Earlier this year, I was approached by a concerned mother whose daughter is 10 years old and overweight. This mother is blessed with a big family of five boys and five girls, and this daughter is the only one who is chubby.

This 10-year-old girl reminded meWas I really doing something wrong by wanting a few potato chips? of myself when I was the same age. There were three children in my family. My sister and I were a bit chubby, and my brother was thin. This meant that my brother could eat whatever he wanted, while my sister and I were I always told to watch what we ate.

I remember once, during Passover, going into the kitchen for some potato chips that my mother had bought especially for the holiday. My Zeidy, who was sitting at the kitchen table reciting Psalms, gently rebuked me. This incident and others like it caused me to feel insecure about my food cravings. Was I really doing something wrong by wanting a few potato chips?

I know my Zeidy only wanted the best for me and wanted to help me make healthy food choices. But knowing how to set healthy boundaries for children is tricky. As an adult, I wonder: How could this incident have been used for education and encouragement versus rebuke? How can we teach children to make healthy snack and meal choices? How can we help them listen to their bodies and enjoy foods in a balanced way?

The answer might be surprising, but research supports it. Do not try to avoid high calorie treats such as cookies, candy, chips and French fries. Studies show that children who are deprived of these foods at home become preoccupied with food and are prone to overeating and weight gain.1 One such study took place at Pennsylvania State University and followed girls ages 5 to 9 whose Body Mass Index (BMI) was at the 85th percentile or above. When compared with “normal weight” girls, the “relatively large” girls—who were usually restricted from eating high-calorie “treat” foods—ate significantly more when given free access to these foods.2 However, while complete restriction is not healthy, neither is giving your child unlimited access to these foods, as that will spoil the nutritional quality of their diet.

The balanced approach to “treat”Do not try to avoid high-calorie treats foods would be to regularly make them a part of your family meals and snacks. The key is structure and schedule. There should be no guilt in eating treats, because guilt leads to overeating.

Some suggestions: You could include pretzels with a sandwich or serve tortilla chips with a salad. Or maybe a snack could be cookies with milk. In my house we love to make cookies with different nutritious ingredients, like oats, dried fruit and nuts—and, of course, chocolate. Candy and other junk food that children receive at school or on Purim can be served as a snack alongside vegetables or fruit.

With this approach, you can begin to educate school-aged children to choose their own balanced snacks and meals. While children are still young, family meals are crucial, but as they grow, children gradually begin to take on the responsibility of feeding themselves. Discuss with your child what a balanced school lunch or afternoon snack would look like.3

Maimonides discusses a similar idea in reference to a person’s middot, character traits. In his introduction to Ethics of Our Fathers, he writes that good actions are ones that are balanced between two negative extremes. For example, Maimonides addresses the character trait of vigilance: “Vigilance is the middah that is a balance between great physical desire on one hand and lack of physical enjoyment on the other.”4 Great physical desire is an extreme, an enslavement to cravings and enjoyment of this world. With the other extreme, of holding back from physical enjoyment, a person finds no satisfaction from this world and is left feeling lifeless. And the Torah recommends certain physical pleasures that could give someone expanded consciousness, like a nice apartment or, in the context of our discussion, appetizing food, in order to better serve G‑d.5

Maimonides says that enjoying our food and drink in a balanced way actually has the power to heal the soul.6Great physical desire is an extreme In our day and age, this is not an easy task, especially with the overabundance of food choices on one hand and the pressure to diet on the other. Hopefully, with these tips we will be able to steer clear of these extremes. Because ultimately, the goal for our families is to enjoy meals and snacks that are nutritionally balanced.