride!), but the oldest in particular seems to have only increased. Like Cate, my kids are the opposite of picky eaters who gladly eat kale, quinoa and beans, so it is likewise tricky to talk about the volume of their eating with friends who have to deal with the stress of kids who won’t touch certain foods.

Our oldest daughter has the classic issues of “stealing” food from our pantry (and subsequently lying about it), as well as going all out at family gatherings or parties. She often expresses anger, for isntance, that her after school snack wasn’t big enough. I am fully cognizant that my responses are often hurtful and short-sighted, but there is a tricky balance between a gentle “that’s all for dinner, sweetie,” and the angst of watching your child grab handfuls of hors d’oeuvres at a party without saying anything. As the initial post mentioned, I have some understanding of what I SHOULDN’T do (not that I always follow this, sadly), but how to proactively develop healthy and happy relationships with food has been frustrating. I do think the comment about focusing on protein-rich, filling food is a useful insight that I’m going to try and implement.

Here are a couple insights that have been helpful as we navigate this issue:
– Usually, the less I say the better (so hard!) — this involves my looks and other nonverbal cues.
– My own habits are likely more influential than I think. I also have a big appetite (and remember constantly feeling unsatisfied after eating as a kid, even though we had plenty to eat). I get where my kids are coming from, although I generally have outgrown any overeating habits.
– Engaging my kids in other activities helps. Funny when we spend the day at the park or playing with others, they rarely ask for food. At home: different story.
– My kids love to cook and help in the kitchen (partly to nibble during the food prep). This is seriously their favorite activity. I’m hoping that this love for cooking will help them develop healthier and more positive associations with food.

I don’t really have good answers, but let me reiterate how helpful this discussion has been — thank you!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 14, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Thanks for your comment Susan and Cate. I should point out two key differences in children compared to adults when it comes to food. We parents may think kids have had enough based on what or how much they have eaten but it’s important to remember they are still growing and grow in spurts. So if they are going through a growth spurt they will be hungrier and eat what seems to be large amounts. Two periods of life when this growth is greatest is the first two years of life and puberty. Children that don’t get their hunger met may develop poor food regulations skills — eating when they can even when not hungry.

Another consideration is one that may apply more to younger kids. Children are new to this eating thing and may decide eat more of something they like because it tastes good. The key with what Cate calls “sometimes foods” is to focus more on how often they are provided instead of how much a child eats. A child may eat more because they haven’t had that food in a while, but often they will regulate their intake later, like the next day, and eat less. The way kids regulate food is different than adults due to their growth and development. If kids are always kept to small portions of items that are tasty, it leaves them curious about the food and wanting more. Of course, eating at the table in a mindful way is key versus grazing or picking at food all day.

If a child is acting out such as stealing or hiding or begging for food, it needs to be addressed. My book, Fearless Feeding, has a chapter dedicated to special considerations like picky eating and weight.


Elizabeth May 29, 2014 at 4:46 pm

I relate to so many of these posts…I could have written them word for word. This has been the biggest source of stress in our family, almost from my daughter’s infancy. As an infant we followed the “rule” of letting her eat as much as she wanted, as often as she wanted. By six months she was incredibly heavy, and we started solids in an attempt to slow her down. Needless to say, she never slowed down.

So suggesting parents may be contributing to these issues by regulating food is not helpful for many of us. It’s the way our children are wired, so we HAVE to regulate or they’d become unhealthy. (I’m pretty sure in our case it’s a neurological issue, although I don’t know that there are any tests that could confirm it.)

I ask what she did at preschool and all she ever tells me is what they had for snack, the only books she wants me to read are those that include pictures of food, and she’ll turn back to those pictures again and again. Last month she ate a stick of butter when I mistakenly left it out, and just today she guzzled salad dressing straight from the container, also because I left it out. It’s possible to distract her, but if she sees food it seems like the only thing she can focus on. At parties she will hover around the food table instead of playing with the other kids…It’s impossible for anyone to understand unless they’ve been there.

We’ve put a lock on our kitchen door, even though we know it’s only exacerbating the issue we don’t know what else to do, because the second she was unattended she was making a beeline for the cabinets. When she takes food she knows she shouldn’t have, she crams her mouth as fast as possible, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t even taste it. If there’s even a small crumb of something on the floor she has to put it in her mouth, even though there’s no way it could fulfill hunger. And…she’s four years old now and still in a crib. We’re going to keep her in the crib for as long as possible, because I know she’d sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night and take food, I’m so scared she’ll cram it into her mouth and choke on it while we’re asleep.

We’re just at a loss, we have no idea what to do. Punishment doesn’t work, explaining doesn’t work, leaving out healthier food doesn’t work…Many times she’s told us she can’t help taking the food, and I truly believe it. To her it’s a drug.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 10, 2014 at 11:52 am

I think you all should check out The Feeding Doctor’s series on food obsession which includes a story of a mom who found success. In part 2 she discusses a private facebook page for parents having problems in this area. Don’t miss it!


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