Should parents restrict foods over the holidays?

I often get asked about tips for healthier holiday eating or how to control a child’s eating over the holidays. From Halloween to New Year’s Day, we are bombarded with messages about how to prevent dreaded holiday weight gain or about feeling guilty eating “forbidden foods”.

What are these messages saying to our kids? As a registered dietitian, you might think that I would applaud these messages to encourage eating healthier over the holidays—but I think we are missing the big picture. When did it become taboo for kids to eat their Halloween candy or take that extra helping of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving? Preparing traditional family recipes often brings us joy so why do we feel so guilty afterwards?

As parents and caregivers, we want what is best for our kids. We want them to eat their fruits and vegetables and to limit eating sweets. For younger children, it’s something that we can control for the most part. But for a lifetime of healthy eating, we need to teach them how to balance their food choices so they don’t feel guilty eating unhealthy foods.

A recent article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics demonstrated that when overweight adolescents had sugar restrictions, they ended up eating more sugar when it was available to them leading to an increased focus on the restricted food.

The joy of eating is about eating enough of the foods you enjoy, according to Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian. Satter explains the steps of how to be a competent eater which includes to:

  • Feed yourself faithfully by taking time to eat and develop a meal and snack routine including foods you truly enjoy
  • Give yourself permission to eat by eating what you want and as much as you want, but paying attention to your food and eating until you feel like stopping
  • Notice as you learn and grow to feel good about your eating by allowing “forbidden food” at meals or snacks to make them seem ordinary

Parent and caregivers can help children at holiday meal times by:

  • Allowing them to serve themselves so they can regulate how much they want to eat
  • Serve not only healthy foods at home, but balance their eating by adding “forbidden foods”, this will make them seem less exciting and more ordinary
  • Don’t control what your child eats at a party or holiday meal, allow them to choose the foods they enjoy without the guilt
  • Establish structured eating times to avoid grazing and excessive hunger before the meal
  • Get your child involved with meal planning and preparation to teach them about nutrition and to enjoy all types of foods from holiday cookies to roasted vegetables

I know it’s hard to watch your kids indulge over the holidays or at a party, but it is important to teach them to feel good about what they are eating. It also lets them figure out how much to eat to avoid food shaming and sneaking food. Teach them about balancing their diet inclusive of both healthy and unhealthy foods. In the end, they will have a better relationship with food and not feel the guilt.