10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Child About Food

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on September 7, 2012

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As parents, we all say things to encourage our kids to eat healthier. Yet in our modern, food centric environment, even well-intentioned comments can be translated into negatives that hinder eating.

So here are 10 common “food statements” parents often say to kids, how kids’ are likely to translate the  information and more effective things to say and do.

1. “See, your (sister, brother, cousin, friend) is eating it, why don’t you?”

Translation: “He/she is a better eater than me.”

A better thing to say: “I know you’ll get there, sweety. It takes time — and many tastes– to learn to like a new food.”

Rationale: Instead of feelings of inferiority, you want to instill confidence that the child can and will like the food in their own time.

2. “You used to like blueberries — you are so picky!”

Translation: “Maybe I won’t grow out of this picky-eating thing?”

A better thing to do: Don’t call attention to picky eating. Instead, make eating an enjoyable experience.

Rationale: Avoid labeling children as “picky” as this is a normal stage of development and the label tends to stick.

3. “For the last time, no, you cannot have ice cream!”

Translation: “I’m never getting ice cream again!”

A better thing to say: “We are not having ice cream now because lunch is a half hour away. We’ll have some one day this week for dessert.”

Rationale: Children accept no much better when they know why they can’t have it and when they will have it again.

4. “You didn’t eat enough. Take a few more bites and then you can leave the table.”

Translation: “Mom/dad/empty plate (external signals) are a better judge of when I’m done eating than what I’m feeling inside.”

A better thing to say: “Make sure you got enough to eat because the next meal won’t be until (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack time).”

Rationale: When children are in charge of how much to eat, they learn how to effectively manage hunger (hint: sometimes mistakes have to be made). Check out the latest study on why this is true.

5. “If you eat some of your veggies, you can have dessert.”

Translation: “I can’t wait until the day I don’t have to eat my veggies — and can go straight to dessert!”

A better thing to do: Instead of nagging and food rewarding, offer tasty vegetables often and model healthy eating.

Rationale: Research shows that children learn to prefer the reward food over the “have to eat” food.

6. “Good job!” (after eating more than usual)

Translation: “Mommy and daddy are proud of me when I eat more food or finish my plate.”

A better thing to say: “You always do a good job eating when you listen to your tummy.”

Rationale: Praising children for eating more food teaches them quantity is preferable to following one’s appetite which varies from meal to meal.

7. “Eat this, it’s good for you.”

Translation: “It tastes bad.”

A better thing to say: “This tastes really good and is similar to X that you like.”

Rationale: Studies show taste rules children’s food preferences and they benefit from getting more information about a new item.

8. “If you are good in the store, you can have a cookie” or “If you don’t stop doing that, you won’t be getting ice cream tonight”

Translation: “Every time I’m good, I should get a treat!”

A better thing to do: Let them know ahead of time the consequence that will happen if they misbehave — and leave food out of it.

Rationale: Think about the long-term effects of constantly rewarding with food. For example, in a 2003 study published in Eating Behaviors, adults who remembered food being used to reward and punish, were more likely to binge eat and diet.

9. “We don’t eat cake often because it is bad for you.”

Translation: “I like everything that is bad for me (Bad = pleasure)”

A better thing to say: “Cake is not a food we eat all the time. We’ll have some cake this weekend at Jake’s birthday party.”

Rationale: Labeling food as “good” and “bad” creates judgment around eating. Instead, teach children how all foods fit into a balanced diet based on frequency of eating.

10. “You don’t like dinner? Want me to make you something else?”

Translation: “I never have to venture out with food because mom/dad will always make my favorites!”

A better thing to say: “We all get the same meal for dinner, sometimes you get your favorite and other nights someone else does.”

Rationale: Eating meals together teaches children eating is a family affair and it encourages them to accept a wider variety of food over time.

Never underestimate the power your words have when it comes to children and food. If you are looking for positive and effective ways to feed your child, like the Fearless Feeding Community on Facebook. to get the support you need.

Any of these statements ring true with you?

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{ 81 comments… read them below or add one }

Victoria August 23, 2013 at 9:36 am

Brynn- I do think while out and about it is good to have an ongoing discussion about foods that help to fuel your body…however I would allow children on grocery store outings to be able to pick one item without any judgment. Sometimes they will choose junk but sometimes they will pick a fruit, veggie, or yogurt. Most school curriculum includes lessons about healthy v. Sometimes foods so they will be exposed to this idea. But as long as they are allowed to make choices and understand that some things they may want are ” sometimes” foods they will not develop unhealthy judgements about food

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Victoria August 24, 2013 at 7:18 am

Along the same lines with young children not being able to understand a lot of information, I do think we sometimes try to over simplify it using the same concept (good/bad). This is a concept that children end up struggling to understand as it can be used in so many ways ie. Cake is bad, this yogurt that has been hiding in the back of the fridge is bad, hitting your bother is bad etc. I definitely appropriate self talk about all things are appropriate and try to explain a little farther if you notice your children are confused but still interested. “Today we are not going to buy cake. Lets try to find something that will help us fuel our body better for dessert…” Most small children love to think about growing up to be big and strong like mommy and daddy so I think its also very acceptable while shopping (where the I want junk usually starts) to talk about how some foods help people grow taller and stronger

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Daria Boissonnas August 26, 2013 at 9:14 am

Saying #1 is even worse than stated. It shows the parents using peer pressure on their own children. They are essentially training their child to succumb to peer pressure in the future. Scary!

Thx for a thought-provoking article.

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Nanasha September 11, 2013 at 9:58 pm

What about if you are an adult and you don’t like a lot of veggies, food preparations and strong seasonings/spiciness?

I want to teach my daughter to be a good eater and show her by example, but eating salad makes me want to throw up, and a lot of vegetables (especially broccoli and cauliflower) make me feel ill when I eat them. I’m also very sensitive to salt, highly sugary foods, and a lot of fried things give me stomach aches. I’m not a big fan of many sauces either and I am a huge lightweight when it comes to spiciness/heat. I have a lot of food texture/temperature needs as well, and if it doesn’t “feel” right in my mouth, I have problems swallowing.

I eat the majority of my veggies in soups and baked casseroles because the texture evens out well, but it can be hard if my husband makes something new for dinner. My husband isn’t horribly picky but he doesn’t like beans and other certain foods.

I am convinced that I am going to ruin my children’s eating, but me vomiting at every meal isn’t going to help it if I have to choke down food I hate. Do you have any suggestions?

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Victoria September 12, 2013 at 6:50 am

Nanasha- it sounds like you have some sensory related eating difficulties…I would definitely suggest working through them slowly as you will not be able to bust through these problems in one quick move…one suggestion I do have is brushing your teeth/mouth before a meal. It can definitely lesson the stimulation a little as you are eating. Some of the issues you have are the reason why I am reluctant to pass of a child as a picky eater…food has different textures and your body can react different to it. Between you and your husband you should be able to model good eating…just keep at it! And let your children know that people like/dislike different things but you have to try it to know that

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Rachel October 4, 2013 at 9:44 am

“One bite to be polite.” My son learned this in preschool, and we still use it all the time at home. Only one bite. If he does not like it, it isn’t forced on him, but it also doesn’t mean that I will make him a completely different dinner. I always try to make sure that there is something I know he likes at least a little bit a dinner, so he doesn’t starve.

Thanks for the article. I will definitely be more conscious of what I say.

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Wilma October 11, 2013 at 7:58 pm

I am so grateful my children (all nearing 50) grew up just fine without my knowing all the “proper” methods of child rearing. Good luck.

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Rachel October 12, 2013 at 12:23 am

What about kids who don’t realize when they are full or hungry? I do say eat 4 more bites before you leave the table. It isn’t strictly enforced, but most of the time 4 bites turns into 14 bites. My kids will not want to eat until they feel jittery and then confuse the cessation of the jittery feeling with full. My brother was the same way and my father and my grandfather. My grandfather fell off the roof (he was a carpenter) because he forgot to eat, repeatedly.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD October 14, 2013 at 7:32 am

@Rachel — if you read around my site you will see that I recommend a structure of eating that is led by the parents. So parents decide what is eaten, how often and when taking their individual child into consideration. So if you have a child who is more like a grazer, you can offer meals more often. Parents can also guide children (remember how hungry you got last time you didn’t eat more at snack time?), when they want to eat very little. Unless a child has a medical condition or is affected by meds, most will regulate their intake if parents do their job of feeding. The problem with 4 more bites etc, is it isn’t teaching the child to listen to their hunger or satiety and a parent can’t possibly know how much a child needs all the time. They need to learn to rely on themselves. But you have a great deal of control because you are in charge of when the meals are — it’s just the how much that you can leave to your child. Also, research show pressuring children to eat results in early fullness so kids don’t eat as well (this is especially true for picky eaters)
These articles might interest you:
http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2013/09/what-children-secretly-wish-their-parents-would-stop-doing-at-mealtime-part-3/
http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2009/07/kids-planned-meals-and-snacks/
http://www.sheknows.com/health-and-wellness/articles/1018029/5-reasons-your-child-is-hungry-all-the-time

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Anna October 13, 2013 at 5:33 pm

Rachel: The same thing happens to me because my metabolism is so fast, and I get a hypoglycemic reaction if I don’t eat enough/often enough. My “tummy” didn’t tell me I was hungry until it was too late, so my parents had to train me on what was a healthy amount to eat by telling me how many more bites to take. Even now as an adult I have to make myself eat, even if I don’t feel hungry, because I know I need to. I would say that #4 works with some children, but not all.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD October 14, 2013 at 7:36 am

This is where structure comes in and it works for adults too. You may want to try providing yourself with a predictable schedule of meals and snacks. This will help you regulate your hunger. Just an idea.

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Heather January 18, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Interesting post! I’ve had some trouble with feeding my family due to various food allergies among the 3 children. It’s hard to find things that everybody can and will eat.

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jenn February 19, 2014 at 7:27 am

Great article! I wondered if ypu have read ” What’s eating my child- the hidden connection between food and childhood ailments” by nutritionist Kelly Dorfman. It covers so many of the issues parents list in the above comments. I am a vegetarian and the child of organic farmers and had problems woth mychild wanting only cheese, all the time. ( I found out later her sitter was studfing her with it when she was there) After eliminating dairy completely for a little while her entire demeanor changed and now she eats everything. So many parents in America are taught that our children will only eat mcehatever meals and bland spaghetti without realizing that type of food (along with food dyes and processed junk) are causing the problems

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Jamie April 15, 2014 at 6:53 am

I do tell my daughter in the grocery store that some foods are yucky and that “we” don’t buy them. Foods that are highly processed, or contain artificial dyes and preservatives. She’s 3.5 years old. I try to explain, as best I can, that they have “additives” in them that aren’t “real food.” We then go for organic processed stuff, or fruit snacks. How do you feel about that? I’m in school right now to get my RD.

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