Many parents wonder how best to manage and regulate what their children eat. Is it better to restrict access to unhealthy foods, or to allow access so that children will learn to regulate themselves? This question comprises one important area of research at the Rudd Center. So far, we’ve learned that different kinds of rules have different impacts, but a lot of questions remain unanswered.
We do know that using or withholding food to reward or punish children’s behavior has the effect of making that food more desirable. Because parents typically use unhealthy foods like ice cream or candy as rewards, increasing desirability isn’t a good idea. Also, according to a study by Rudd Center researchers Marlene Schwartz and Rebecca Puhl, using food to control children’s behavior can lead to binge eating and dietary restraint in adulthood. Therefore, we recommend avoiding the use of food as a reward or punishment.
Should parents restrict unhealthy foods? Given the overwhelming environment to which children are exposed, we believe the answer is yes. It is one thing for a child to learn self-regulation when asked to attend to her hunger and subsequently make a choice between having one cookie or two (or even none). It is quite another thing when that same child is faced with numerous opportunities every day to choose from a large variety of unhealthy foods. This does not mean that we shouldn’t offer dessert or a treat; just that those offerings should be limited in both frequency of offering and portion size. Stay tuned for research updates in this area.