Insisting on “just one more bite” or warning our kids that they’ve had “enough sugar for today” are phrases that have become part of the parenting lexicon when it comes to raising a healthy eater. However, what many parents I work with are surprised to learn is that often such tried-and-true tactics have the opposite impact, making it more difficult for kids to learn to eat in balanced, positive ways.
The truth is that the words we parents have been taught to use and the ways we say them often cause confusion and discomfort in our kids instead of, say, building a love of swiss chard or dialing down the intensity of a sweet tooth. Worse, when we notice our healthy feeding tactics aren’t working, we tend to ramp up our efforts more and enforce stricter rules or limits or, in some cases, toss in the reins and give up altogether. This leaves us feeling frustrated and overwhelmed or disappointed and ashamed about our kids’ eating.
The good news is you don’t need to double down on rules or pressure or overhaul your entire menu to adopt an entirely different feeding approach. Simply rethinking the language we use around food, or what I call “parental food speak,” can help your kids grow into more balanced eaters.
Parents who are able to tweak the language they use around the table often find that their kids feel calmer and happier at meals, as well as have an easier time learning to like new foods and eat the amounts right for their body and natural or set- point weight. If you’re looking to make some positive changes in how you parent around food, take it slow and try making one tweak every few weeks, moving on only when you feel comfortable.
1. Cut this word from mealtime conversation.
In families where parents talk about “weight,” kids have more disordered eating habits (such as restrictive eating and binge eating), lower self-esteem, more body dissatisfaction, and are more likely to be depressed. This is true regardless of where the child falls on the weight spectrum (in other words, regardless of their body mass index, or BMI).
Another surprising nuance to take note of: linking conversations about weight and eating can harm kids, whether the parent is talking about their child’s weight or their own. So it’s important to make an across-the-board rule for everyone who eats with your child when it comes to banning weight talk at the table.
Also, the negative effect of weight talk is powerful and long-lasting: It’s been shown to last at least 15 years, following some kids into adulthood, making it even more important to create a positive tone by avoiding the subject altogether.
What’s better: talking about how good different foods and preparation styles taste, as in “I love how crispy these potatoes are,” or how positive they are for body function, such as how they give us energy or help us grow (ie, ” cheese has calcium which strengthens bones, helping us run, climb, and jump”).
Knowing what to say (and avoid) when talking to kids about eating can make a big difference.
Source: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash
2. Go with an all foods fit approach.
Avoid words like “bad,” “junk,” and “unhealthy” when it comes to talking about foods and drinks. Labeling certain foods as evil can trigger feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, and shame in kids, especially if you’re referring to something they really like or usually request to eat.
The truth is all foods can provide some nourishment—and while we may choose to offer our kids certain foods over others, identifying the ones you want them to avoid as “bad” does way more harm than good.
Another reason to avoid name-calling when it comes to food: When we do this, we inadvertently teach our children to judge not only themselves but others who eat them as “wrong,” “bad,” or deserving of shame, too. If a friend or classmate eats lunch or a snack that your child has been taught to disapprove of, they may pass unfair judgment on that child, too.
3. Nix the “one more bite” request.
When our kids tell us they’re finished, we need to believe them! And when they tell us they’re still hungry, we need to take that as truth, too—even if we think they’ve just downed enough to feed a small army.
The reason? First, a child’s food intake can vary greatly from meal to meal, snack to snack, and day to day. Sometimes they may eat a lot, and sometimes they may not, so changes in the amount they eat suddenly are not necessarily a cause for alarm.
Second, we are all born with an innate ability to regular our food intake based on sensations that come from within our body. When parents override this ability—say by telling them to eat more despite them telling us they’re done or by suggesting they’ve had enough when they say they want more—we teach them to override their own body signals and listen to us instead .
When kids start listening to outside influences instead of internal ones, the result is that their own ability to internally regulate their food intake diminishes.
Prompting our kids to eat more or to stop before they feel satisfied teaches them to distrust their own bodies. In the short term, it can be a ding to self-esteem. (Very often, when I work with a child in nutrition counseling, they share comments like “I’m not good at eating,” or “I’m not healthy,” which are based on messages they get from caregivers who are disappointed in their child’s food choices.) In the long term, overriding a child’s insistence they’re full or hungry with our own agenda teaches them that they can’t listen to signals from inside their body—an outcome that can be disastrous to more than just their regulating their eating.
4. Take note of tone.
When talking to kids about food, be gentle, kind, and guiding, as well as very direct. Children are more likely to listen to directions when they feel respected and supported and when they clearly understand your request.
Kids are less likely to comply with requests that are critical, shaming, and unclear. Despite the fact that disapproving of unwanted behaviors is a common parenting approach, it’s rarely effective. With regard to eating in particular, shame-inducing comments are known to lower self-esteem and cause overeating. For example, “Sweetheart, please take just one scoop, so there is enough for everyone,” works much better than, “Oh my gosh, that’s a lot of calories!” “After today, we can both start a diet,” or “You’ve been eating too much lately.”
5. Lead with curiosity.
Does your child have a particular eating habit you hate? For example, is their focus on starchy foods, sugary treats, or snacks you often worry about? While it’s natural to be concerned about our children’s eating habits, when kids pick up on our stress or concern about certain foods or the amounts that are eaten (or uneaten), it can make the situation worse.
Big emotions can also dysregulate eating, decreasing or increasing a child’s appetite, which may inadvertently contribute more to whatever issue you’re concerned about instead of improving it. And even infants can pick up on stress during feeding, so if you approach meals with negative emotions, there’s a chance your child will feel anxious or afraid, too.
How to help:
Get curious about the “why” behind your worry by doing some self-reflection. What are your concerns? (Is it about weight gain, disease risk, cavities, or what other people might think if you allow your child to eat the entire bread basket, for example?) Then ask yourself if those concerns are legitimate (will they really get diabetes if you allow them to have dessert?) and, lastly, whether your worry is helping or worsening the situation.
Food fears and concerns can be intense, particularly if we’ve had a traumatic relationship with food ourselves in the past. Enlisting a partner or professional such as a registered dietitian or nutrition therapist who works with families can help.