Have you ever heard your child mimic you or start to use a specific word you say? Or have you spent time with a friend or family member who has a catchphrase and you have found yourself also using that same catchphrase? This is what we like to call word adoption and we especially see it happen around food, specifically around categorizing food as good/bad and healthy/unhealthy.
The important news is that parents and caregivers, you have the power to change this food narrative for your child. We are here to help you cultivate a positive relationship with food for your child, starting with how you talk about food.
The power of food language
Let us give you an example of what we are talking about. All too often we have clients come to us and say something like, “Cheetos are not a healthy choice; I don’t have self-control if they’re around so we can’t keep them in the house”. So much negativity in this seemingly normal (insert eye roll) and common statement! Let’s break this down. Cheetos are delicious and enjoyed by most because they’re cheesy, crunchy, and tasty. They have a taste and texture children 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, children and adults crave the Cheetos even more.
Now, 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 aren’t able to regulate our food intake therefore we can’t trust them. Because we can't trust them, we need to restrict our intake. So begins the restrict-binge cycle.
Our advice? Buy the Cheetos. Keep them in the house. Treat them like any other snack. Throw them in your child’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, children will desire a variety of foods.
Can you see how quickly a seemingly common statement like “cheetos are unhealthy” can turn into a negative relationship with food for children? Let’s review 4 easy ways to change the language you use to talk about food around your children.
4 ways to support a positive relationship with food for your child
Talk about the flavors, colors, and textures of food with your child. Use words like crunchy, sweet, spicy, fruity, and salty to describe your food through shapes, colors, texture, size, shape, and smell. Pointing out the sensory aspects of new foods helps to prepare children for what to expect. You can ask others what they’re enjoying about their food to get more people involved in the conversation. All this talk about food can even provide an opportunity to expand your child’s vocabulary, while encouraging them to try new foods.
Instead of: “Eat [insert food] for me” or “How do you know you don’t like [insert food] if you never tried them. If you don’t try one bite, I’ll be mad”
Try: “This is melon, it’s sweet like a strawberry” or “These carrots are very crunchy”
Phrases like these will help children shift their attention to the sensory qualities of the foods instead of teaching your child to eat for your love and affection. This can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and need to seek approval from parents through food.
“Don’t Yuck My Yum”
Re-frame negative language or judgements around food. Everyone is entitled to their food preferences without judgement! Allow your child to trust their natural judgement around food and learn their own food preferences free of other people’s opinions. Think about it, if you often comment 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.
Instead of “See that didn’t taste bad, did it?”
Try: “Did you like that?”, “Which one is your favorite?” or “Everybody likes different foods, don’t they?”
This will shift the focuses to taste rather than who was right and allows your child to form their own food preference. Saying “See that didn’t taste bad, did it?” can send the message that your child’s preferences are wrong.
Avoid Food Labeling!
Work towards adopting an “all foods fit” 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!
Instead of “No dessert until you eat your vegetables’ or “you need to have something healthy, like fruit, before you can have dessert”
Try “We can try these vegetables another time. Next time would you like to try them raw instead of cooked?”
As parents and caregivers, you want to make sure your child is getting all the nutrition they need, including from fruits and vegetables. We do too! But having contingencies around eating certain foods, like desserts, can send that message that some foods are better than others. Keep in mind, your role as a parent is to simply make food available for your child. It is your child’s responsibility to determine what to eat and how much.
Avoid Using Food as a Reward
This only teaches the child to use food as a way to comfort them, which can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food down the road. Our recommendation? Give your child a hug or kiss to comfort them!
Instead of: “Stop crying and I will give you a cookie.” or “Finish your homework and we can get an ice cream.”
Try: “I am sorry you are sad. Come here and let me give you a big hug.”
We know what you’re thinking, all of this is easier said than done. Don’t worry, the NourishRX Anti-Diet Registered Dietitians are here to help you on this journey. Kids are like sponges and as they develop their tiny brains are taking in everything they can. Let’s help them build a healthy relationship with food from the get go.
Contact our office if you're looking for a bit of extra support in this process. We are here to help you!
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This is invaluable in our home, especially right now as we are turning my 3d-grade step-son toward more awareness of language, word choices and the values of intentionality (his new favorite book is the thesaurus). He loves “healthy” foods, and I’m afraid we’ve done some of your warnings above. We can’t wait to redirect…And buy those Cheetos! 🙂
Huge thank you for sharing your ideas.
1 Comment on How to Help Your Child Build a Healthy Relationship With Food