Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Hierarchy of food need

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Family Therapist

The food hierarchy demonstrates that when you feed yourself faithfully and reassure yourself that you will be fed, you will learn and grow with eating. Go by the principles of the food hierarchy to eat enough of food you enjoy. You will gain eating capability when you are ready, not when you or someone else tries to get you to. move up the hierarchy. It has to feel genuinely comfortable, or it won’t last.

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  This is based on the Satter Eating Competence Model, ecSatter

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 

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.

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 your usual 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 have the luxury of knowing 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 doing some family-friendly meal-planning. Or you might not. Up to you. 

Instrumental food

Instrumental food is the only level considered by the Dietary Guidelines, with the emphasis on eating or avoiding certain foods to be slimmer, resist disease, and prolong life. Because the guidelines skip over all the other levels of the food hierarchy and concentrates on instrumental food, it is little wonder we have so much trouble following them! This is the level considered on ecSI with the item, “I consider what is good for me when I eat.” ecSatter considers this level of the food hierarchy in an organic way – a biopsychosocial way, if you will. When you have grown solidly through all of the other parts of the hierarchy, considering what is good for you is a both-and, not an either-or, consideration. You eat food you enjoy and you consider what is good for you. If you have been traumatized by trying to force yourself to eat by the rules, it will take a long time before you can comfortably consider what is good for you when you choose food. This is not to say that you will do poorly nutritionally if you don’t get to this level. 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.


To become eating competent, take care of yourself with food 

  • Consider the food that is readily available. Figure out practical and enjoyable ways of providing yourself with three meals a day, and 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 ready.
  • Don’t try to push yourself beyond what feels genuinely comfortable to you. You will slow your growth, not speed it along.


1. Maslow A. A theory of human motivations. 1943.

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.

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