Therapists Say These 4 Comments Harm Your Kids’ Relationship With Food

Experts reveal the most harmful comments that you may not realize are psychologically damaging.
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If you’re a parent, especially a millennial one who grew up in the age of ’90s diet fads, phrases like “finish your dinner if you want dessert” or “a moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips” may still haunt you. As we raise our own children now, we want to help them make healthy choices, but without giving them the same complexes we endured in our youth (which, for many of us, have followed us into adulthood).

One place to start is conscientiously choosing our words when talking about food. “I think our relationship with food directly starts in the home with how food is presented and talked about in the home,” said Dr. Raquel Katangian-Ayala, director of Center of Discovery in Irvine. From labeling foods to body talk, here’s what not to say to your kids about food (and what to say instead).

“That [insert food item] is so bad for you!”

Passing judgment on kids’ food by labeling it “good” or “bad” should be avoided. Young kids live in a world of good versus bad, explained Dr. Erica Miller, a psychologist with Connected Minds NYC. “They really put things into boxes, and as adults, we know that nothing needs to be off-limits, or that no food is all good or bad all the time, but kids don’t know how to make sense of all that,” she added.

Instead of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” try a non-judgmental approach and focus on what value a particular item provides. For example, oft-vilified carbs provide fuel to active, growing bodies, and fats help bodies absorb certain vitamins. “Understanding nutritional value helps start to change [kids’] language,” Katangian-Avala said. “Whether it’s a carb or a fat versus a fruit or a vegetable, at the end of the day, it’s just providing us with our adequate nutrition.”

If your child has a proclivity for, say, sweets, it’s also OK to just make the item unavailable to them — even if they know where you’ve hidden the candy stash. “You can just say, ‘It’s not on the menu, we’re going to have it on Tuesday,’” said dietitian Jennifer Anderson of Kids Eat In Color. “You don’t owe your child an explanation, and if you do provide an explanation, it can work against your efforts.” Once kids think of different foods (treats included) on an even playing field, the more likely they are to listen to their own hunger cues and determine what they really want to eat.

“Ugh, my belly is getting big from all of those [insert treats]!”

If you’re prone to speaking negatively about your body, or your child’s body, especially in relation to food, it’s important to consider the impact it’s having on your kids. At the Center of Discovery, where Katangian-Avala works with patients in recovery from eating disorders, she often talks to parents about how their own dieting affects their children. A kid that hears a parent complain about their body and restrict certain foods may feel like they need to do the same. “Because of puberty and how they’re growing, we provide that education. Their bodies will change,” she said.

If other adults in your child’s world make these kinds of comments, it’s appropriate to step in and put the kibosh on it. “What you say about food is important, but that’s not the root of the issue. The root is internalized weight bias and all this drama around that. The more a child has this weight bias and this idea that thin is better, the more food becomes a drama point,” said Anderson.

To address this with a loved one, kindly and clearly tell them in private that body commentary isn’t welcome around your child. When these sorts of comments are made, Anderson suggested saying something along the lines of: “All bodies come in different shapes and sizes — you’re a good person regardless of body size.”

Don't treat broccoli like it's punishment
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Don't treat broccoli like it's punishment

I’ll give you a cookie after you eat that broccoli,” or “Finish everything on that plate and I’ll give you dessert.”

As much as you may desperately want your kid to balance out those chicken nuggets with some broccoli, or any veggie, pressuring them to do so with the promise of a sweet reward is not the answer. Neither is using food as a bribe for anything, really (i.e., getting them to leave the park with a promise of candy at home).

“Any time we are rewarding a child for eating or for doing something, what we’re saying is, ‘Guess what? The broccoli is really bad and it’s so bad that I’m willing to give you a reward,’” Anderson told HuffPost. “So it tends to decrease kids’ intrinsic desire to eat the food, and it increases their desire to eat the reward.”

Similarly, you don’t want to encourage kids to eat a whole plate of food just to get dessert. “That makes the dessert even more desirable and it makes it harder for them in the future to then listen to whether they’re full or not,” Anderson said.

Instead, encourage them to listen to their fullness cues and consider serving a child-sized dessert along with their meal. “You don’t have to do it if your family doesn’t do dessert, but if your family does serve dessert, and it’s causing issues, this can be one strategy that works for families,” she added. This strategy helps remove the “forbidden fruit” factor of dessert and makes it less of a reward.

“You can’t have a snack right now, it’s too close to dinner.”

While many adults may function well on three meals a day, it’s not realistic to expect a kid to do the same. Little kids, especially those under the age of 5, have higher metabolisms than adults and therefore burn calories quicker and need to refuel.

For kids eating dinner with their families, it may be hard for them to have a meal so close to their bedtime. “For some kids, maybe having a much bigger snack might actually be much better,” said Miller. Consider giving your kid dinner earlier in the day, or, a heartier afternoon snack with the understanding that they may eat less at dinner.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call or text 988 or chat for support.

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