Restricting a Child’s Food Choices (Recipe: Caramel Swirled M&M Blondies)

There was an experiment at Pennsylvania State University where researchers gave preschool children the opportunity to “work” for a food reward. All the child had to do was click a computer mouse four times to earn a cinnamon-flavored graham cracker.  But earning additional treats required progressively more effort. A second treat required eight clicks. Then 16. Then 32.  You get the idea.

Some children were satisfied after one cracker, while others kept clicking for a few additional crackers. Most of the preschoolers were done after about 15 minutes, but some children stayed with it, accumulating as many as 2,000 clicks before the researchers ended the task after 30 minutes.

Researchers called the children who are highly motivated by food “reactive eaters”.  These children are of particular interest to childhood health experts. Were they born this way? Or do parents create reactive eaters by imposing too many food rules and imposing restrictive eating practices at home?

The answer is probably a little bit of both. Genetics and biology play a role in the foods we like and the amounts we tend to eat. At the same time, studies show that children who grow up in homes with restrictive food rules, where a parent is constantly dieting or desirable foods are forbidden or placed out of reach, often develop stronger reactions to food and want more of it when the opportunity presents itself.

In the Penn State experiments, the same preschoolers who worked for food were later offered two types of graham crackers (Scooby-Doo or SpongeBob SquarePants–my choice would have definitely been Scooby-Doo!) during their snack time. On five occasions, one type of graham cracker treat was freely available, while the other was placed in a glass bowl with a lid and put off limits. The restricted snacks were available for only five minutes of snack time.

Not surprisingly, the graham crackers that were off limits were enticing to all the preschoolers. But the “reactive” children who had worked hardest in the clicking task also had the strongest response to the off limit food.  They showed more interest in the off-limit snacks, and once they were available, took more and ate more than the children who had been less interested in clicking for food during the first experiment.

“The message is that restriction is counterproductive — it just doesn’t work very well,” said Brandi Rollins, a Penn State post-doctoral researcher and lead author of the study, which was published in February in the journal Appetite. “Restriction just increases a child’s focus and intake of the food that the parent is trying to restrict.”

Leann Birch, senior author of the Penn State studies and now food and nutrition professor at the University of Georgia, said additional research has shown that parents who impose highly restrictive food rules, such as putting desirable foods out of reach, tend to have children who are the most reactive to food in the laboratory.

But is it really a causal relationship?

“It’s hard to talk cause-and-effect,” said Dr. Birch. “The parents are responding to kids’ reactivity, and the child is reacting to the parenting and to a general genetic predisposition. The only way to break the cycle is to try to get the parents to respond differently.”

The solution is to control the quality of the food in the home.  Don’t buy soda, candy and chips and place them off limits on the top shelf of the pantry. Stock the house with healthful foods, and then allow children access and a reasonable amount of control over what they eat.

Parents should not have different rules for themselves, or allow a thin child to eat junk food freely and restrict a sibling with a weight issue. Parents typically don’t have to worry about an overweight child overeating when they are serving high-quality unprocessed foods. For instance, it’s almost impossible to binge on apples. But process the apple into applesauce or juice, and it becomes a junk food that is easy to overeat.

“I don’t like the concept of telling a hungry child you can’t eat,” said Dr. Ludwig. “Ultimately, we want children to gain better connection to their inner satiety cues. So if their body is telling them they are hungry, don’t ignore that — just pay close attention to the quality of the foods that are offered.”

Taken from the article “The Lure of Forbidden Food” in The New York Times.

Food for Thought:  Lavender.  Best for relaxation and relieving PMS.  The scent can trigger the body’s “rest and digest” response, promoting relaxation.  A 2013 study found that it also eases pre-period symptoms such as mental confusion and depression.  It also decreases anxiety, insomnia and migraine pain.

Running Tip:  Visualize the fun.  When you imagine yourself enjoying exercise, it likely increases your motivation, says a 2012 study in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Quote of the Day:

“You can’t have everything you want, but you can have the things that really matter to you.” -Marissa Mayer

Speaking of blondies in my last post, these blondies are absolutely TO. DIE. FOR.  I’m not kidding.  They are pretty freaking delicious.  I made them for a football tailgate when I was at Tech and they were requested for other tailgates after that.  These aren’t just any old blondies.  These are Caramel Swirled M&M Blondies.  LOVE.

Caramel Swirled Blondies

Caramel Swirled M&M Blondies


– 1 cup butter, room temperature

– 1/2 cup granulated sugar

– 1 cup light brown sugar, packed

– 2 teaspoons vanilla

– 2 eggs

– 1 teaspoon baking soda

– 2 teaspoons sea salt

– 2 1/2 cups AP flour

– 2 cups M&Ms

– 1 cup chocolate chips

– 1 (14-ounce) bag caramels, unwrapped

– 1/4 cup milk


– Preheat oven to 350* and spray a 9×13 inch baking pan.
– Cream butter and sugars together. Add vanilla and eggs. Mix well.
– On low speed, add baking soda, salt and flour. Fold in M&Ms and chocolate chips.
– Press 2/3 of batter into the prepared pan and bake 8-10 minutes until just beginning to set but not golden brown.
– While the bottom is baking, microwave caramels and milk for 2-3 minutes, stirring every minute until melted.
– Pour the melted caramel on the partially baked bottom and drop remaining spoonfuls of batter on top. Bake for 15 more minutes until golden brown caramel is bubbling.
– Let cool completely before cutting.

This entry was posted in Nutrition, Overall Health and News, Recipes. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Restricting a Child’s Food Choices (Recipe: Caramel Swirled M&M Blondies)

  1. Pingback: Taking Your Running to the Next Level (Recipe: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Cheesecake) | Oven Lovin' Runnin'

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