As a child and family dietitian, I talk a lot about important foods and nutrients for kids. One thing that can get easily overlooked when we talk about paediatric nutrition, however, is how to feed. I’m not talking about physically how to feed children, but rather the approach we use to do so and the language that goes along with it. How we speak about food to our kids can have a dramatic and lasting impact on what they choose to eat down the road and what sort of relationship they end up forming with food. It sounds dramatic, I know, but as parents it’s worth considering the way we talk about food at the table.
There are a few phrases that I commonly hear from parents when feeding their littles. By tweaking your wording and approach, you can change your message from a short-term fix to one that will ensure your child has a lifelong healthy relationship with food.
1. “You won’t like that”. When my husband used this recently with our preschooler, I gave him the evil eye (which, apparently, I’m very good at). Using this line is one of the best ways to get your child NOT to try new foods. If we could imagine the inner dialogue going on here between parent and child, it would go something like this: Child: “Hmm this food looks interesting. I haven’t eaten it before but now that I’ve watched you guys eating it, I think I’m ready to see what I think of it”. Parent: “There’s no way you could like this. We’ve offered it endless times and you wouldn’t touch it. Plus it’s more of an “adult” food, something kids don’t typically like to eat”. Wouldn’t that turn YOU off of trying something new? So the next time your child wants to give a new food a go, even if he has rejected it many times in the past, gently bite your tongue and focus on something else. Or, if you must say something, try a neutral statement like “you seem interested in trying that food”. But honestly, the less said, the better. Give your child the freedom to try something without any judgement placed on it. And if it’s rejected? Well at least he tried!
2. “Just 3 more bites”. This is one of the most common traps parents fall into when feeding their children, and it can be a hard one to get out of. As a mom of 2 littles myself, I can empathize wholeheartedly with parents who use this strategy. It is our job to get our children to eat after all, isn’t it? In actual fact, our job as the parent is to offer a variety of foods, but we must then pass the job of eating over to our kids. And yes, this goes for the newest of eaters, even those squishy 6 month olds. Why not use this phrase? It may work in the short-term, but do you plan on using it forever? And how do you decide how many bites? There is a large amount of trust that is required in parenting, and that extends to feeding kids. So trust me and your child on this one, resist the urge to dictate how many bites they have to eat. Let them decide. They are the best judge of their own appetite after all. If they seem to have cut their meal short or are distracted and wanting to end it, you can simply let them know that now is the time to fill their tummies, and that they won’t have a chance to eat again until the next snack (or until breakfast in the morning).
3. “You can’t have dessert until you eat your vegetables (or other “yucky” food)”. Again, this is a classic feeding phrase used by so many parents, so if you use it, you’re certainly not alone. Many of us were raised hearing this phrase at the table. And what’s the harm, right? It’s a common belief that kids should be given dessert only after they have eaten their main course. But this ignores how the mind of a child works. As a mom of a preschooler, I have seen how the fixation on dessert manifests itself. My son (a generally great little eater) digs into his meal but his focus quickly shifts to the possibility of dessert. His eating stalls, and he asks (repeatedly, as 4-year olds do so well) when he can have dessert. And the more he is made to wait for it, the stronger the desire for it becomes. So what to do in this case? You’re going to think I’m totally crazy here, but if you are planning on serving dessert, try offering a single, small portion of it and allow family members to choose to eat it with dinner or after. Of course your child is likely to choose having it at the start of the meal. But what we tend to see over time is that, while initially kids eat their dessert first, the novelty eventually wears off. If dessert is taken off its high pedestal and treated as “equal” to the rest of the meal, it becomes just that. No need to offer dessert every evening, but on the days that you do, keep the portion small and limited to one serving, treat it like any other food, and enjoy it!