Food For Thought: The Power of the Language We Use Around Food
Parents have a powerful role in shaping a child’s relationship to food. Generally, a kid’s first impression of food and mealtime is based on what they
see and hear from their parents. By using positive language versus negative, a parent can create a thriving food environment where children grow up
enjoying food, spending time with the family and develop healthy eating habits at a young age. Here are some ways to adjust language around food:
Kick the Terms “Good” or “Bad” to the Curb
It’s common practice in our culture to label foods as “good” or “bad”. Truth is, some foods are nutritious and some foods are
delicious. Each is equally important when it comes to shaping a healthy, enjoyable relationship with food. When you create a “black
and white” mentality around food, kids feel guilty or bad about eating certain foods (or desiring them…. which is ABSOLUTELY normal).
Likewise feeling “good” when they make “good” choices. This is a set-up for disordered eating. A more positive way to reflect on food is
noting how it tastes, how it feels in the body and how it satisfies hunger. For example, carbohydrates provide energy for now whereas protein
and fat keep us full longer and provide energy for later.
Replace Punishments with Positive Experiences Around Food
When your child doesn’t eat the food you prepare, it’s frustrating. However, when you respond with anger, threats, bribes or negative consequences
to eat, your child could develop negative feelings toward mealtime. Keep in mind, your role is simply to make food available to
your child. It’s his job to eat it. Review Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility for a better understanding of the role of parent and child in feeding. Making a variety of foods available and allowing your child
to determine if and how much he eats, encourages food exploration. Encourage your child by asking about food’s smell, texture,
taste. If he doesn’t want to try the food, could he at least kiss it goodbye? Get your kids in the kitchen to help you cook. Encourage
sensory exploration – sometimes it’s ok to play with your food! Most of all, keep it relaxed and fun!
Help Kids Learn Hunger Cues
Some of us likely grew up with a “clean plate” mentality. The sign of mealtime success was finishing your plate. While this may
be a considered a compliment to the chef, it prevents kids from sensing hunger and fullness cues and self-regulating food intake. Instead of directing
kids to “eat (x) more bites of vegetables” or “finish everything on your plate,” try asking “how full is your belly?” This will
help your child learn to stop when she is full.
No Pressure at the Table
If your child doesn’t eat a meal, the worst outcome is wasted food and the loss of time spent preparing it. Your child will survive if
she skips one breakfast, lunch or dinner. Instead of pressuring your child to eat, create a positive dialogue at the table. Ask her things like “what
was something funny that happened today?” Once the pressure, begging and bribery is off the table, you may find that your child feels more relaxed
and more willing to eat.
Avoid Talking About Your Diet or Foods You Dislike
One of the best ways to instill healthy eating habits in children is to model them. If you talk about the foods you can’t eat or don’t like, this sentiment
will easily be picked up by a child. If you don’t like a certain food or are cutting out anything, there’s no need to share that with your child. Let
them make their own judgments about foods.
Focus on the Benefits of Certain Foods
Instead of telling your child she “has to” or “needs to” eat something, talk about the nutrition benefits that make sense to him or her.
For example, instead of saying “You have to eat carrots because they are healthy” you can say “Carrots are great to eat because they help keep your
eyes sharp so you can see fireflies in the summer” or “read all your favorite books”.
If you have any specific questions about using positive language around food or need support on feeding the whole family, please set-up an appointment with one of our dietitians who are trained around adolescent health and picky eating.