Restrictive Feeding Practices: Effects on Your Child’s Eating

In a world concerned with childhood obesity, you may be wondering exactly how you’re supposed to prevent or control your child’s weight or weight gain. Well, if you are thinking about putting your child on a diet, limiting second helpings, purchasing fat-free or low calorie snack foods or removing all sweets and “junk” foods from the house, this installment of the Parent Feeding Practices series is the one for you!

Restricting your child’s eating involves limiting food types, amounts, and the manner of eating, in obvious or subtle ways. Commonly, restrictive feeding can be seen in limiting portion sizes, types of food (for example, no sugary foods or only fruits and vegetables), amounts of servings (no seconds or only extras of vegetables), and/or adjusting the energy content of foods (fat-free, sugar-free, or low cal).

I am sure you’ve seen the child who eats more than one 100-calorie snack pack (maybe even 3 or 4). Or the child who goes crazy at a party when presented with an array of sweet and salty foods. How about the pantry raider, who digs in when you’re not looking? These are potential outcomes of using restrictive feeding as a way to control your child’s eating. What leads to  restrictive feeding? It may be more complicated than you think.

Are you worried about your child’s weight?

A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (March 2010), found that mothers who were concerned that their child was overweight were more likely to use restriction when feeding their child. Restriction wasn’t the cause of weight gain, but a concern about weight produced restrictive feeding practices.

Does your child have a large appetite or do you feel he/she is out of control with eating?

This aspect of feeding children was investigated by Webber et al in 2010, and they found that children with large appetites or aggressive eating tendencies elicited more restrictive feeding practices from their mothers.

Does restriction cause weight gain?

This is a good question. Earlier studies indicated that children who experienced restrictive feeding tended to have a higher body mass index (BMI). When researchers look at cause and effect, it seems the waters get murky.

Researchers have found that parental concern about weight and parental perception of their child’s eating style leads to restriction. And there is an association between restrictive practices and overweight/obesity.

So what happens now?

Practically, and from experience, I still believe that children who are closely monitored and controlled (restricted) in their eating perceive the meal table as a battleground. Wanting, and not getting, can be wearing on a child, and end up backing them into a corner , leadign them perhaps, to get the things they want outside of the home or when parents aren’t looking.

Tune in here to tone down any adverse effects related to restrictive feeding practices:

Your Intentions

If you’re not sure you are restricting your child’s eating, it’s helpful to ask yourself, “what are my intentions here?” Discovering your underlying intentions or your worries will help you determine if you are simply trying to make sure everyone at the meal table gets a fair shake at each item on the table, or if you are ultimately trying to prevent over-eating, somehow control your child’s weight, or get them to eat what you want: the spinach.

Your Child’s Perception

Put yourself in your child’s shoes. How would you feel if your boss told you that one piece of chicken was enough? Or your spouse told you that you should watch how much dessert you are eating (I think we all know how that would go over!)?

It’s important for children to leave the meal table satisfied, physically and emotionally.  Reassuring children that they can fill their bellies with the variety of foods at the table can quell some of their worry, and ultimately their actions.
Sure, parents have the job of teaching children how to eat well and that can be best accomplished by setting a good example and a great table. And you can model positive behaviors you would like to see from your child.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to pick out the food and prepare it, and your child to regulate how much and which foods they eat.

Do you have a story to share about restrictive feeding practices?


1. Webber et al. Associations between child weight and maternal feeding styles are mediated by maternal perceptions and concerns. EJCN 2010: 64; 259-265.

2. Webber et al. Associations between children’s appetitive traits and maternal feeding practices. JADA 2010: 110; 1718-1722.



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  1. Vicky says

    I guess my problem is what exactly is the right amount of “access” to fast food, etc.? I let my daughter have at least one sweet a day but it’s usually not that much (one or 2 pieces of chocolate with dinner for example). She does tend to eat a lot of junk when offered at a playdate or at school. But if the way for her to not eat as much of it at these outside events is to give it to her all the time at home, I just can’t get on board with that!! I care too much about her health. I grew up in the type of house where I could have whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and I don’t think that is a good way to do things. Yes, maybe I was better able to self-regulate when out at fast food places, but I also was unhealthy and never got used to eating real food. I still have a ridiculous sweet tooth now and still have trouble figuring out how to eat healthy (that is why I am constantly reading about making the right food choices for my family). It’s really a tough balance. I want her to make the right choices but I certainly don’t want her to feel forced and have her start sneaking food when she is old enough. I have recently started trying to enforce letting her decide how much to eat and it’s REALLY hard but I think if I can really communicate to her that I trust her then she will find her way and have a lot better relationship with food than I ever have!

    • Jill says

      sounds like you are on the right path! Yes, trust her. but also talk with her and help her tune into when she is hungry, when she is full–the goal is to get her to recognize this and take the appropriate action. also, remember that when kids are growing, they eat more as their appetite increases. talking about eating, when to do so and what choices to make is an ongoing discussion throughout childhood! remember to stay neutral about food–no good guys–no bad guys–it’s just fuel!

  2. says

    I just came across this, so I’m late to the party. But this is a big frustration for us.
    Our older son is slightly overweight (and has been pretty much since age 2 — he’s just a big kid). My husband and I were slightly over in early childhood, too. (We’re now both healthy weights and have been since puberty.) Our son also has SPD, which makes it hard for him to understand the “fullness” cue — he can’t feel and interpret that as accurately as many children, so it’s a struggle to figure out how to allow him to eat the “right” amount for him without eating until he feels STUFFED.
    At any rate, we feed only homemade, unprocessed foods, and we offer what we feel are reasonable treats — things like an organic flavored honey stick, two small homemade cookies, a mug of homemade hot cocoa, a bowl of fruit sprinkled with chocolate chips or a dollop of whipped cream. He eats a wide variety of foods and lots of vegetables, and often will skip snacks altogether when he’s at home because he’s too busy playing to care. :-) We only drink water and occasionally, milk — local organic cider is a big treat!
    Our pediatrician wants us to restrict him. She wants us to measure his portions — seriously, with measuring cups — and not allow seconds; she wants us to cut ALL sweets out. I asked “not even a cookie a week?” as a test, and she nodded. She even went so far as to tell me that the little serving — really little — of unsweetened dried fruit I often put in his lunchbox so he can have “fruit snacks” like his friends should go out the window. I feel like screaming. I don’t believe any good can come of restricting him, and I really believe he’ll level off just as hubby and I did — what to do?

    • Jill says

      Bri, the research indicates that restriction has a backlash effect–producing kids who crave the very things you’re restricting…and often overeating them. Based on what you’re feeding your family, it sounds like things are well-balanced, and you use a thoughtful approach to the sweets you do include. Sweets are OK if they are a small slice of the daily diet…they provide enjoyment and pleasure. Check out my post later this coming week on fullness vs. satisfaction—it may help you with gauging a stopping point for eating. Also, slowing down with eating may help your son tune into satisfaction. All of this is a learning process! Your son’s steady growth is the best indicator of whether his eating is on target or not. He may very well follow in your and your husbands footsteps with growth.

  3. Jane says

    I have two teens and a younger child. I wholeheartedly disagree with the restrictive eating crowd, which unfortunately seems to be growing. My kids have always had access to fast food, homecooked food, candy, fruit, doritos and veggies. As strict as I get is “don’t eat a bunch of junk now, we are having dinner soon”. They are all healthy weights (actually at the lower range of the healthy range). Their friends who are denied candy and junk at home and force fed veggies and fruits all the time pig out at my house. They come over and ask for ice cream, then pizza, then cookies, etc. in the span of 15 minutes. My kids are puzzled by this behavior. Certainly we need to teach our kids about the best choices for health, but the food nazi moms are not doing their kids any favors. Trust me.

    • Jill says

      Yes, and even added to your practical experience, the research shows that restricting foods backfires. On the other hand, parents have a lot of say in what gets purchased and brought into the home.

  4. Kate says

    I provide my daughter with three meals and two snacks a day. I make it a point to incorporate “fun foods” and candy to take the edge of the pull of these kinds of foods. She knows that she can expect to pick out a candy, popsicle etc. in the afternoon or after dinner each day and find chips, popcorn etc. in her lunch from time to time. There are no rules in our house about having to eat dinner to get dessert, we provide healthy meals and simply say you decide when you have had enough to eat; she eats a variety of foods and I am happy with the amount of fruits and vegetables she eats but sometimes don’t know the best way to respond if she asks for seconds of chicken for example, or choses to only eat one portion of the meal and then wants more of that to fill her up in the absence of eating the other choices. If she has had a cup cake or other birthday treat at school or a party during the day she understands that that was her treat for the day and picks a fruit after dinner. While this is the general rule, there are certainly days and situations where we have more than one treat a day and we’re flexible on these occassions. Despite my attempts at offering what I think are reasonable amounts of fun foods and candy, they still have way to much appeal with my daughter. She jumps at the chance for packaged salty snacks, candy etc. when at friends houses and at times we have issues with her going into cabinets after granola bars etc. after she has just finished a snack. I believe I am giving her appropriate amounts of food for snack and lunch, and treat these occassions as behavioral and not food related. While I am tempted at times to lock the cabinet, remove the snack foods etc. I also think I am engaging in a power struggle and escalating it. Any advice on how to lessen the draw of the snack cabinet when snacks etc. are already part of our eating habbits? How to set realistic limits without causing perceived “restriction”. If the food is used by the child as a “button pushing” technique – how to treat the behavioral problem without setting up a struggle around food/restriction? What is an appropriate response when she says she is still hungry and goes to the cabinet for more? Wrestling with a 6 year old over a box of granola bars or giving time outs feels ridiculous and futile and like I’m sending a bad message about food and eating.

    • Jill says

      Hi Kate,
      I think you face the challenges that many parents are facing today–how to encourage healthy, balanced eating without punishment, restriction and hard feelings about food. I believe The Kitchen is Closed (in blog archives) policy will help with the “going into the cabinets after granola bars”–that’s not restriction, that is structure. If she is still hungry, fruit or veggies are a good option (b/c we don’t want kids to leave the table hungry), and if that isn’t a satisfactory response, then I would question if there is true hunger vs. something else (boredom, habit, etc). If you do find that she is truly hungry and is eating more fruit or veggies after a meal (which isn’t terrible), then i would circle back and make sure there is enough food at meal time and she is encouraged to satisfy her hunger while at the table (and the kitchen closed policy will reinforce eating at meal and snack times). Hope this helpful!

  5. Jeanette says

    I am guilty of restricting my daughter but I really don’t know what else to do. I have mostly healthy, real food in our house and on the table but my husband does like sweets. When grocery shopping my daughter notes everything that we have bought and once home she wants all her favorites. She obsesses about food and binges when given the chance. She is overweight so I try to push fruits (she won’t eat a single veggie) and lately she refuses protein. I guess I’ve created this food battle but I am really lost how to fix it. Today I made Annie’s whole wheat mac and cheese. I gave her some and did not force her to have chicken or fruit with it. She ate the first bowl and she asked for more. At first I said no but then I gave her just a little bit more. If I didn’t limit her she would have ate the entire box! I do not make mac and cheese often for her and this is why. What am I to do? Every meal is a battle and I feel completely lost at this point. Please help!

    • Jill says

      Jeanette, I hear what you are saying. I see many families in my private practice that have the same situation going on: lack of trust in their child, and eating scene that is seemingly “out of control” and weight issues that aren’t turning around. I would encourage you to seek out personalized help for your family. A pediatric RD or RD who works with families/weight problems would be able to address the specific day-to-day struggles you and your daughter are experiencing. Go to and click on “find a RD” for someone in your area.

  6. Erica says

    I love that we are all aware and paying more attention to the fact that restricting foods from children and telling them that certain foods are “bad” and certain foods are “good” can lead to long term health problems for them when they are older.
    I will share some of my own story with you here… I used to be a very over weight child. I was put on many diets by my parents and was told that I needed to be thin and loose weight in order to look good (at least that was the message I received). I know they only had good intentions for me, however it definitely back fired. As a result of those restrictions I became a sneak eater. As a teenager I became morbidly obese and weighed almost 300 lbs! I am now 150 lbs lighter and live a very healthy and active lifestyle. I decided to make positive changes in my life over 10 years ago, but I wish when I was a child someone had taught me about health and showed me what real healthy food tasted like!
    I am know studying to be a health counselor so i can help other people transform their lives and make better healthy choices.

    • Jill says

      Good for you Erica! I believe helping parents become better and more knowledgeable about feeding their kids will help children be healthier. We can’t expect kids to figure it out for themselves–they need a leader/role model. I also think that for the most part, parents (and even health professionals) think that if they just get the food right, everything will be solved, and as your example shows, just paying attention to the food is not enough when it comes to kids.

  7. Maureen Bligh, MA, RD says

    Jill, this sentence is the key point for me:

    “Wanting, and not getting, can be wearing on a child, and end up backing them into a corner , producing efforts to get the things they want outside of the home or when parents aren’t looking.”

    I know when I get up from the dinner table, I want to feel full and satisfied and I am sure children feel the same way. We are not successful as parents if we raise closet eaters.

    • Jill says

      So true, Maureen! I think there’s a lack of awareness in the area of parent feeding practices…rather, parents act before they think of the repercussions…or they just aren’t aware.

  8. says

    My parents never restricted our foods when I grew up. The table was always set with a variety of nutrient-rich options, yet we still had access to those fun foods as well. Me and my siblings grew up to be healthy, well rounded eaters. Thankfully, my parents were unknowingly doing the “division of responsibility”. Now that I’m a dietitian and mom to a toddler, I really strive to maintain this feeding style. Unfortunately, I keep seeing more and more parents and even some health professionals taking the restrictive approach. You’re right, the intentions behind it are good, but it just doesn’t work.

  9. Sarah Mathot says

    I will share a story about my niece who was about 4 years old when she was at my house very close to Halloween so there was a nice size bowl of candy next to the dinner table. I was in the middle of making her dinner, bean and cheese burrito, steamed broccoli and chocolate milk all at her request. Then she spotted the candy bowl and asked if she could have some, my first thought was “no, you have to eat dinner first.” I knew what that could result in her rejecting dinner entirely or chowing down on candy after dinner. So I said sure and put the entire bowl within her reach. She pulled out a piece and asked “what’s this? what does it taste like? will you open it for me?” I provided her with the answers and opened up the box of Nerds and she ate 3 then put it aside. She did the same thing with a bag of Sour Patch Kids and I did the same thing. I then put dinner in front of her and she proceeded to push the bowl of candy aside and eat her dinner. I was shocked that it worked, she just was curious and wanted to know if I would let her have the candy or restrict her. I have to say that my niece is one of the best eaters I know and I believe it is because of my brother and sister-in-law’s commitment to teaching their children about hunger and fullness and not being restrictive. Hoping we will do the same with our daughter who is now only 7 months old and just starting to explore her palate.

    • Jill says

      I love this story, Sarah. It’s amazing when you take the emotion and pressure away that kids tend to do the “right thing”….when you don’t take that away, they react to what you’re putting out…pressure, control, etc. Feeding is certainly a reciprocal relationship.

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