What we say to our kids may do more harm than good. Here are 5 things you should never say to your child about food.

I’ll never forget the moment I became a mother. Staring down into the eyes of the pink, wrinkled tiny love of my life, I was struck with three thoughts.

The first: “I’ve never loved anything more”. The second being “Who am I?” as I stared at my postpartum face and body in the mirror. And the third? “I hope I don’t f**k this up.”

I think it’s a common refrain among parents the world over – we’re desperate to do it right and somehow guide our children into adulthood without burdening them with the same baggage we moved through life with.

To help my kids grow up without worrying about food like I did, I stick to some hard and fast guidelines, including a list of things you should never say to your child about food.
I’d love for my kids to grow up without worrying about food like I did. That’s why I stick to some hard and fast guidelines, including a list of things you should never say to your child about food. Image: Lyndi Cohen

For women in particular, most of us were raised with some hugely problematic ideas about body image and health – ideas we’ve had to spend most of our adult lives un-learning. While I’m sure I’ll manage to do or say something my child will one day bring up in a therapist’s chair, when it comes to food and body image, I like to think my years of research (and therapy myself!) have helped me figure out some hard and fast guidelines.

“You can’t leave the table until you finish your plate”

As someone who lives and breathes intuitive eating as an antidote to restrictive or prescriptive eating, forcing my child to ignore their own fullness cues is a big no-no. One of the main reasons many of us have lost the ability to recognise our own hunger and fullness cues is that we’re programmed to eat a certain amount at a certain time. It’s comments like this, often from our own mothers, that got us here in the first place!

“Just have one bite”

We used to believe this phrase encouraged children to be adventurous eaters but now we realise it can backfire. Research suggests it can take a child over 10 exposures to a new food before they are willing to try it. This could be talking about the food, seeing the food eaten by then parents, sitting on their plate, preparing the food for others to eat. Normalising foods and giving your children diversity in what they eat is going to be far more effective for getting them to be adventurous eaters than trying the ‘one bite’ rule. And as perpetual dieters ourselves, we already know that food rules don’t work.

“It’s bad for you”

It rolls off the tongue all too easily, doesn’t it? Especially when kids are nagging us to know WHY we won’t let them have that ice cream at 10 am. But categorising foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fosters the kind of black and white thinking that can lead to some problematic ideas around food and morality. In fact, I wrote a whole post about how the idea of ‘perfect’ eating could be sabotaging your health. The same idea can be applied to healthy eating for kids. There’s room for all foods in a balanced diet.

Raising adventurous eaters isn't limited to picking healthy food for kids. It also includes setting a positive example. This list of 5 things you should never say to your child about food can help.
Having a picky eater at home? Raising an adventurous eater can be as simple as normalising foods and giving our children diversity in what they eat.
Image: Lyndi Cohen

“If you do this, you can have a treat”

I know it’s well-meaning and trust me, I’m not above some parental bribery when the situation demands it, but food-as-reward can be a slippery slope to emotional and binge eating. I’m not keen on planting the idea that some foods have to be earned, as I know firsthand how it can lead to the opposite idea – that eating those foods must be followed by ‘working them off’ or, essentially, ‘earning’ them after the fact. See if you can think of non-food-based rewards for your kids like spending quality time with you or an experience that will bring them joy.

Food-as-reward is not a questions of bad parenting vs. good parenting but, more importantly, can be a slippery slope to emotional and binge eating. Stick to this list of 5 things you should never say to your child about food.
The list of non-food rewards that kids love is long. If your children are old enough, you can even brainstorm motivation alternatives with them. Image: Unsplash

“I’m hate my body” or “I’m on a diet”

We’ve been taught to judge our bodies. But if you want children who grow up to like who they are, the best thing we can do is to work on our relationship with food and our bodies. You don’t need to love your body (that’s a tall ask if you’ve been hating your body your whole life), but can you decide your body is worthy of respect? This means talking kindly – or at least neutrally about it – and to it. Skip judging your body or what other people look like for that matter.

The most powerful tool you have as a parent is the example you set. If you want a kid who loves themselves, there’s not much choice but to love yourself as well. For more on how your mum’s dieting might have messed with you, check out this blog post.

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