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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Schools are not weight-loss camps

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

Making slimming children down a priority of school nutrition programs distorts their true mission: providing children with the nutrients and energy they need to be healthy and grow well physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally. Children who don’t get enough to eat gain more weight, do poorly academically and have poor social skills.1

Think twice about consequences

Children who are forbidden to have sweets and high-fat snacks eat more of them—even when they are already full—and are fatter than children given regular access.

Restrictive interventions are more likely to hurt than to help. Perceiving a child as overweight, being concerned about it, and restricting a child’s food intake—make children fatter, not thinner.2,3 Children who are forbidden to have sweets and high-fat snacks eat more of them—even when they are already full—and are fatter than children given regular access.4 As demonstrated by four huge, highly funded interventions, tight controls on school menus leave children’s overweight status unchanged. Children apparently compensate elsewhere for restrictions at school.5, 6,7   

Emphasize providing, not depriving8

Maintain the structure of meals and snacks so children can count on getting fed. –and fed enough. It is okay to restrict between-meal drinks, munchies and treats–even nutritious ones–to structured snacks so children can go to lunch hungry and ready to eat. For the little ones, provide nutritious and filling sit-down snacks midmorning and midafternoon. Retain food-selection leadership with middle school children, who are still forming their food habits. Give high-schoolers choices and opportunities to experiment with all kinds of foods, but hold the line with rules about where in the school food is allowed. In their natural quest for autonomy, adolescents get around rigid rules and controlling grownups. Forbidden-food black markets spring up in high schools that try to tightly control the food environment.9

Feeding children is important

Make school nutrition an important part of the program day. Schedule meals when children are hungry and give them enough time to eat. Offer meals that are adequate in energy for all children. Offer extra helpings of low-cost foods like breads and other starchy foods to fill children up. Offer school breakfast for children who don’t get fed at home.

Do good parenting with high-sugar, high-fat food

Help children be relaxed and matter-of-fact about sweets and fatty snacks by giving them regular access—at school and at home. Include snack-type food at sit-down meals and snacks. Avoid either extreme of forbidding snack-type food or drinks or letting children graze on them. Forbidding high-fat, high-sugar foods gives them enormous appeal and in the long run makes children eat more, not less.


  1. Jyoti DF, Frongillo EA, Jones SJ. Food Insecurity Affects School Children’s Academic Performance, Weight Gain, and Social Skills. J. Nutr. 2005;135:2831-2839.
  2. Faith MS, Berkowitz RI, Stallings VA, Kerns J, Storey M, Stunkard AJ. Parental Feeding Attitudes and Styles and Child Body Mass Index: Prospective Analysis of a Gene-Environment Interaction. Pediatrics. 2004;114:e429-436.
  3. Faith MS, Scanlon KS, Birch LL, Francis LA, Sherry B. Parent-Child Feeding Strategies and Their Relationships to Child Eating and Weight Status. Obes Res. 2004;12:1711-1722.
  4. Fisher JO, Birch LL. Eating in the absence of hunger and overweight in girls from 5 to 7 y of age . American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2002;76:226-231.
  5. Donnelly JE, Jacobsen DJ, Whatley JE, et al. Nutrition and physical activity program to attenuate obesity and promote physical and metabolic fitness in elementary school children. Obesity Research. 1996;4:229-243.
  6. Luepker RV, Perry CL, McKinlay SM, et al. Outcomes of a field trial to improve children’s dietary patterns and physical activity. The Child and Adolescent Trial for Cardiovascular Health. CATCH collaborative group. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1996;275:768-76.
  7. Clay T, Davis SM, et al. Pathways: a school-based, randomized controlled trial for the prevention of obesity in American Indian schoolchildren. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003;78(5):1030-1038.
  8. Satter EM; Appendix G, Feeding and parenting in the school setting. Your Child’s Weight—Helping Without Harming. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press; 2005:409-418.
  9. Hellmich N. Health movement has school cafeterias in a food fight. USA Today. August 24, 2005.



For help with raising your big child or your small child to feel good about himself and have the body that is right for him, read Ellyn Satter's Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming

Your Child's Weight


Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding addresses child obesity

  • To prevent child overweight and obesity from birth, support parents in following sDOR.
  • To treat child overweight and obesity at any age, restore sDOR and trust the child’s own homeostasis to restore appropriate growth.


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