Have you ever heard your child mimic you or start to say specific word you say? Or have you ever spent a specific amount of time with a friend or family member who has a “catchphrase” and you have found yourself also using that catchphrase? This is what we like to call word adoption, and all too often we see it happen around food.
Kids are sponges! As they develop, their brains are taking in everything they can! This is why the language we use to talk about food can be so powerful. It's also why it can be tough to know what to say to help your child build a healthy relationship with food. For example, if mom often comments on how stinky the brussel sprouts are, chances are kids are going to join in and attach a negative feeling to the vegetable even if they haven't tried it before. Another example that we often hear pertains to labeling foods “healthy” or “unhealthy,” which is what we call a black and white statement.
Let’s take a look at a common example that we hear from our clients:
“Cheetos (or insert food here) are so unhealthy; I don’t have self-control if they’re around so we can’t keep them in the house.”
So much negativity in this (unfortunately) common statement. This comment is ridden with diet talk!
Let’s break this down. Cheetos are delicious and enjoyed by most because they’re cheesy, crunchy, and delicious. They have a taste and texture that both kids and adults typically enjoy. Stating these are “unhealthy” unintentionally sends the message to a child that “unhealthy” food tastes GOOD and “healthy” foods taste BAD. As a result of this label, kids and adults crave the Cheetos even more. In our society, we may hear it called a “guilty pleasure.”
Let’s look at the next part of this sentence- “...I don’t have self-control if they’re around so we can’t keep them in the house.” This statement actually communicates that our bodies are not able to regulate our food intake, and therefore we can’t trust them. Because we can't trust them, we need to restrict. So begins the restrict-binge cycle.
My advice? Buy the Cheetos and keep them in the house. Treat them like any other snack. Throw them in your kid’s lunch. Put Cheetos on the same playing field as fruit or granola bars and I guarantee your child will not choose the Cheetos every single time (though maybe at first, if they’ve been restricted). If exposed to a variety of foods, kids will crave a variety of foods.
That’s just one example of using more positive language around food. Believe it or not, these comments can add up, and they have an impact on the way that children view food and their bodies. However, by beginning to adopt more positive food language, you can help your child build a healthy relationship with food.
3 Ways to Use More Positive Food Language With Your Child:
1) Describe Food
Talk about the flavors, colors, and textures of food with your child. Use descriptive words about what you are enjoying when eating. Ask others what they’re enjoying about their food. Focus on ways to describe your food through shapes, color, texture, size, taste, and smell.
It may go a little something like this:
“I love that these carrots are soft on the outside and crunchy on the inside.”
“This apple is so crispy and sweet!”
“I love how bright green broccoli gets when we steam it - it also makes it nice and soft!”
2) Don’t Yuck Their Yum
Re-frame negative language or judgements around food: Everyone is entitled to their food preferences without judgement! Children are still exploring what they like and don’t like for themselves. Perhaps they really don’t like the texture of ripe bananas or yogurt. Or, they might not like their eggs over-easy. That’s okay! Everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, you can always do your best to offer an alternative to the food that they don’t like.
For example: If your child says that they don’t like it when their bananas are too sweet, you might describe the ripening process, and suggest that they try the banana when it is still a little bit green so that it will be less soft and sweet. Or, if they don’t like the runny yolk of an over-easy egg, suggest scrambled instead for a different texture!
3) Avoid Food Labeling
Work towards adopting an “all foods fit” mentality, rather than a black and white mentality. Avoid categorizing food as “good or bad” or “healthy or unhealthy.” Try to let go of food judgments you’ve held onto and think about making food more neutral. You and your child will have a healthier relationship with food and your bodies with less judgement, shame, and guilt. Food is meant to be filling, fun, and pleasurable!
An example here may be that they want to have a piece of candy as their snack. Instead of saying no and urging them to go for a “healthier snack,” let them honor that craving, and maybe you suggest that they add some orange slices to the side, as this will likely fill them up a bit more, and build a more balanced plate.
Trust us - we know that this can be easier said than done. Listen, you are not the only one who is trying to help your child build a healthy relationship with food. That’s why we’ve created a community just for parents and caregivers to help them create a healthy eating environment for their kids. Click here to see if it’s the right fit for you!