There are two ways to limit children's access to foods and doing this covertly is much more effective.

No, you can't have another biscuit.

All parents want their children to be healthy. A varied and balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables, is essential to ensure children's health and wellbeing. Sugary, salty, and high-fat snacks and drinks add no nutritional value to a child's diet, and they should be limited. 

However, parents can find it difficult to strike a balance between restricting unhealthy foods and drinks and allowing treats, especially in our modern society where unhealthy foods and drinks are often freely available and easily accessible to children. How such restriction is managed is important in getting this balance right.

There are 2 types of restriction

  • Covert restriction refers to restriction that the child cannot see and that they are not aware of. For example, not having unhealthy snack foods in the house or not walking home past the chip shop.

  • Overt restriction refers to restriction that the child can see and that they are aware of. For example, keeping crisps in the kitchen cupboard, but not allowing your child to eat any, or drinking sugary drinks in front of your child, but not allowing them to have a taste.

Covert restriction is believed to be the most effective way to restrict a child's access to unhealthy foods and drinks, without causing an increase in their desire for such foods.

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Why can restricting food be bad?

Overtly restricting access to a highly-desired food has the short-term effect of limiting consumption of that food. However, overtly restricting foods can make these foods even more desired. A food's status as 'forbidden' often makes it all the more appealing. 

Research has found that when given free access to previously restricted foods, children tend to overeat them. The effects of this overt restriction are therefore the opposite to those intended and may lead to children eating more unhealthy foods. 

Based on these findings, it is suggested that parents try to restrict unhealthy foods and drinks in a covert way, rather than deny children foods that are in clear view. 

Please note that if your child is overweight or obese, covert restriction may not be sufficient to support regaining a healthy weight and you should seek advice from your GP or health visitor.

Covert restriction is associated with lower intake of unhealthy foods and drinks. This is because the small changes that parents can make to their homes and routines can result in fewer unhealthy foods and drinks being present in the child's environment. With these items not available at home, children have less access to them, and are therefore less likely to eat them. There is also less chance of a situation occurring where a parent is required to enforce restriction overtly.

Such positive changes in the home environment can also impact children's learned food preferences. With unhealthy foods and drinks not in the home, children are more likely to see their parents eating and enjoying healthy alternatives and their exposure to healthier role modelling is increased.

What should I do?

It is hard to tell a child that they cannot have a biscuit when they are clutching the biscuit tin. Not only will the child be upset or angry, but they will also find it very confusing and unsettling. Young children are unable to reason and understand your logic and they will not understand why it is okay to eat a biscuit on some occasions, but not others, or why it is okay for Mummy to eat a biscuit, but not them.

Below are some points to keep in mind when you are trying to manage your child's diet. See also the tips and tools section for a description of how you can gain an insight into factors that may be contributing to unhealthy food choices using the when, where, why and what awareness exercise.

Things to try

  1. Out with the old
    Empty your cupboards of all unhealthy snack foods and drinks that you do not want your children to have free access to. Only keep in the home what you are happy for your children to eat at any time.

  2. In with the new
    Re-stock your cupboards with healthier alternatives. There are many healthy, attractively-packaged snacks for children.

  3. Lead by example
    There can't be one rule for parents and one rule for children. If a food or drink is restricted for them, it can't be freely available to you.

  4. Location, Location, Location! 
    Try to avoid going to places that you know will cause a problem. For example, take a route home that avoids the local fast food take-away or sweet shop.

  5. Apply portion control
    Pre-portion foods so that you are able to give a small portion and children can see that there is no more. For example, portion biscuits into twos rather than pulling out a whole packet. This way, you are able to covertly manage the portions given.

  6. Create rules
    Define rules that aren't about restriction, but just social norms. For example, "Yes you can have a biscuit, but not for breakfast. We'll have a biscuit at snack time".

  7. The advertising effect
    Children are sponges for advertising. Unhealthy foods and drinks may be appealing because of the fun containers or the playful characters on the packaging, rather than the contents itself. If you suspect this is the case, try substituting the contents with something healthier.