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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Using “forbidden” food

by Ellyn Satter, Family Therapist and Registered Dietitian

You are raising your child to live in a food world: To be able to manage it, he needs to learn at home to be relaxed about “forbidden” food. Children who aren’t allowed to have ”forbidden” foods eat more of them when they get the chance, even if they are not hungry at the time. While weight isn’t the only issue, it is the focus of research: Restricted children eat more high-calorie snack foods and are fatter than children who are allowed regular access the those foods.! 

Find the happy medium  

In Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, I call them “controlled substances:” high-fat, high-sugar, and therefore high-calorie foods such as cookies, candy, cake, and chips. Giving children unlimited access to these foods is not a good idea. They fill up on them and don’t learn to eat more-nutritious, more-challenging foods at meals and snacks. Restricting them isn’t a good idea either. Children develop cravings and eat as much of them as they can, whenever they can, and, when they get older, sneak and hide them.

  • Unlimited access. Children who munch along on sweets, chips and soda may end up consuming too many calories, not because of the food itself but because of lack of structure. Being allowed to eat all the time, they arrive at meals uninterested in learning to eat family food. 
  • Restriction. Ridding the house of sweets, chips and soda doesn’t work, either. Even if they try really hard to go by the food rules, children (and adults) just can’t help but consume a lot of sweets, chips and sodas when they get the chance. And they feel bad about it. Parents who restrict find candy wrappers under the couch. Adults who restrict keep food stashes.
  • The happy medium. Do a balancing act with “forbidden” foods. Let your child have them frequently, but not just any old time. Include them regularly for yourself. Don’t wait until the food cravings drive you to it.

Consider strategy, not the food itself

Everything changes when you guide eating based on eating competence and guide feeding based on the division of responsibility.

  • Structure, structure, structure. Planned, reliable, enjoyable meals and snacks support you in eating the amount of food that matches your body’s needs.
  • Put one serving of dessert at each person’s place when you set the table. Eat it before, during, or after the meal. Don’t have seconds. Too many sweets at mealtime compete unfairly with other mealtime foods.
  • Include chips or fries at the occasional mealtime. Arrange to have enough so everyone can eat their fill. Unlike sweets, fatty foods don’t unfairly compete.
  • Periodically offer unlimited sweets at snack time. Put a plate of cookies or snack cakes and a carton of milk on the table, and let your child (and yourself) eat as many cookies as he wants. At first you may both eat a lot. But the newness will wear off, and you won’t eat so many.
  • Be strategic about soda. If you drink soda, maintain a double standard. Tell your child it is a grown-up drink, which it is. When he is old enough to not buy that explanation any more, maybe sometime in grade school, arrange to have soda occasionally for snack or along with a particular meal, like pizza or tacos.

Become relaxed about “forbidden” food

  • Don’t be afraid of even luscious food. You and your child will get enough. The treat will stop tasting as good – until the next time you have it. Paying attention lets you know that.
  • Respect your food and be grateful for it – whatever it is. All foods have value – even controlled substances!

Scary advice, you may say. Imagine letting a child eat as much as he wants of high-sugar, high-fat food! Imagine doing it yourself! Everything changes when you guide eating based on eating competence and guide feeding based on the division of responsibility.


  1. Birch LL, Fisher JO, Davison KK. Learning to overeat: maternal use of restrictive feeding practices promotes girls’ eating in the absence of hunger. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78:215-220.

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