10 ways to talk to children about food, healthy eating

Language shapes lifelong attitudes, eating behavior

Caregivers play a major role in helping children develop healthy eating habits. “Caregivers” includes parents/guardians, grandparents, child care providers, teachers, and others who interact regularly with children at meal time.

What we say about food and eating significantly impacts kids’ eating habits. Positive messages about food and eating will help children develop healthy habits.

Here we present examples of phrases that help develop healthy eating habits, as well as the phrases to avoid. Replace the negative statements in each example with the positive ones.

Grandmother and granddaughter eating

Encourage new/unfamiliar foods

Say this:

This is kiwi fruit; it’s sweet like a strawberry.

These radishes are very crunchy!

Phrases like these help to point out the sensory qualities of food. They encourage children to try new foods.

Avoid this:

Eat that for me.
If you do not eat one more bite, I will be mad.

Phrases like this teach children to eat for approval and love. This can lead children to unhealthy behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs about food and about themselves.

Curb overeating

Say this:

Is your stomach telling you that you’re full?

Is your stomach still making its hungry growling noise?

Has your tummy had enough?

Phrases like these help your child recognize the signals that he or she is full.

Avoid this:

You’re such a big girl; you finished all your peas.

Jenny, look at your sister. She ate all of her bananas.

You have to take one more bite before you leave the table.

Phrases like these teach your child to ignore fullness and eat for other goals. It is better for kids to stop eating when full or satisfied than stop when all of the food is gone.

Family eating outdoors
Happy Smiling Family Enjoying Meal At Outdoor Restaurant

Empower the child

Say this:

Do you like that?

Which one is your favorite?

Everybody likes different foods, don’t they?

Phrases like these make children feel that they are making the choices. It also shifts the focus to the taste of the food rather than who was right.

Avoid this:

See, that didn’t taste so bad, did it?

This implies that a child was wrong to refuse the food, leading to unhealthy attitudes about food or self. It also amplifies the power struggle.

Reward with attention/affection

Say this:

We can try these vegetables again another time. Next time would you like to try them raw instead of cooked?

I am sorry you are sad. Come here and let me give you a big hug.

Reward children with attention and kind words. Comfort them with hugs and talks. Show love by spending time and having fun together.

Avoid this:

No dessert until you eat your vegetables.

Stop crying, and I will give you a cookie.

Offering some foods, like dessert, in reward for finishing others, like vegetables, makes some foods seem “better” or more desirable than others. Getting a food treat when upset teaches your child to eat to feel better. This can lead to overeating.

Adapted from USDA’s Phrases that HELP and HINDER

Healthy Kids Achieve More

Establishing and maintaining healthy eating habits has far-reaching benefits. School-aged children who eat healthy meals perform better on tests, have fewer attendance and behavior problems, and achieve more in school. Find out how your school can help students eat healthy and boost academic success in our guide, Healthy Students Achieve More.

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