Using "Forbidden" Food

Ellyn Satter
February 23, 2018

"Forbidden" foods are high-fat, high-sugar, relatively low-nutrient foods such as sweets, chips and sodas. As with everything else about parenting, using them is a balancing act. If you give your child unlimited access to these easy-to-like foods, she is likely to fill up on them and not be interested in learning to like more-challenging foods such as vegetables. On the other hand, if you restrict them, research shows she is likely to eat more of them when she gets the chance and be fatter than she might be otherwise.

Here is how to do the balancing act with ''forbidden'' foods:

  • Include chips or fries at the occasional mealtime, and arrange to have enough so everyone can eat their fill. Unlike sweets, fatty foods don't compete with other mealtime foods.
  • Have sweets for dessert (if you like dessert), but limit everyone to one serving.
  • Periodically offer unlimited sweets at snack time. For instance, put on a plate of cookies or snack cakes and a glass of milk, and let her eat as many cookies as she wants.

The dessert recommendation breaks the rule about the division of responsibility, but with good reason. Your child will push herself along to learn and grow with food, but she will also take the easy way out if it is offered. Letting her fill up on dessert offers an easy way out. But because the dessert rule sets up scarcity with sweets, you must counteract that scarcity. At snack time (that would be a sit-down snack), you can let your child eat as many sweets as she wants because the sweets aren't competing with other meal-time foods. At first she will eat a lot of sweets, but the newness will wear off and after while she won't eat so many. Offering nutritious sweets, such as oatmeal cookies or banana bread, will make it easier for you to trust her to get enough!

What about soda? If you drink soda, maintain a double standard. Tell your child it is a grown-up drink, which it is. When she is old enough to learn about soda-drinking from friends -- probably in middle school -- arrange to have soda occasionally for snack or along with a particular meal, such as pizza or tacos. The trick is including it regularly enough so it doesn't get to be ''forbidden,'' but not making it available in unlimited quantities, all the time.

Copyright © 2009 by Ellyn Satter. Published at For more about enjoying all food (and for research backing up this advice), see Ellyn Satter's Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook, Kelcy Press, 2008. Also see to purchase books and to review other resources.

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