Family Meals Focus
The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter
The Satter Hierarchy of Food Needs
by Ellyn Satter, MS, MSSW, Dietitian and Family Therapist
For a PDF of this issue, click here.
The Satter Hierarchy of Food Needs demonstrates that when you feed yourself faithfully and reassure yourself that you will get enough to eat of food you enjoy, you will learn and grow with eating.1
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.2 Children develop, and so do we. Our true nature is to learn and grow, and we do that as we mature, learn from life, and manage our world. As we satisfy needs at each level, we instinctively develop at the next level. Arranging food needs in a similar hierarchy, from the foundation through the apex, gives the Satter Hierarchy of Food Needs.1 This is based on the Satter Eating Competence Model, ecSatter.
Do you have enough to eat? Many people scare themselves into being afraid of not getting enough to eat when they try to follow weight-reduction or other restrictive diets or live by today’s food-avoidance credo, “don’t eat so much; don’t eat the food you like.” Even more seriously, 40% of people in the US suffer from food insecurity. Such low-income people need and deserve to get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, but less than half do.3 SNAP benefits help recipients get enough to eat and thereby begin moving up on the Satter Food Hierarchy. SNAP education (SNAP-ed) can help even more by prioritizing strategies for getting enough to eat: Making liberal use of high-starch food, fat, and sugar to satisfy energy and appetite needs.4 Filling up on potatoes or rice, frying food, buttering vegetables, and using fruit canned in heavy syrup are worthwhile and healthy strategies, even before 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.5
Do you have food you enjoy? Hand in hand with getting enough to eat is having access to and letting yourself eat food you consider “acceptable.” This is a personal definition. I grew up on potatoes; my family rarely 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 SNAP benefits or going to food pantries acceptable; another doesn’t.
Having grown and developed to point of seeking novel food or, even before that, seeking good tasting food, your nutritional status is likely to be just fine.
Reliable, ongoing access to food
When you feel confident of being able to satisfy today’s food needs, you are freed up to consider what you will eat the next meal or the next day. You will move toward planning for subsequent meals, accumulating a food stash, and saving up for food purchases. Having reliable access to enough food you find acceptable, not just today but also tomorrow and into the future, gives you food security. Again, keep in mind that even if you have enough money to spend on food, you will make yourself feel food-insecure with rigid definitions of “healthy” food and/or weight-reduction dieting.
Does your usual food not taste as good as it used to? Your appetite will become more prominent for a while once you are consistently able to eat as much as you want of food you enjoy. Most people prioritize taste in food selection.6 Once you are free from the danger of going hungry, food preference takes on a different spin. When you don’t have enough to eat (or are scaring yourself that you don’t), almost anything tastes good. Now that you aren’t going without, you get pickier. Honor your appetite. You are entitled. This won’t last forever.
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 an interest in new foods or perhaps in familiar foods prepared in new ways. You will begin to experiment. Your experimentation—over months or years—will lead you to ever-so-gradually increase the variety in your diet. You will improve your nutritional status, and you will do it because you want to and it feels right, not because you have to. When you are at the Novel Food level on the Food Hierarchy, you are in good shape nutritionally. You have likely become Eating Competent.
Do you consider what is good for you when you eat? This is the one item on ecSI 2.0, the test for ecSatter, that addresses what you eat. In the context of ecSatter, considering what is good for you is not the top of a slippery slide back down to “don’t eat so much; don’t eat the food you like.” Instead, from the ecSatter perspective, functioning at the instrumental food level is a both-and, not an either-or, consideration. You eat food you enjoy and consider to be good for you. You eat what is good for you if you enjoy it. You never have to count it, measure it, or weigh it. If you have long been traumatized by food rules, it will take a long time before you can comfortably take into account what is good for you when you choose food. If ever. If you try to do it before you are ready, it will throw your eating into disarray and make you feel bad. This is not to say that you will do poorly nutritionally if you don’t think about what is good for you. Having developed to the point of seeking novel food or, even before that, seeking good-tasting food, your nutritional status is likely to be just fine.
If you want to and are consistently able to, when you have solidly developed to the instrumental food level of the Satter Food Hierarchy, you can consider what to eat based on your nutritional, spiritual, environmental, or political goals. But don’t violate the principle that has gotten you here: You must be grounded in the unqualified reassurance that you will get enough to eat of food you enjoy.
To become Eating Competent, take care of yourself with food
Family meals are the cornerstone of getting enough to eat and foundation for the development that flows from food security. A meal is when you all sit down together and share the same food. Period.
- Eat what you eat now. Just have it at regular meal- and snack-times.
- Figure out practical and enjoyable ways to provide yourself with three meals a day, and sit-down snacks if you need them.
- Trust yourself to learn and grow. You will move up on the Satter Food Hierarchy when you are ready.
- Don’t try to push yourself beyond what feels genuinely comfortable to you. You will slow your growth, not make it go faster.
- Satter E. Hierarchy of food needs. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2007;39:S187-S188. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2007.01.003
- Maslow AH. A theory of human motivations. Psychol Rev. 1943;50:370-396.
- Ohri-Vachaspati P, Acciai F, DeWeese RS. SNAP participation among low-income US households stays stagnant while food insecurity escalates in the months following the COVID-19 pandemic. Preventive Medicine Reports. 2021;24. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2021.101555
- Satter E. Family Meals Focus #107: COVID-19 has left even more hungry. Accessed April 1, 2022. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/family-meals-focus-no-107-covid-19-has-left-even-more-hungry/
- Kempson KM, Palmer Keenan D, Sadani PS, et al. 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):1795-9. computer.
- Glanz K, Basil M, Maibach E, et al. 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.
The Satter Hierarchy of Food Needs