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The Kitchen is Closed Right Now

This article was originally published in 2010 and updated on April 12, 2020.

Have you ever told your child that the kitchen is closed?

If you haven’t, you’re missing out on a powerful boundary that can change unhealthy eating behaviors and naturally teach your child to regulate his appetite.

Child reaching for a snack in the kitchen

As a pediatric nutritionist, I frequently help parents and their children set boundaries around food and eating.

Setting boundaries is part of the path to becoming better at food parenting. Boundaries are part of using a diplomatic style of feeding.

I teach parents how to do this, but one thing they have questions about is how to set limits around food in a nice way.

I give parents easy phrases to use that help support healthy changes around feeding and eating.

This is one of them.  

The kitchen is closed.

What Happens in Your Kitchen?

Let me ask you this: Is your kitchen always open, always a mess, always in production?

Is your child constantly roaming in and out, looking in the pantry or refrigerator for something to eat?

Grazing on snacks? Helping himself to food without asking?

You probably know this isn’t exactly a healthy habit.

If you’re like other parents in America, having a kitchen open all day long wouldn’t likely work for you.

It might even make you quite frustrated and worried about the eating habits your child is developing.

The kitchen is closed: a food boundary that will change your life and help your children regulate their food intake better.

The Kitchen is Closed

While some parents might believe that closing the kitchen is a cruel act toward children, I find it to be a healthy way to set limits.

Let me be clear, though: Closing the kitchen does not involve remodeling your kitchen, or adding new doors to close it off.

I’m not being literal here. I’m speaking figuratively.

What I mean by the phrase, ‘the kitchen is closed’ is this: The kitchen is off limits right now.

When you close the kitchen, it:

  • Allows time between meals and snacks so that children can build up an appetite for meals
  • Encourages predictability around the timing of meals and snacks
  • Diverts children to other activities that have nothing to do with food

If your kitchen is always open, then:

  • Limits around food and eating are missing, and it will be hard to be your best at parenting your child and food
  • Food is harder to monitor because you’ll be unable to accurately track your child’s food consumption
  • Your child is more likely to graze, snack frequently, and overeat 
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Setting Food Boundaries Helps

The kitchen is closed right now,” is a particularly useful phrase when you’ve done a good job at providing meals and snacks on a schedule throughout the day.

You want to make sure you have regular times when the kitchen is open. For example, “The kitchen is open for breakfast (or for snack, for lunch, etc).”  

Then, when your child comes to you an hour after eating dinner, wanting something else to eat, you can say “the kitchen is closed right now,” and set a clear boundary.

If this is initially upsetting to your child, assure him that another meal or snack will be available soon.

Be explicit with the timing of the next meal or snack.

For example, “The kitchen is closed right now, but it will be open for afternoon snack at 3 o’clock.”

Being clear with the timing reassures your child that he will get food in the future, which builds trust and a sense of security.

Granted, your child may not be happy to hear he has to wait, but he will gradually adapt and respect your food boundaries, learning to eat when meals and snacks are served.

Have you closed your kitchen? Or, used other food boundaries for your kids?

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  1. Hi,

    Thanks for the nice article. What age do you think it will work from?
    I have a 20 months old toddler who doesn’t want to sit for meals, but whenever hungry she would just come to kitchen and ask for snacks.
    She likes to keep snacking throughout the day instead of having meals. She just cries when I set boundaries. But if I am strong, she wouldn’t have snacks, but also would skip the next meals and she doesn’t seem to have a problem staying hungry for even 8 hours in the day.

    1. Good question. Closing the kitchen is really for older children, age 4+, I would say. However, for your daughter, you still want to transition her over to a structured feeding plan with 3 meals and probably 3 snacks each day (one snack might be a cup of milk for example); you want to get away from snacking all day and get her into a routine with eating. This post may help you:http://jillcastle.wpengine.com/childhood-nutrition/childhood-obesity-structured-eating/
      For young children your daughter’s age, I like to see a schedule of meals and snacks every 2-3 hours.

  2. Hi! I was wondering: if you have set times of feeding where kids can and cannot eat, how does that honor whether or not they are hungry? If we are trying to teach kids to listen to their hunger cues but don’t allow them to eat if they are hungry, how will that help? Thank you!

    1. Good question, Jackie! When you have structure with feeding, or set times, you want to have those occur about every 3-4 hours. The goal is to help kids learn to eat at those times, however, some kids will test the limits or may be off in whether they are hungry or not. I agree that some kids may be hungry because they may be growing and have an increased appetite, or they may not have figured out how much their body needs to eat to stay satisfied until the next meal or snack. If your child is in the process of learning, I think it’s ok to offer fruit if they say their hungry, but if the “I’m hungry!” becomes a habit to get some more food or something else to eat, then I would be inclined to “close the kitchen” and have your child wait until the next scheduled meal. There is some flexibility but as I mentioned, the goal is to minimize grazing and asking for food outside of regular meal and snack times.

    1. Heather–good question! It all ties together–the feeding structure, nutritious meals and snacks, and boundaries/limits all support one another. If there is sneaking despite having these in place, I encourage parents to deal with it as a behavioral issue and discuss it with the child. I find that if children are well-fed, getting meals/snacks every 3-4 hours, and are satisfied after eating, they tend to not sneak. Sneaking food isn’t necessarily about food or hunger; it’s a negative and counter-productive health behavior and we want to shape good eating habits and good lifestyle behaviors in our children. I like to help parents get the structure and infrastructure set up, reinforced by the boundaries–if sneaking continues, then it’s more of a behavior (like lying) that needs to be addressed in parenting.

  3. Hello,
    A quick question after reading your blog – how do you reconcile the Satter approach to letting children eat as much of a portion as they want with portion control? This is difficult to navigate, do you have suggestions on how to serve and encourage appropriate portions without making a child feel limited. She also suggests lots of bread and butter . .. . I guess I’m having a tough time with parts of her approach and instilling good habits. She also seems to down play the negative emotional consequences of a child being overweight. I’m very interested in her approach as I have a child who, while she is not overweigh, LOVES to eat and sometimes seems obsessed with food and I’m simultaneously concerned about making the obsession worse and contributing to a potential overeating/weight problem, and offering my child support that is in her best interest even if this may seem hard and limiting at times.
    Thank you, any information you can provide would be helpful and appreciated.

    1. Hi Kathy, Thanks for your question–it is a good one, and one that i get asked fairly frequently. First, “portion control” is a term I use lightly with children–in fact, I prefer “portion awareness”, because, when parents and/or children try to control their portions, they may override their own hunger and fullness, and end up feeling deprived and eating more. Satter’s approach merely encourages parents to provide a balanced meal (ie, most food groups), and allows the child to choose what and how much to eat…and over time the child will gravitate to balanced intake, experimenting with new foods, and eat amounts that reflect their hunger, food preferences, and appetite. Bread and butter can be part of the meal, but it doesn’t have to make an appearance every night. There are other starchy grains that can rotate through your weekly menu. You can teach portion awareness by preparing foods in reasonable portions, ie, prepare 3-6 oz. portions of meat, place them on a platter, and serve. Your child will likely take one, but there will be more if hungry. Some foods don’t portion well like this, and you will have to trust the child to take what is right for him/her. Mealtime is an opportunity to talk about hunger and fullness, and this can help your child tune into this feeling and learn how to make decisions about more to eat or not. This is a process that pays off over time. Teaching and trusting your child to self-regulate is a gift–many adults do not self-regulate–they rely on external cues, such as time on the clock, food rules, diets, and the scale to regulate their eating. No fun! Cultivating those internal cues in your child is an act of trust and faith; provide a variety of food, keep the environment positive, and encourage your child to tune into their body’s needs.

  4. Great article! My mum always used this logic when we were kids and it worked well. It certainly helps with setting limits for children and encouraging them to eat at meal times, whilst keeping them hungry enough to eat their dinner.

    1. So true, Sarah! I use this phrase frequently with my own 4 children; I only have to say it once and they know exactly what I mean. They also know that I follow through with meals and snacks on time too.

      1. We were exactly the same! There was no point in asking for food once the kitchen was closed because we never got it.
        Will be using this once my boy is older.