A systematic review published in the journal Pediatrics reported associations between food insecurity and increasing body weight and mass index (BMI) percentiles in preschoolers and girls, in particular.
As a parent of any child, here’s what you need to know: Food insecurity can be real or perceived. Whether food deprivation is literal or psychological, feeling insecure about food is known to impact a child’s eating negatively–and those impacts can linger long after the perceived lack has been fixed.
If you’re lucky enough to have plenty of food for your family, it’s still worth taking steps to reassure your child that they have–and are allowed to eat–enough food at each meal and snack.
Having the freedom to eat as much as you are hungry can be key when it comes to being (or staying) a natural, healthy body weight. It’s more effective than setting lots of food limits, leaving kids feeling anxious, unsure, and more likely to over (or under) eat.
Does your child worry about getting enough to eat?
Childhood hunger is a massive problem that needs immediate fixing. The disordered eating and malnutrition caused by food insecurity can be tragic and long-lasting. (For those looking to help ease hunger, you can find ways to take action here. Likewise, if you need food, you can enter your zip code here to find resources.)
Feelings of food insecurity in homes where kids have more than enough to eat can also be devasting. Eating disorders are a consequence of food restriction, which occurs in dieters as well as those who follow uber-healthy dietary patterns that require cutting out or limiting entire food groups or ingredients.
Unlike true food insecurity, parents have the power to sidestep the damaging effects of mental food scarcity by avoiding the strict limits that come with dieting. We can erase uneasiness about food in our homes by giving our kids more freedom when deciding how much to eat. In addition, we can offer a wider variety of foods and avoid making others taboo or forbidden.
Psychological Food Insecurity
In my experience as a family dietitian, I’ve found that to keep kids healthy, parents restrict or even forbid certain foods such as those that are high in sugar or fat, are packaged or processed, or are too starchy. However, food restrictions set by parents are linked with multiple negative eating behaviors in kids, including binging and extreme dieting.
When children feel restricted in the amounts or types of foods they can eat, they tend to overeat those foods when given a chance. Think about your own experiences with food rules. If you’ve been putting a strong limit on sugary foods like cookies or candy your child can eat, how have they acted when given free rein, say at a party or in a grandparent’s home? Do they enjoy them calmly and in moderation? Or do they go overboard?
Another fallout from feeling overly restricted is a tendency to sneak or hide foods. When parents find wrappers under their child’s bed or stuffed in a drawer, it is often a clue that the child feels insecure about eating that particular food. Thus, they need to sneak or hide it.
What’s important to note in all these scenarios is that putting what we consider a “healthy” limit on highly desirable foods doesn’t make those foods taste any less good. Nor does it make our children want them less. It may do the opposite, causing them to be more preoccupied with eating them—and now has the added impact of making them feel guilty for doing so.
Unfortunately, the scarcity mindset can linger long after food becomes available. With that in mind, opt for a more positive approach to limit-setting with food.
A Strategy for Setting Healthy Limits
Giving your child the green light to eat anything, anywhere, anytime doesn’t help them feel more calm, secure, and relaxed about food. Handing over all control to them–particularly if they are in elementary school or younger–can cause other eating problems.
Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding is a highly recommended approach for helping children have healthy and happy relationships with food. It helps a child feel secure in their knowledge that they will be fed enough and enough food they enjoy.
This evidence-based approach requires setting limits in some areas while letting go of control in others. It involves both structure and permission with food simultaneously.
Leaning Into Structure
Creating structure around meals is how you will set healthy limits with food. Decide on the type of foods offered at meals and the time and place your kids will be eating. If you keep a reliable eating routine, our children feel safe and reassured that they would be fed.
Letting Go in the Right Place
The area where parents can let go of control is in the amounts eaten. If you let your child eat as much or as little as they like, they won’t feel limited or restricted, which can quell the tendency to overeat. (If this gets your hackles up, you’re not alone! This can be tough for those who have spent most of their life dieting. Parents who fall in this category often need extra support to make this model work well.)
An important point is to ensure that an ample amount is available (within your means). Avoid limiting or restricting, even if it feels like your child is going overboard. The freedom you allow your child in this regard will, in time, help them have an easier time self-regulating their food intake in the future. This approach is also linked with decreased pickiness, too.
Many parents have questions about this approach when they first hear about it. If you need help, reach out to a pediatric dietitian for guidance or learn more about the Division of Responsibility from a credentialed expert.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.