Parents have the best intentions to teach their kids how to be fully functioning human beings. Sneeze into your sleeve, use the potty, eat healthy food, etc. And with those best intentions, we encourage or discourage our kids to eat certain things that we feel are acceptable. What often happens, however, is that our best intentions turn sour, potentially contributing to “picky eating” or sending unhealthy messages about food. In this post, I review some of the most common strategies that parents use to cajole their kids into eating healthy food, and how these well-intentioned verbal cues may be inappropriately interpreted by your child.
What it sounds like: “Eat three more bites, and then you can have dessert!”
Why it doesn’t work: Using bribery might seem like a sure way to get your kids to eat just a little more broccoli, but it can set the stage for picky eating tendencies. When you ask your child to eat a little more of the [insert healthy food here] before they can get dessert, they are interpreting this as “eeew, I have to do this gross thing before I can have a reward!”. Eating the healthy food or being part of the family meal becomes a chore, something that you’re being forced to do. And, when you’re being forced to do something, you’ll likely associate that with something you don’t want to do. Kids may associate “healthy” with “yuck, I don’t want it”, while dessert becomes the reward that they worked hard to get.
This outcome is quite the opposite of what you want to achieve – kids partaking in the family meal and having an enjoyable experience! Remember that it is OK if kids don’t like a particular food. It can take dozens of introductions before a new food is accepted, and sometimes they just never take to a particular food. I mean, do YOU like every single food??
What do to instead: Offer a variety of foods including veggies and other healthy foods at meals, and model the healthy eating behaviours that you want them to practice as well. You can encourage kids to taste the veggies (or whatever food they are a bit resistant to), and if he isn’t into it them that’s OK – teach your child to politely spit it out into a napkin and that they don’t have to eat the rest. And, if the rest of the family is having dessert, then everyone should be offered dessert, regardless of whether they ate their veggies or not.
Praise for eating
What it sounds like: “You’re such a good little eater!”, or, “what a good boy, you ate everything on your plate!”
Why it doesn’t work: Certainly we want to praise our kids for doing a behaviour that we wanted them to learn, but praising them simply for eating their whole plate of food suggests to your child that they are only “good” if they eat everything. They may think “I’d better continue eating everything so that mom still says I’m good!” or, if they just can’t finish their plate, “I’m a bad kid because I couldn’t finish my plate”.
Children are very intuitive eaters who can self-regulate their natural hunger and fullness cues. Without encouragement, they can eat to the level of being full but comfortable, even if that means there is still some food left on their plate. I have heard many adults claim to be members of the “clean your plate club”, meaning they were often forced to clean their plates as kids. And, many of these adults say that they still do so to this day, even if it means eating till they are uncomfortably full. Over time, this can lead to unhealthy weight gain.
What to do instead: Kids may not eat the quantities that we think they “should” for a variety of reasons and that is OK. Instead of praising your child for eating their plate, you can provide praise and encouragement in other ways that honour their natural intuitive eating, for example, “I’m proud of you for trying a new food today!” or “Is your tummy full?”
Comparing kids to one another
What it sounds like: “Look how well your sister ate! How come you barely ate anything??”
Why it doesn’t work: It can be tempting to compare your child against a sibling, cousin, friend, or other child eating with them, however these comparisons cause your child to feel inferior. Similar to the praising strategy above, comparisons make the child feel like the other kid is “good” because they ate more. This may either discourage your child even further, or make them fee that they need to eat more so that they are also “good”, even if that means eating beyond their fullness cues.
What to do about it: This can be super frustrating for parents, but again, kids’ appetites and intake varies from day to day, meal to meal, for all kinds of reasons! As tempting as it is, avoid comparing children. This is a lesson not just in terms of eating habits, but in so many other areas of their lives!
Labelling Good foods and Bad foods
What it sounds like: “We don’t eat chocolate because it’s bad for us”, “Eat your broccoli, it’s good for you”
Why it doesn’t work: When foods are labelled as “bad”, they become the forbidden fruit, often leading to overindulging when that food does become available to consume. As for the “good” foods, yes, they may indeed be a healthier choice, but no kid actually CARES that a food is good for them! If anything, this label applies pressure to the child to eat the “good” food, only serving to shut them down and encourage defiance against your best wishes.
What to do instead: All foods can fit in an otherwise overall healthy diet, even if some of those foods aren’t as healthy as others. Occasional higher sugar, fat, or salt items are not going to destroy your family’s otherwise healthy habits, and are not going to set your kids up for chronic illness. This doesn’t mean that you are going to offer cupcakes every day, but it does mean that when these foods do show up in our lives or when we want to enjoy them, there’s no need to over-healthify everything – we can still enjoy these foods in moderation and teach our kids to do the same. They will learn that these foods are no big deal and just part of an overall balanced diet. This helps to normalize the less healthy foods and take away that “taboo” that makes them so irresistible when we DO get our hands on them.
Have you fallen into one of these common food parenting traps? We are all guilty of speaking this way now and again, but try to catch yourself in the moment it is happening and think about how this strategy might affect your child’s relationship with food in the long run. You may be surprised at how much more enjoyable mealtimes can be when the pressure to perform is removed from kids and they are left to their own devices! (and, I don’t mean their iPhones…)