Hierarchy of Food Need

April 2011
Family Meals Focus #56

Today's way of improving people's diets is to be restrictive and forcing. We are expected to get ourselves to eat what we don’t like because it is deemed “healthy” and avoid what we do like because it is not. There is a better way.

Trust yourself to learn and grow

According to Abraham Maslow, growth occurs on its own, in its own time, in sequence. From the foundation through the apex on Maslow’s pyramid-shaped hierarchy of growth, those needs are: (1) physiological needs: air, water, food, shelter, sleep, sex; (2) safety, security, order; (3) social affection: love, belonging; (4) esteem, status; self-esteem and esteem by others; and (5) self-actualization: being all the individual can be.1 As we satisfy needs at each level, we address needs at the next level. Arranging food needs in a similar hierarchy, from the foundation through the apex, gives Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs.2

Enough food

Do you have enough to eat? If you are food insecure, on a weight-reduction diet, or on an airplane with no food stash, your major concern is getting something to eat. The hungrier you are, the more you go for high-calorie food—food that quickly fills you up. Little wonder that the one in five people suffering from food insecurity in this country3 choose foods high in fat and sugar and eschew vegetables. They get more of the calories they desperately need from whole milk than they do from skim milk, are wise to fry rather than bake or broil, depend on putting butter or margarine on vegetables to increase the calories, and are better served by peaches canned in heavy syrup than fresh peaches. Eating a little fat or sugar doesn’t seem so bad when you consider what respectable, responsible, and hungry parents do to feed their families: They go hungry themselves, scrounge other people's leftovers, remove spoiled sections, slime, mold, and insects from food. and cook meat found as road kill.4

Acceptable food 

Do you have food you enjoy? Hand in hand with getting enough to eat is having access to food you consider "acceptable." This is a personal definition. I grew up on potatoes; my family never ate rice and considered a meal without potatoes as not being a meal at all. It may have been the opposite for you. One person finds using food stamps or going food pantries acceptable, another doesn't.

Reliable, ongoing access to food 

Will you be able to take care of yourself with food tomorrow, the next day, and the next? Once today's needs are satisfied, you can consider feeding yourself the next meal or the next day. You can plan for subsequent meals, accumulate a food stash, and save up for food purchases. Having reliable access to enough acceptable food, not just today but also tomorrow and into the indefinite future, gives you food security. 

Good-tasting food

Does food not taste as good as it used to? Having achieved food security, your appetite will become more prominent. Most people prioritize taste in food selection,5 but that is only when they know they will get enough to eat. When you are starving, almost anything tastes good. Now you aren't starving any more, and you get pickier. Honor your appetite. You are entitled. 

Novel food

Are you getting tired of eating the same food all the time? After you have had plenty of time to eat as much as you want of food you enjoy, you will find yourself tiring of even your favorite foods. You will begin taking more interest in new foods or perhaps in familiar foods prepared in new ways. You will begin to experiment. You will gradually increase the variety in your diet, which will improve its nutritional quality. Once you have climbed to this level on the food hierarchy, you are in good shape nutritionally, and you are likely to get even better. You have likely become Eating Competent. You might even want combine the skills you have learned intuitively into using some family-friendly meal-planning tactics. Or you might not. Up to you. 

Instrumental food

Are you getting curious about what is in food and what it does for you? Having satisfied your needs at all the other levels, you can consider instrumental food - food that will do something for you beyond satisfying your basic needs. If you want to. You don't have to. You are in plenty good enough shape without having to run your food selection with food rules. People have always chosen food for instrumental reasons - eating or avoiding certain foods during pregnancy to influence the baby’s appearance or temperament, for example. Today we eat - or avoid - certain foods to be more attractive, resist disease, prolong life, or enhance mental and emotional functioning. 

The take-home message

To become eating competent, take care of yourself with food. Feed yourself faithfully and give yourself permission to eat

  • Consider the food that is readily available. Figure out practical and enjoyable ways of providing yourself with three meals a day, sit-down snacks if you need them.
  • Eat what you are eating now. Just have it at regular meal- and snack-times.
  • Trust yourself to learn and grow. You will move up on the hierarchy when you are aready. Don't try to push yourself beyond what feels genuinely comfortable to you. You will slow your growth, not speed it along.  

For more about the food hierarchy and becoming eating competent, see Part 1, "How to Eat," in Ellyn Satter's Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family


1. Maslow A. A theory of human motivations1943.

2. Satter EM. Hierarchy of food needs. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2007;39 (suppl):S187-188.

3. Holben DH. Position of the American Dietetic Association: food insecurity in the United States. J Am Diet Assoc. Sep 2010;110(9):1368-1377.

4. Kempson KM, Palmer Keenan D, Sadani PS, Ridlen S, Scotto Rosato N. Food management practices used by people with limited resources to maintain food sufficiency as reported by nutrition educators. J Am Diet Assoc. 2002;102(12):1795-1799.

5. Glanz K, Basil M, Maibach E, Goldberg J, Snyder D. Why Americans eat what they do: taste, nutrition, cost, convenience, and weight control concerns as influences on food consumption. J Am Diet Assoc. 1998;98:1118-1126.

For more information, see Ellyn Satter's Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook, Kelcy Press, 2008. Also see www.EllynSatter.com to purchase books and to review other resources.

Join Ellyn Satter on Facebook

Sign up for the ESI mailing list

Say thanks for this great information by making a donation to ESI!

©2016 by Ellyn Satter published at www.EllynSatterInstitute.org. You may reproduce this article if you don't charge for it or change it in any way and if you do include the for more about and copyright statements.