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You don’t have to eat it – How to talk to kids about food

healthy kids diet

Claire BaseleyDo you have mealtime battles with your kids in which you resort to cooking them something else you know they’ll eat or bribing them with ice cream when the meal you’ve prepared gets rejected? Do you talk about “junk food” or “treat foods” or tell your children they should avoid certain foods because they’re bad for them? Are you always dieting and talking about your own need to lose weight? Kids are like sponges and they learn from you. I can’t promise to have your child craving spinach overnight but I can give you some tips on how to speak to kids to help them form a healthy relationship with food.

I was a picky eater. I literally ate nothing until I was three and survived on Farley’s Ostermilk, or so I’m told. Once I started eating, I don’t remember being particularly faddy. I liked traditional kids’ foods and chocolate as much as the next child but I also liked homemade cottage pie and vegetables. I recall my mum always being on a diet. My dad and I would sit down to a ‘proper’ meal and my mum would have two broccoli trees for dinner. She constantly talked about how she felt fat or talking about other people’s weight (thin was good, anything other than thin was very bad). I won’t go into details but suffice to say, I did not have a good relationship with food in my teens.

The reality is, parenting is hard. You want to do the very best for your children and you want them to grow up happy and healthy but somehow you end up in a mealtime battle at the end of the day when tempers are fraying and that Little House on the Prairie idyll of sitting round the table jovially discussing your day with all the family tucking into healthy home cooked food goes out the window. So what would be my top five tips to get your child’s relationship with food back on track? First, let’s look at parenting style, particularly around food, because this is the thread that runs through all your interactions with your kids.

Consider your parenting style

Do you find you start out letting your child choose what they want to eat, giving them unlimited access to the kitchen cupboards any time of the day or night and then suddenly flip into restrict mode, forcibly removing the biscuit from sticky mitts because it’s ‘bad’ for them, with wailing followed by the naughty step rapidly ensuing? This flipping from permissive or indulgent to authoritarian parenting is very common but also very confusing for your children.

Authoritarian parents may often urge their children to clear their plate or pressure them to eat when they are not hungry. Most children will eat according to their appetite, which can vary from day to day but over the course of a week or so, if you offer a variety of foods, they will usually get what they need to grow and develop. Forcing them to eat when they are not hungry can derail their natural hunger and fullness cues and actually exacerbate a small appetite, fussiness and slowness in eating. Restrictive feeding practices, in which the parent overtly limits their child from eating certain foods, have been linked with a greater desirability of those foods and also with weight gain.

Instead, go for an authoritative style and keep it consistent. Authoritative parents are responsive to their child’s emotional needs, are warm and loving but also set boundaries, whether that is around behaviour or eating. That’s not to say they overtly restrict food but they may set boundaries around when and where meals are eaten and what is eaten, while being respectful of the child’s emotions. Authoritative parents will provide healthy foods and gently encourage children to try them, without pressure, compared with authoritarian parents who expect the plate to be cleared. Permissive indulgent parents want their children to be happy so tend to provide only those foods that their little ones will eat. Authoritative parents tend to have children who eat most healthily, have better regulation of food intake and have better overall eating habits, including a great acceptance of vegetables.

This style sets the tone for all the foodie conversations you’re having with your children. Here are my top five ways to change the way you talk about food with your kids.

1. You don’t have to eat it

Elynn Satter, a dietitian and child feeding expert, has developed the Division of Responsibility model of feeding kids. This very serious-sounding approach simply means that you, as the parent, decide what, where and when you and your children eat but it is up to the child to decide how much and which foods out of those they have been served that they eat.

Ideally, you’d all eat together, picking food from larger serving dishes so each family member can serve themselves the portion they’d like from a range of foods but we live in the real world and that’s probably not going to happen on a rushed Tuesday night when homework needs to be done and you’ve just got in from work. You can still offer a choice of healthy foods though, without having them all on the table. By offering your child a choice of three vegetables, for example, from which they can choose one or two to go on their plate, they can feel invested in the decision over what to eat while you feel that you are getting some healthy foods onto their plate.

“You don’t have to eat it” reassures your child that they’re not going to be forced to eat anything they don’t want to eat. This can help to stave off the flat refusal to eat what’s on the plate before they’ve even tasted it. You can still gently encourage your child to try a food they’re not sure of though, just without pressure. But if they’ve flat out rejected a food, don’t force it – they don’t have to eat it. And if your child does try a new or previously disliked food, even if it’s just to lick or nibble it, give them lots of praise.

What to say

  • We have carrots, peas and broccoli today. Which 2 would you like on your plate?
  • What do you think about your broccoli?
  • Are you sure you’re full up? How does your tummy feel?
  • Well done for trying your peas today. You’ve done really well!

What not to say

  • You can’t leave the table until you’ve finished.
  • I don’t care if you don’t like it. You must finish your broccoli.
  • You must eat another 3 bites.

2. The kitchen is closed

It’s very easy to get sucked into serving only the foods you know your child will eat to avoid the mealtime battles. Or worse still, you end up back in the kitchen, cooking an alternative meal (or two) after your first offering is rejected. It is really important to offer your children a variety of foods, so they eat a range of nutrients and, ideally, try to eat together, so you can show them how it’s done as well as how delicious you think your cooking is!

It is your job to decide what food you provide for your child and ideally that should be based on a wide range of healthy foods that you all enjoy as a family. It’s also a good idea to have a regular routine when it comes to eating – three meals a day and two or three small snacks. Try to avoid high calorie drinks between these times as they can fill children up too much. It’s best to sit down to eat, ideally at the table with minimal distractions like screens, even for snack times so you can really focus on enjoying your food.

Outside of the designated eating times, tell your child that the kitchen is closed. That means that if they don’t eat any of their dinner, they know they can’t sneak into the kitchen for biscuits 5 minutes later. However, by having a pre-bed wholesome snack or drink of milk as part of the routine, it also means that you can be reassured that your child is getting something to eat in the evening. Having a kitchen open/closed routine also means the post-school grazing on snacks for 2 hours before dinner won’t derail mealtimes.

What to say

  • Are you sure you don’t want any more? The kitchen won’t open again until 8 o’clock.
  • Let’s sit down and enjoy our snack together.

What not to say

  • If you don’t like it, I’ll make you some toast.
  • If you’re hungry, go and grab a snack from the kitchen (outside of the usual routine)

3. All foods are equal

How many times have you told your kids they can’t have any pudding unless they eat their main meal or vegetables first? It might work the first few times but you’ll soon find that those foods that need a bribe before they’re eaten always require that incentive. Every. Single. Time.

What you’re also doing with this approach is teaching your child that vegetables are not as good as dessert or whatever food is on offer as a bribe. You’re effectively creating a food hierarchy that says brownies are superior to broccoli. Telling your children that vegetables are good for them or will help them grow up big and strong and that chocolate is bad for them just compounds the desire for these ‘bad’ foods and enhances their desirability. Equally, using ‘treat’ foods as a comforter when your child is upset can also increase their currency versus vegetables, as well as encourage comfort eating.

Keep a neutral, non-judgemental approach to all foods, while ensuring that what is on offer most of the time is broadly healthy. Serve dessert (if you eat it – you don’t have to every day) with the meal and let your child decide if and when they eat it. It’s fine to eat dessert first and then eat parts of a meal if that’s what your child wants. It doesn’t have to be ice cream. It could be a yoghurt, a small scone or a piece of fruit.

It also helps to experiment with ways of cooking comply rejected foods like vegetables in a way that make them tastier e.g. roasting with a little oil or stir frying.

What to say

  • Isn’t this roasted courgette tasty?
  • It’s OK to eat your yoghurt before your pasta Bolognese if you want to

What not to say

  • If you don’t eat your dinner, you can’t have any pudding
  • Eat up your vegetables as they’ll make you grow big and strong
  • Don’t cry darling, have a cookie; it will make it all better

4. Talking about treats

This is a biggie. It can be tempting to keep treat foods like chocolate, sweets, biscuits or crisps off the agenda entirely but your child will come across them eventually. It’s a better idea to introduce your child to them in a way that does not give them any greater currency than any other food. You can decide when they are available, whether that’s at snack time or for dessert, but allow your child to serve themselves and don’t judge or restrict how much they eat. This can be hard but it is really important to avoid future fixation with these foods by restricting them and giving them names that make them appear more desirable.

So what do we call these foods? They’ve been variously referred to as treats, junk or fun foods. Do you know what? Food is food. Call them by their individual names whether that’s chocolate, biscuits or crisps. Yes, we might know that these are foods we should eat less often from a health perspective but when talking about them to your children, keep it neutral and avoid policing how much they eat when they are offered. You can always offer these foods alongside other foods like chopped up fruit, breadsticks, crackers or raisins to mix it up a bit.

What to say

  • Let’s enjoy our cookies together. My favourite is chocolate chip. Which is yours?

What not to say

  • It’s Treat Tuesday, Sweetie Saturday etc
  • I think you’ve had enough chocolate/biscuits now
  • You can’t have crisps; they’re bad for you
  • Chocolate is junk food

5. Banish diet and body talk

This is another super-important message. Do not talk about dieting or weight loss while your child can hear and avoid making references to your own body shape or size or that of your child’s or those around you. You want your child to form a healthy relationship with food and their body. Studies (here and here) suggest that mothers who have a high level of anxiety about their own body or weight and use restrictive eating practices with their children, particularly girls, can pass on such problematic eating behaviour and weight preoccupation.

Take a weight neutral, body positive approach to talking about image. Celebrate what your child can do with their body whether it’s jumping up high, lifting something heavy or taking a long walk, rather than referencing how their body looks.

What to say

  • Look how strong you are, how high you jumped, how far you walked! That’s amazing!

What not to say

  • I need to lose weight
  • I’ve been naughty today; I need cut out junk
  • My sister has lost so much weight and she looks great
  • I’d love to be slim like so-and-so
  • I need to work out to burn off that pizza
  • You’re getting a bit chubby. Maybe we should stop buying biscuits.

Obviously I could go on forever about what and how to feed kids but I really wanted to keep this piece focused on language and not the wider practice of feeding children. I hope this has been useful – please let me know and do leave a comment if you’d like me to add in any more tips or answer any questions!

Banner image by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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