Family dinner should hypothetically offer a moment to relax and reconnect at the end of a long day. In reality, it’s no easy feat to gather everyone at the table, and depending on your kids’ ages, it can be tricky to get everyone to eat together in harmony — or, honestly, eat what you cooked at all.
You want to help your kids develop healthy habits when it comes to eating. But without realizing it, you may be saying things about food — perhaps refraining from back when you were a child — that, while well-intentioned, won’t help your child develop a healthy relationship with food and their body.
“It’s not easy to always be mindful of how strong opinions, self-criticism and comments about food and eating are internalized” by children, said Crystal Williams, a therapist who works with eating disorder patients.
HuffPost asked Williams and other experts which common phrases parents should avoid at meal time.
“Finish your broccoli, then you can have dessert.”
Bargains like these, which therapist Alissa Rumsey, author of Unapologetic Eating, refers to as “food negotiations,” are meant to encourage kids to eat healthy foods. The problem, Rumsey says, is that “this reinforces disconnected eating.” You’re getting your kid to eat the broccoli, but not because their body wants it. This isn’t the kind of eating you want to encourage, whether the food being consumed is vegetables or cake.
“That’s enough pasta, eat some more fruit instead.”
Here, your child is putting food on their plate because their body is telling them to. Maybe they’re still hungry, the pasta is delicious, or both!
“Creating environments where kids can tune into their own inner body wisdom will set them up for success in discovering what self-trust and satisfaction looks like for them,” said Rumsey.
By telling them to pivot to another “cleaner” or “healthier” food, you’re inadvertently telling them not to listen to their body.
“Look who finished cleaning their plate first!”
Many of us were raised to be a member of the clean plate club. Motivating speeches often included mention of hungry children on another continent. But the reality is that our kids have plenty to eat, and imploring them to keep going encourages the same kind of disconnected eating as forcing them to finish their broccoli before dessert.
“Don’t waste food!”
As tempting as it is to scream this when you watch your child pour a mountain of cereal you know he’ll never finish, this phrase encourages kids to finish what’s on their plate not because of their body’s hunger cues, but in order to avoid throwing the food away.
If your kids are learning to serve themselves and need help figuring out what a reasonable portion size looks like, you can offer, “Why don’t you start with this much, and then you can always come back for more if you want it.”
“You have to try one bite.”
We all want our kids to be open to trying new foods. And if that food happens to have been prepared by a relative for a special occasion, then we ourselves may be feeling some pressure to show our family’s gratitude. But there are a couple of reasons not to try to force a child to eat — anything at all, no matter how small the portion.
First, it sets up a power struggle you can never win. Are you really going to make your kid remain at the table, alone, staring down that one spear of asparagus?
Second, you don’t want to get them in the habit of letting others tell them what to eat, or how much. They may be safe now listening to your commands, but what about in the future, when the directives are coming from some stranger on social media?
Knowing how to listen to their own bodies can offer them protection from some of the dangerous messages about eating.
“French fries will make us fat/are bad for us.”
If they are taught that a certain food is “bad,” kids may feel they need to “eat it in secret, hide the evidence, binge it, and feel shame for eating it,” said Williams.
And while you may think that you’re limiting your negative comments to the food in question, kids will quickly connect the dots between what’s being eaten and who is doing the eating. If fries are bad, for example, your child may feel like they are bad for eating or liking fries.
“We also don’t want kids to judge themselves by what they eat or have us judge them or ourselves by what we eat,” said Lampert.
“You can have as many brussels sprouts as you want — they’re good/clean/healthy.”
On the flip side, labeling other foods as “good,” “clean,” “healthy” or “safe” may seem more innocuous than pointing out others as “bad,” but it has the same effect.
Kids will quickly infer that if a food can be “good,” then “the more good foods I consume the better I am,” said Williams.
Such moralizing, Rumsey said, “can cause deprivation and food guilt, which typically leads to kids eating more of the perceived ‘bad’ foods, eating in a way that is disconnected from their bodies, and/or eating past the point of fullness.”
“I was good today, so I deserve a second helping.”
This takes the moralizing one step further, from a label you’ve applied to certain foods and extending it to your own worth.
Statements like these “imply that food is meant to be earned or our bodies are meant to be changed,” said Rumsey.
And while you may think that by limiting your comments to your own body, you’re protecting your kid, but that’s not how it works.
“Even if you don’t comment on your kid’s food or weight, they are watching you and listening to how you speak to yourself, they internalize this,” said Rumsey.
“I ate cookies earlier, so I’m only going to let myself have salad now.”
Without even using the words “good” or “bad,” here, you’re conflating cookies with wrongness and salad with punishment. You’re also teaching your child that what they ate earlier that day, not their body’s hunger cues, should dictate what they eat now.
You might be wondering what exactly you can say to your kids at the table, or if it’s even safe to talk about food at all. But keeping food talk neutral doesn’t mean you can’t mention what’s on your plate — only that you do so without moralizing.
When it comes to family mealtimes, explained Lampert, “let’s enjoy each other and the connection, not just make it all about the food.”
When you do talk about food, try using sensory details instead of value-laden terms. Cookies might be chewy or crunchy, lettuce crispy, tomatoes sweet.
Ask your child to describe the food they’re eating. What does it taste like? How does it make their body feel?
“By modeling that you are the expert of your own body, it allows your kids to continue to be the expert of theirs,” said Rumsey.
While we don’t fully understand the complex causes of eating disorders, we do know that the first lessons kids learn about food and eating will stick with them for the rest of their lives. It’s possible to unlearn food-related attitudes and behaviors as an adult, but it isn’t easy.
If we watch what we say and refrain from moralizing foods or bodies or encouraging disconnected eating, then we’re providing our kids with the foundation to trust and respect their bodies and enjoy the food they eat.
“A home where all foods fit and all bodies are valued strengthens a child’s ability to trust the only voice that matters — their own,” Rumsey said.