Have you ever sat down to enjoy a meal and someone around you makes a food comment that totally messes up your eating experience? It super sucks to feel insecure or embarrassed about food. And guess what? Kids don’t like it either. Usually when parents make food comments, they have good intentions and are striving to help their child eat healthy. Unfortunately, many of these well-meaning comments can backfire.
I am a Registered Dietitian that teaches parents about family feeding. There are best practices with feeding children so that they learn to eat a variety, enjoy eating, and have a healthy relationship to food. Unfortunately, like many parental educational opportunities, parents don't have access to the information unless they seek it. So before I introduce the food comments that can backfire, let's go over the method recognized as best practice in family feeding.
The method is Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding. It is recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The division of responsibility in feeding encourages:
Parents to take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and
children decide how much and whether they eat from the food provided.
When provided with a variety of foods in an adequate amount, children are innately able to choose from the foods available and eat the appropriate quantities to meet their nutritional needs. This innate ability can be lost if a child is constantly required to listen to external cues for eating. A parent pressuring a child to eat certain foods or eating the quantities of food outlined in a diet for intentional weight loss are examples of external cues for eating. The division of responsibility teaches children to listen to internal cues of hunger and fullness and it also guides children to trust their bodies, enjoy eating, and become competent eaters as adults.
Let’s see how some of these common food comments go against these recommendations and, ultimately, can backfire.
“Eat just two little bites”
Forcing a child to put a food into their mouth, chew it up, and swallow it, when they find it repulsive, is not helpful in teaching them to enjoy this food. Even if the child doesn’t find the food repulsive but isn’t hungry for it, this teaches the child to ignore their internal signals and to eat based on external forces. Also, this pressure to eat certain foods can cause the child to rebel and creates a power struggle between the parent and child. If a child is forced to eat a food , they can carry the dislike for that food for the rest of their life.
“Salmon makes you strong”
We want to cultivate the ability for children to listen to and trust their bodies. Overtime they will incorporate most of the foods the family eats when given repeated, neutral exposures to the food. Statements about the health of a food is not a neutral exposure; it is a pressure to eat. This messaging encourages the child to ignore internal cues and focus on external reasons to eat. A child’s thoughts could include “even though I am full, I have to eat it” or “I am not going to eat that salmon and my family will think I am weak”. A child is not learning to enjoy foods with the added pressure to eat them.
“Eat all your carrots and you get dessert”
This teaches children, yet again, to ignore their bodies. This type of statement can cause the child to hate the food they have to eat to get the dessert. It also can cause the child to have a special, rebellious relationship with dessert foods that can cause them to overeat them in the future. Desserts are yummy; Kids and adults like to eat them. Occasionally offer a dessert with meals and portion the same amount to everyone in the family. Maybe your child just needs a nice dose of sugar (glucose) for their growing brain. Maybe a few bites of dessert will get them started on other foods on their plate.
“You ate all your peas! You are an amazing eater. Good job!”
Our children want to make us happy. If we praise them when they eat, it teaches them to ignore their bodies so that they can make mom or dad happy. This approach also doesn’t work to get a child to like a food. They might eat it a few times to make their parents happy but after forcing the food down it may become a food they avoid.
“Sit here until you eat all your food”
This is a double punishment: forcing them to eat the food and forcing them to stay at the table when they are done. Punishing a child when it comes to food can create very negative relationships with food that can last a lifetime.
“No, that is not a carrot in your muffin" (when it is a carrot)
Being dishonest about what’s in a child’s food can cause a distrust between the child and parent around food. The child may learn to be reluctant to try new foods because they know the parent will not disclose what is in it. If you want a child to try different foods, you’d have better luck letting your child help cook the carrot muffins by grating the carrot and adding them to the recipe. If cooking with your child is a neutral food exposure and a fun time, then the child is more likely to try the food. Food exposure can take 20 or more times before a child is comfortable but, eventually, if given the autonomy, they will learn to eat in a similar way as the rest of the family.
It's important to be aware of the division of responsibility in feeding but this approach is not about perfection--do the best you can. It personally helps me to check-in before making comments at the table by asking myself "am I saying this to get my child to eat something?" If the answer is yes, then I avoid saying it. Navigating family feeding can be difficult these days with diet culture and weight-centric health care. If you think your family would benefit from working with a dietitian that brings compassion, curiosity, and non-judgement to nutritional care, book with me today.
Maggie Perkins is a registered dietitian that does nutrition telehealth for families.
She focuses in family feeding, intuitive eating, and Health at Every Size©.
Her private practice, Tomata, is based out of North Carolina
The material in this blog is not intended to be used as medical advice. Please work closely with a competent health care team on your specific medical needs.