This post was originally published in 2013; updated June 2020.
If you’ve ever been frustrated with the foods your child is eating, you may have participated in food restriction.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What food restriction is
- How and why children are drawn to forbidden foods
- Why it’s important to recognize restrictive feeding practices and work to correct them
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What is Food Restriction?
Food restriction is when a parent or caregiver tightly controls or eliminates palatable foods like sweets and treats.
I have encountered families who believe they need to control, tightly limit, or restrict the food their child eats, especially if it’s unhealthy stuff.
They label foods like candy or chips as ‘forbidden foods’ and make them scarce.
If their child is a big eater or carries extra weight, then restriction is more likely.
Food restriction is also known as a restrictive feeding practice.
Although parents do this with good intentions, restriction may cause more problems for your child and your family down the road.
The Trap of the Food Police
No doubt, feeding kids is one of the greatest responsibilities you have, and perhaps one of your most repetitive, challenging, and mundane chores.
Our society’s obsession to be fit and trim is increasingly imposed upon our children. As a parent, you are faced with confusing and conflicting messages about proper feeding, healthful foods, and optimal levels of nutrition.
You may respond to this evolving standard of perfect nutrition with the only thing you can think of doing: tightly controlling the foods your child eats.
Eventually, this leads you to the role of the food police: Controlling food portions, your child’s eating, and more.
Signs You’re Controlling Food
Sometimes parents don’t recognize this tendency in themselves. Here are some signs that you’re restricting food:
- You make sure you avoid forbidden foods like candy or chips.
- There’s a likelihood you control how much your child eats.
- You moderate his exposure to indulgent and unhealthy foods.
In a nutshell, food restriction, or restrictive feeding practices, involve controlling every little bite that goes into your child’s mouth. Here’s how it plays out:
- Pre-portioning your child’s dinner plate or offering “snack packs” are two ways you might be controlling food.
- Purchasing diet, low-calorie, or fat-free foods in order to control the amount of calories, sugar or fat your child eats.
- Limiting second helpings at the dinner table, or even forbidding certain foods from entering the home or the family diet.
Instead, you make a great effort to give your child the healthiest foods you can and in the right amounts.
Which isn’t a bad thing.
The difference is, you’re not relaxed about junk food, sweets or other indulgent foods. You worry about them. A lot.
Restricting Food? Here’s What It Really Does to Kids
Using food restriction on a regular basis can cause children to lose their sense of hunger and fullness.
They may overeat when those limited foods become available. This may happen when children are away from the watchful eyes of mom and dad.
Also, kids may become “obsessed” with the foods that are limited or forbidden.
Over time, feelings of deprivation may set in. Kids may feel left out or deprived when they don’t have the freedom to choose what or how much they want (or need) to eat.
Like adults, kids want what they can’t or don’t have. It’s human nature.
Take away the candy, and kids can’t stop thinking about it. However, unlike adults, kids have less control over their biological drive to eat.
More often than not, I’ve seen the research evidence come true: Restrictive feeding practices may promote overeating.
Most interestingly, these studies not only link food restriction to weight gain, they also link a parent’s perception of their child’s weight to restrictive feeding.
In other words, if you think your child is “big,” eating too much, or gaining weight, you are more likely to be more controlling — and restrictive — with every little bite she eats.
Yes, you’re more apt to become a food cop.
I’ve also encountered the opposite outcome. Kids were truly hungry– hungrier than their parents thought they were — but their parents controlled food and amounts, underfeeding the child.
Signs Your Child is a Victim of Food Restriction
As I mentioned, restrictive feeding practices may be a set-up for kids who “overeat on the sly.”
For example, if your child slips into the pantry when you go change out the laundry, this may be a sign of food sneaking. If you find hidden wrappers under the bed, this too, may be a concerning sign.
Or, your child may be unable to control his eating when forbidden foods are allowed or available.
For instance, when your child goes to a party and he hovers around the food table, eating as much as he can. Or, when she seems overly excited by sweets and treats.
Ultimately, food restriction undermines your child’s ability to regulate his eating and can cause all sorts of problems with eating.
Choosing what you feed your children will always be important to his ultimate health.
But, I think you need to pay more attention to how you feed your child.
How to Tame Your Inner Food Cop
Remember, your child’s perception is real. If he feels restricted, he is.
Try the following tips to calm your inner food cop:
- Provide an abundant table of healthy food for mealtime. Your child will feel like there is plenty to eat and she can have her fill.
- Use all the food groups to make a balanced meal that is both satisfying to the eye and to the tummy.
- Recognize the emotional aspect of eating. Feeling hungry and being able to satisfy that hunger is more than a full belly–it’s emotional fullness, too. Maybe feeling emotionally and physically full is what it will take to stop your child from overeating. You have to lose food restriction to achieve that.
- Be an authoritative feeder so that your child experiences a predictable feeding schedule, food boundaries that aren’t too controlling or restrictive, but allow reasonable choice.
- Don’t be afraid to legitimize forbidden foods. Bring them to the table as part of a meal. Plan them into your child’s daily eating to neutralize them.
What’s your experience with food restriction (yourself or your child)? How did it play out?
Want More Help?
If you want to put your hands on the book that will take you through the HOW of feeding and other feeding practices that undermine your child’s eating abilities, you can nab Fearless Feeding in my Nutrition Store or check out my programs over at The Nourished Child.