30 July 1999

When It Comes To Food, Children Want What They Can't Have

by Kate Melville

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that restricting children's access to foods they want may lead to over-indulgence when they are free to make their own choices.

Researchers selected two snack foods typically offered to a group of preschool-aged children in a daycare environment. Children were freely offered both foods during their snack time for several weeks. Then the researchers restricted children's access to one food while providing the other to children in unlimited quantities. The restricted food remained visible in a jar and the children were aware that the snack was "off limits."

When the "forbidden food" was again made available, children took larger-than-normal portions, and ate more than normal as compared to the initial study period when the food was freely offered. Most adults know that foods that are high in fat or sugar and low in vitamins and minerals should be consumed in moderation, but most children do not. Restricting access to these types of foods may work in the short-term, but it may negate the long-term goal of developing healthy eating patterns.

As children grow, they need to learn about different foods and how to make good choices. Says Jennifer Orlet Fisher, lead author of the study, "This research does not imply that parents should let children have whatever they want whenever they want it. Structure is as important in child feeding as it is in any other aspect of parenting. Parents should provide children with a variety of nutritious foods and with enough guidance to help their children make reasonable decisions about what and how much to eat."