5 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kid About Food

kid foodWe all want our kids to develop healthy eating habits and attitudes toward food in general, but many of us might not realize that we're sending the wrong messages at mealtime. Whether we're repeating the same worn-out rules our parents gave us or simply trying to steer our kids away from unhealthy choices, our choice of words could do more harm than good.


"Parents need to be smart about the fact that the body is a machine that needs fueling through regular meals and snacks," says Abigail H. Natenshon, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders and the author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder. "Making home-cooked meals a priority, and eating them together with the family, reinforces the fact that healthy eating is one of the most important things we can do for our bodies. Meals together need to be a joyous event, a time for socialization."

Also, parents need to be clear about what healthy eating is. "Healthy eating is not fat-free or sugar-free eating, but the willingness to eat all foods in all food groups -- including fats and sugars -- at each meal, and in a balanced and moderate way," says Natenshon.

Once you're educated about nutrition, you'll want to pass that info on to your kids -- but you won't want to say any of the following things in the process! 

1. "We don't eat candy (or french fries, or cookies, etc.) in this house!"

You might think you're doing your child a favor by making junk food completely off-limits, but this well-intentioned move may very well backfire.

"Restricting children from eating certain kinds of food is harmful because parents inadvertently give kids the message that certain foods are scary and bad," said Natenshon. "Kids may start to believe that food is fattening and can harm a person. Eventually, such notions may [be] instrumental in triggering the onset of an eating disorder in a genetically susceptible child."

In other words, you won't always be able to control everything your child puts in his mouth -- and making certain foods taboo pretty much guarantees that he'll go overboard the second he's out of your sight. Instead, allow kids to eat small amounts of junk; this will teach them how to self-regulate and encourage overall balanced habits.

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2. "Stop being so picky!"

Every parent knows how frustrating it can be to prepare a healthy meal and have your child turn up her nose at it -- especially when that seems to happen day after day after day. But while even kids with relatively sophisticated palates go through phases where they refuse everything but a few foods, some kids truly can't help their "picky" nature (and criticizing them for it will only make things worse). 

"What people don't understand is that the child who is a picky eater -- as in eating a limited number of foods -- may have an actual diagnosis of avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID," says Natenshon.

ARFID is the second most common eating disorder in kids under the age of 12 and is thought to be related to sensory integration disorder and other anxiety disorders. If your child is a severely picky eater, see his or her doctor; kids suffering from ARFID risk not getting enough calories and could develop problems digesting certain foods and other problems including nutritional deficiencies. (Treatment can sometimes include supplementing with vitamins and nutritional shakes, as well as behavioral therapies.) 

"There are parents who do everything they can to encourage their children to eat a broad range of foods, to no avail. Don't blame yourselves!" encourages Natenshon. "The problem may be partially genetically and neurologically based. There are techniques to help these children. Don't stop trying to discover what they are and to use them in attempting to add to your child's food repertoire."

Of course, not every picky eater has ARFID. Parents with less severely selective eaters should still focus on continuing to offer a wide variety of foods, exposing them to as many smells, tastes, and textures as possible, without putting too much pressure on their choices. Don't forget: You might need to offer the same food as many as 10 times (or more) before a kid will even think about trying it, but that doesn't mean it won't eventually end up being one of his favorite things!

And while you naturally don't want to turn into a short order cook in your own home, it's okay to make the occasional comparable substitution to meet your child's mood (swapping out a protein for a protein, for example -- like scrambled eggs instead of chicken breast). After all, kids are only human, and human beings have different cravings on different days for different reasons. The point is making sure your kid eats as balanced a diet as possible without putting too much strain on either one of you!

3. "This is too spicy (or sour, etc.) for kids."

It's a trap too many parents fall into, says Natenshon: serving two separate meals, one for adults and one for children. Sure, little ones might not like roasted asparagus or pesto the first (hundred) times you offer it to them, but that doesn't mean you need to cook up a second dinner of chicken nuggets or mac and cheese every night. Expose your kids to a wide variety of foods and over time, chances are they'll try -- and even like! -- what the adults at the table are eating.

Plus, the simple act of sitting down for meals as a family will help promote adventurous eating, too. 

More from CafeMom: 5 Mom Hacks for Getting Picky Eaters to Try Healthy Foods 

4. "Eating that will make you fat."

"One of the most harmful things parents can do is to let a child know that they value them staying thin," said Natenshon. Not only does expressing concern over how "fattening" a child's diet might be potentially affect her body image, but it could also give her the dangerous idea that foods containing fat (such as whole milk) are "bad."

"Healthy fats are one of the most important things that a child can eat," says Natenshon. "They're essential for brain health."

5. "No dessert until you finish your veggies!"

Probably every last parent on the planet has resorted to this type of bribery at some point or another, but the last thing you want to do is make healthy eating seem like a chore (and turn treats into a "reward"). This programs kids to think of foods like vegetables and whole grains as obligatory, when really we should be focusing on making these nutritious options as delicious and irresistible as possible.

Try including your kid in meal prep to pique their interest in the final -- and healthy -- product, but don't "punish" them by taking away their dessert if they don't like it!


Image via Bunches and Bits {Karina}/Flickr

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