Setting Limits with Food to Keep Kids Healthy

An Interview with Debbie Danowski, Ph.D.

Sometimes kids need help regulating how much they eat. Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

It’s no wonder that a lot of children have issues surrounding food. After all, today’s world bombards children and teens with advertising for a variety of unhealthy foods while also marketing fad diets and warnings about obesity.

It’s important to set limits with not just the quantity of food children want to eat, but also the quality of their food intake. If you’ve got a child who constantly complains of feeling hungry or a child who could benefit from changing his diet or losing weight, it can feel like an uphill battle.

I interviewed Debbie Danowski, Ph.D., author of “Why Can’t My Child Stop Eating: A Guide to Help Your Child Overcome Emotional Eating,” to learn more about how parents can effectively set limits and establish rules with food.

How should parents respond to a child who always claims to feel hungry?

Parents should try to educate their children about the difference between emotional and physical hunger. The best way to do this is to make them aware of what it feels like to be physically hungry - a rumbling in their stomach, sometimes feeling light headed, etc. Explain that thoughts in their minds are not about being hungry.

Ask the child if he or she is bored, upset, happy, or some other feeling that he or she may be confusing with hunger. It's important for parents to ask questions rather than telling the child what he or she is experiencing. It's much more powerful for a child to come to the realization that he or she isn't really hungry but bored or sad instead.

Related article: How to Teach Kids About Feelings

How can parents recognize when it is important to set limits with food? For example, when should parents say no to another helping or a snack?

The easiest way to avoid setting too many limits is to have only healthy food in the house. This gives the child a choice between healthy foods rather than having the parents monitoring everything the child is eating.

If there is a need to set limits – if for instance the family is out at an event that has food – then the parents again are better off asking the child to determine whether or not he or she is hungry.

Distraction is also a good method rather than outwardly forbidding children from eating something. If the child asks for another piece of cake, for example, the parent can ask the child to play a game or organize another activity that's fun for the child.

Are parents better off establishing clear rules about snacks or is flexibility better? For example, should parents have a set schedule for snack times or is it better to wait until a child says he feels hungry?

As with most things in life, there is no right or wrong answer here. It depends on the family and the child. If everyone else in the family is snacking whenever they want than restricting one child will only add to that child's distress. In an ideal world, it's best to schedule mealtimes at approximately the same time each day about four to five hours apart then if the child says he or she is hungry, ask questions to determine if it is, in fact, true hunger.

Related article: 10 Tips for Establishing Household Rules

What should parents do if they discover a child is sneaking food or snacks?

This can be a little challenging for parents since it will most likely be very upsetting.

The most important thing is to wait until the parent can have a calm conversation with the child. Bullying, yelling, forbidding, or any other similar behavior will only make the food more attractive to the child.

First, the parent needs to get his or her feeling about the incident out so they don't spill over onto the child. The parent can do this by talking with a friend, writing about it, or even seeking professional help. Once this is done, the parent should very calmly ask the child why he or she feels the need to sneak food.

Begin to ask questions about what the food represents to the child.

Do not pass judgment on the child. Simply ask questions so that the child can hopefully come to a realization. The parent can also explain how eating healthy makes the child's body and mind feel better but make sure the child understands that there is a choice about this.

How can parents encourage kids to develop self-discipline with their food intake and choices?

The most powerful way parents can encourage kids to develop self-discipline with their food is to set an example by doing this themselves. Create an atmosphere at home where there are healthy food choices. Encourage family activities that involve exercise or moving around such as taking a hike or playing basketball or whatever works for the family. If the parent sets an example, the child will eventually follow.

Related article: How to Role Model the Behaviors You Want to See From Your Kids

How do you feel about food being used as a reward?

I do not believe in using food as a reward for children ever. This is part of the reason why our country's children are in so much trouble today. We use food for ways that it was not intended. There are far too many other things that can be used as rewards. Using food in this way sends the message that food should be used for things other than what it is intended for – to nourish our bodies.

Related article: Free and Low Cost Rewards that can be used as an alternative to a food reward

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