Setting Limits on Junk Food for Children – Is it Possible When You’re Aiming for Self-Regulation?

I’m often contacted by people who, having read my Gentle Eating Book, ask me if I really set absolutely no limits on the junk food my children eat. I think they presume that they eat only sweets/candy and chocolate all day long and that my house is reminiscent of some sort of Willy Wonka’esque never ending sugar factory.

Photo by Foodie Factor on

To answer this, I need to do a quick recap of the main ideas in my Gentle Eating Book. I’m not adding the research in here as 1. it’s all referenced in the book should you want to read it and 2. I’m writing this newsletter with zero time while our dinner cooks and don’t have time to dig them all out! Anyway – the main ideas behind so called ‘treat’ food are:

1. Labeling palatable food as ‘treats’, ‘sometimes foods’, ‘unhealthy’, or something similar can in itself make a child more likely to crave them as they get older. When we anthropomorphise something (ie give it a personality) it greatly impacts on how we interact with it.
2. Restricting palatable foods (by palatable I mean predominantly refined sugar) is shown consistently to be a large risk factor in the child being unable to self-regulate it later in life. ie: if sugary foods/junk foods are banned, or overly restricted, early in childhood, the child is more likely to struggle to regulate them as they grow and gain independence surrounding what they can eat and when. This dis-regulation often results in overeating and bingeing on the previously forbidden items in the teen and young adult years, which can and does impact on weight gain.
3. Children are able to self-regulate their food intake if adults don’t interfere with our learned beliefs and eating behaviours. Even refined sugar (and no – it’s not addictive! despite what you may read online, or in certain books, similarly it doesn’t make children hyperactive, or cause problems with sleep!). The key here is to look at what they eat in total over the course of a week, not analyse it hour by hour or day by day.

So – what does this look like in reality?

In our house, I order our groceries online and get a delivery that is to last us for between 7-10 days. I meal plan, so we have no wastage. What gets delivered I know will be gone by the time the next order arrives. Each week I order what many people would term ‘junk food’, or ‘treats’ (I just call them ‘food’): small chocolate bars, biscuits, crisps, fromage frais or chocolate desert pots and choc ices or ice pops usually. It usually works out so that there is enough for 1 chocolate bar, 1 packet of crisps and 1 desert option per day, per child. Plus a couple of biscuits per day, per child. These all go into our pantry or fridge/freezer and once they are delivered I have zero control over them. My control is what I buy and bring into the house. The children are allowed to self-regulate their eating of them. If they choose to eat loads the day the shopping arrives, then they have none for the next 7 days. If they eat them slowly they can have a feast the day before the new shopping arrives. If one child eats their own and their siblings’ food, well then they all have to figure it out themselves, because I don’t get involved in small sibling squabbles (I should add a caveat they are all tweens/teens, I would get involved if they were younger). Mostly, they take their allocation of food that doesn’t have to be refrigerated and keep it in their bedroom (personally, I hide my chocolate at the bottom of the vegetable drawer!). If they chose to eat chocolate for breakfast, then so be it (they invariably eat ‘proper’ breakfast 30 minutes later).

They are each free to spend their pocket money as they would like. If that’s all on sweets/candy, then so be it (it rarely is by the way, usually only when they have a sleepover or go into town with a friend and visit the sweet shop), because once I give that money to them I don’t believe I should have control of it (more HERE). If we’re out and about and they ask for a cake, or an ice cream, I will buy one if I have enough cash on me (they tend to only ask for sandwiches, sushi or cooked pasta pots though).

When it comes to Halloween, they do go trick or treating and come back with impressive hauls. I let them eat this haul with almost zero restrictions (when they were younger I used to take out the gluten containing items for my coeliac son and I won’t let them eat gumballs , bubble gum, or toxic waste type sweets – that’s a brand name by the way, google it – it’s disgusting!). If they want to eat all of it for dinner, then so be it. Usually I end up throwing away discarded sweets/candy a couple of weeks after Halloween when they’ve got bored of them, in fact it only takes a couple of days for the boredom to set in. I often find Christmas chocolate in the summer and uneaten Easter Eggs in the Autumn/Fall.

The only other way I get involved with their eating of ‘junk’, is by asking them to check in on their bodies if they’re hungry and want to eat. They tend to come home from school ravenous and want to eat immediately. My daughter in particular will grab the quickest thing, which is usually the biscuit tin. If I see her going for it I will ask “are you hungry? if you are, then some cereal or toast would probably fill you up more”. Sometimes she opts for cereal, other times she opts for the biscuits, but I make sure I have no further involvement in her choice, aside from getting her to think about why she is eating.

Is my approach perfect? Of course not, what is? Although, what I can see is that (so far) none of my children have the terrible relationship with ‘junk food’ that I had as a teen (and still do). My mother heavily restricted refined sugar when I was a child, junk food was a special treat only. I didn’t know any better until I got a little older and saw my friends had biscuits, cakes and soda streams in their homes. I would gorge on iced party rings and sweets at parties and when I went to secondary school I would often spend my dinner money solely on cake. I hope I’m raising my children to be different!

You can read more about the psychology of eating in childhood – and what the science says about raising children to have a healthy relationship with food in my Gentle Eating Book. available HERE in the UK and HERE in the rest of the world.


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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