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Stefanie Tsabar

Forcing and Restricting Our Kids’ Food

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Most of us parents were taught that it is our job to control what and how much our children eat. We believe that, if given the chance, kids would devour cookies endlessly and never eat a vegetable for the rest of their lives.

Houston, we have a problem.

We have mistakenly come to believe that human beings do not know what we need to survive and thrive.

Therefore, we do not trust ourselves around food and we certainly do not trust our children. And where there is no trust, a desperation and dependence for strict rules is born.

Calories, portion-control, excessive/obsessive exercise rule our days. Forcing our kids to eat all of their vegetables or cleaning their plates before getting dessert becomes our dinnertime focal point. And, sadly, keeping sweets or other cravings out of the house for fear that you – or your kids – will inhale them all has become common, acceptable practice.

But, just consider for a minute the fact that we are animals. And like all animals, we are born with a natural ability to self-regulate our food intake. We instinctively know how to read our bodies’ signals for hunger, fullness, and even the need for nutrients.

We know when our bodies are craving more water or protein or carbohydrates. And, we were born knowing this without the need for a calorie tracker or step-counter.

Research shows that when children are given a variety of food on a predictable schedule, and in a calm and enjoyable environment, they will naturally eat the right amount of food their bodies need to grow up healthy.

Desserts and sweets get dethroned and children grow up making food choices based on their internal needs rather than in reaction to their parents’ restrictive rules at the dinner table. In other words, they might take 2 or 3 cookies and leave the rest, rather than anxiously eating them all.

But, when they are forced or restricted with food, then kids stop listening to their internal cues and begin to rely on external sources for how much and what to eat. And since external cues are limitless (e.g., what mom and dad instruct them to eat, what friends eat at a party, and every new diet fad), this sets them up for a lifetime of confusion around food.

And, the research is clear: forcing and restricting food backfires. Children who are forced to eat more, will ultimately eat less and children who are restricted, will eventually eat a lot more when given the chance.

Although it goes against everything most of us were taught, learning to trust our kids with food is the greatest gift we can give them. They will grow up feeling self-reliant, confident and relaxed around food. They will never dread a gorgeous buffet because they can’t trust themselves. Or, dread eating altogether, like one woman who was forced to clean her plate growing up recently told me.

We can do better for our kids. And even though it can be excruciating to let go of control – like, unbelievably EXCRUCIATING – our kids’ experience with eating for the rest of their lives depends on it.

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2 comments… add one
  • thank you Stefanie for this article, and for empathising with how I’m feeling right now! I’ve been giving my daughter freedom to eat what she wants and it is totally excrutiating!

    • Stefanie Tsabar

      Kate, I’m so glad you found it helpful! Feel free to let me know if you have any other questions.

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