Featured image for article: "Limiting Food: Is it ever okay to control how much your toddler eats?". Pictured is a smiling toddler at a table with a plate of spaghetti in front of them.

A common question I get from parents is about when it’s okay to limit portions for their child. And it usually goes something like this…

“What do you do when a child only eats their favorite food and wants more of it and hasn’t eaten the other foods served at the meal. For example, my daughter loves pasta and if I serve it with broccoli and tofu, she often only eats the pasta and asks for more. Do I allow that?” 

Before I go into my answer, I want to explore why parents feel the natural need to limit food at times. And if you prefer to listen to me chat about this, head over to the podcast episode here.

Our perspective may be that we think:

  • The food they want more of is unhealthy. We’re not saying our kids can’t have a bit of something that has sugar in it, or doesn’t have many nutrients in it, but they can’t eat unlimited amounts of it because it’s not healthy to have too much – right?
  • We’re the parents – we know more about what’s better for them than they do. This is the thinking that “I’m placed here to literally teach my child what they should and shouldn’t do – I want what’s best for them and they don’t know what that is!”
  • They won’t try another food on their plate. I want them to have exposure and taste other types of foods as well. How are they supposed to do that when they always eat the same food over and over?
  • They’re overweight. You feel like they’re gaining weight and you need to restrict their calories. 
  • They need to save room for the “real meal”. Perhaps it’s snack time and you want to save their appetite for the “real meal”. Or maybe you’re worried they might feel sick if they eat too much.

What’s their perspective on the situation?

  • Mom/Dad put food in front of me and I liked it. I’d like more! I’m still hungry, or I really enjoyed it, and I want to eat enough to satisfy me. 

Let’s go through all these thoughts and dissect them for a deeper understanding. As a parent, it is so easy to react without ever stopping to think about why we do what we do or if it is even effective (let alone, evidenced-based). We often parent out of fear rather than from a place of trust and confidence in our children’s growing ability to make their own decisions, including around food and self-feeding.

The food they want more of is unhealthy

If it’s something we consider to be not very nutritious for our babies or toddlers, I ask why it’s served in the first place. Well… maybe you want to give them a taste of it, or maybe you were out and someone else gave it to them. We have to understand that babies and toddlers don’t see it this way. What they see is that we’re stepping in and controlling their side of the feeding equation. For those who haven’t heard it before, perhaps you’re new here, at MLE we follow a foundational approach to feeding kids of all ages that goes a little something like this:

The parent chooses what food is served.

The parent chooses when food is served. 

The parent chooses where food is served. 

The child chooses if they want to eat from what we’ve provided them.

The child chooses how much to eat from what we’ve provided them. 

So what, when, and where food is served is where we can exert all the control and what we can influence. But if we’re to have a trusting feeding relationship with our child, if we’re to promote that they have a healthy relationship with food, if we’re to prevent picky eating and have happy meals with no bribing, pressure, or restriction – which the research strongly and clearly shows are all behaviours that make picky eating and/or problematic eating behaviours emerge or become worse….then we need to let go of micromanaging whether they eat and how much they eat. That’s their realm. Their responsibility. Their control. (read more about this in this blog post and hear more about it in this podcast episode).

We can prevent them from eating large amounts of food that are not nutritious by controlling the feeding schedule and what foods are served. I have many podcasts and blogs on how to deal with desserts and treat foods and manage things like that without going into too much detail here. I will say here though, that if your child eats too much of a food you’d prefer them to not eat a lot of in one meal, then don’t reoffer it again for a longer period of time to balance things out.

Also, what happens when we limit unhealthy foods but don’t limit healthy foods? Trust me, your baby or toddler will pick up on that. It tells our child certain foods are “good” for you while others are “bad” for you and can’t be enjoyed. Research shows that this makes kids either feel guilty about eating these “bad” foods, and/or it causes them to see these foods as forbidden, but better, than the food that’s “good”. Which makes them prefer it, and preoccupy themselves with it, and in turn, want to eat more of it when it’s available. 

We’re the parents – we know what’s better for them than they do

If we think that we know better for them than they do in terms of how much they need to eat…I’m going to break it to you now that that’s not true! When we set them up with the right environment – with solid boundaries and with careful selection of meals – they can do the rest and know how much their body needs way better than we do. 

Remember – they choose if and how much. This isn’t just some random saying meant to give our kids excessive freedom. But truly – only they know their appetites. We’ll never be able to know if they’re going through a growth spurt, having a slow down in growth, feeling sick, etc. There’s so many things that could be affecting their appetite that we can’t ever know, and we really want them to be able to tune into that appetite because it really does reflect their nutrient needs.

We certainly know better than them in terms of what they should be served and when… that’s why that’s our role! And that’s why we don’t let them step into that role and take their special requests for what they want to eat for dinner…otherwise they’d be served chicken nuggets and ketchup every meal! 

But restricting how much a child eats at mealtime of any one type of food, or total amount of food, tells the child – they can’t be trusted to know what’s good for them. They can’t trust their internal cues, and that their body is broken in some way, and that they need to look to external cues to tell them what’s appropriate to eat and what’s not.

They won’t try another food on their plate

They will be less likely to try another food on their plate if what you’re doing is restricting the other food, or pressuring them, or bribing them. Or perhaps, they do try, and then you’re bargaining bite-for-bite forevermore and, at best, you never teach them to like that food, only eat it, and at worst – you can create an even bigger aversion to it that spirals into deeper issues at mealtimes.

There are ways you can get them to try other food on their plate – and that’s through food play and conversation and invoking a genuine interest in the food, on their own accord. My Feeding Toddlers course can teach you how to do all that.

They’re overweight

Once again – restriction leads to preoccupation with food. They feel deprived, they feel like they can’t trust their appetite, and they learn to scarf down food when it’s available and no parent is there to stop them because they don’t have free access to it at home. Control the environment, vs. their appetite. 

Overweight children are always looked at differently than average weight children, and we tell them over and over again – your body is broken and ignore your hunger cues. We also freak out if we see them enjoying their food! This is so unfair, and damaging, and we need to understand that weight has nothing to do with health. And the biases we place on kids based on weight are having long-term effects. For example, look at how we respond to a child eating ice cream whose average weight vs. an overweight child eating ice cream… but that’s a chat for another day. The main point I want to make here is that restriction is not going to be something that helps in these scenarios, in fact it could lead to more issues.

They need to save room for the “real meal”

So many people think that for toddlers and young preschoolers we need to place limits on the amount of food they eat at snack time.

I disagree! Here’s why. Young children don’t always eat what they need at one meal. They need multiple opportunities throughout the day, we know it’s so common for toddlers to skip a meal here and there. If your snacks are like meals, in that they aren’t just empty calories or candies, etc., but are instead maybe leftover chicken and pasta, basically something that doesn’t come in a crinkly package and is instead more whole foods based – then you don’t have to worry. Also, remember your role. You can choose when food is offered! If it’s spaced out correctly, there’s no need to limit food at snack time. If your child is too full going into lunch after having a mid-morning snack – you don’t have to offer it! Or, if they’re hungry in mid-morning, then accept that they may not want to eat at lunch! It’s no biggie ‘cause it’s all one and the same. We’re not going to tell our hungry kid at 10:30 am you can’t fill your belly because there’s a meal coming 2 hours from now. That’s unfair and against raising intuitive eaters. This doesn’t mean free-for-all snacking any time. It means scheduled times and letting them choose how much. 

As kids get older, they don’t need 2 mid-day snacks. Usually an afternoon snack is fine. As they turn into adults, we don’t really need snacks if we’re eating balanced meals from whole foods. If we do need a snack, then yes limit it because our stomach takes 4-5 hours to digest and empty a bit to consume another meal. But for kids, this happens much quicker, so offer food more frequently and let them have their fill!

So…is it ever ok to limit food?

Yes! In these scenarios:

  1. There’s not enough food for others – look at what’s available for everyone at that meal. The food offered should feed everyone at the table. For example, if you’re serving rice and your toddler goes for their second or third helping, but their brother hasn’t had any rice yet, you could say something like: “Actually, we need to leave some rice for your brother to have because he didn’t get a chance to have any yet.” And just remind them that everyone gets the option to take some before it’s all gone. But be careful with this one…the point isn’t to purposefully put out only a few portions in the hopes that when you say it’s all gone they’ll choose to eat something else. This is about what is genuinely available for that meal. So another example is say you’ve made chicken for dinner, but you want to save some of it for lunch the next day, so you portion out what you think is enough for everyone for dinner and put the rest in the fridge for lunch. But then your toddler wants more chicken and what you’ve portioned for dinner is all gone. It’s okay to tell them that you don’t have anymore for dinner because you need to save some of it for lunch tomorrow, and then just remind them of what else is available at dinner that they could choose from. And if you sense that there is a scarcity around a certain food, then bring that food into the meal plan more often so they don’t feel that it isn’t available to them.
  2. Food is expensive. So sometimes we decide to splurge and buy something that’s maybe a bit more expensive, and not something we can realistically keep at the house to have on hand all the time. For example, maybe during the off-season you buy some raspberries – they were expensive, but they’re your toddler’s favourite so you decide to get some as a treat. In these cases, it makes sense to either want to save some so you can have some with more than one meal, or let your toddler know that once they eat what’s there, there aren’t anymore to have another time. You could say something like: “Once you finish those raspberries that’s all for today because we’re having the rest tomorrow with breakfast.” or “Once you finish those raspberries they’re all gone and we won’t have anymore for a while, so let’s enjoy them today!”.
  3. They have a health issue, digestive issues, or an intolerance (or perhaps, too much of something gives them diarrhea). For example, for some children, having too much fruit can give them diarrhea. So, if you know this is the case for your toddler, and they’ve had 2-3 servings of fruit already, and you know if they have another they’re going to get diarrhea tonight, then it’s okay to tell them that that is all the fruit for now because “If you eat more you’re gonna feel sick later on, and mommy can’t let you feel sick, but I’m going to pack this up and we can have this on Wednesday.” Be sure to let them know when they can have it again, so they can expect it, they know it’s going back into the meal plan rotation, but in the meantime you just need to keep them healthy. Another example is if your child has an intolerance, for example to lactose (which is very rare), but since intolerances are dose dependent, there will be a certain amount that will cause an issue. So for example, in the case of lactose, maybe you know they can handle a couple pieces of cheese, but they can’t drink a full cup of milk, or a full serving of yogurt, or maybe 4 pieces of cheese puts them over the edge and makes them feel sick. It’s okay to limit when you know they’ve reached the threshold for what they can handle before getting sick. So you’re teaching them about how much they can have because of their health and the symptoms, but it’s not about their weight, or trying to make them eat another food, or any other hidden agenda.

What if it’s dessert/junk food?

  • You can set out a certain amount for each person and say “that’s all we have!”
  • As a child gets older and older, they will realize that you either have more, or that you’re restricting things. For my boys, I’m at the point where I have to let them decide for themselves what’s good – ‘cause at this point, it’s like telling an adult they can only have one.

Implementing these changes can be a big step, and one that makes a huge impact! If you’re looking for more guidance on how to effectively accomplish this, and want all the nitty gritty details about that foundational approach I mention, it’s time to enroll in my Feeding Toddlers online course! I will walk you through this process step-by-step to help you create the best feeding environment for your toddler, and share with you my top strategies for preventing or reversing picky eating.

edwenakennedy