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7 Things Parents Say that May Contribute to Eating Issues in Kids

By Michelle May, M.D.

As parents, we sometimes forget that we are raising adults, not children. The goal is to provide our children with the skills and increasing responsibility for managing their lives without our constant vigilance. One key life skill is the ability to navigate our food-abundant environment while maintaining optimal well-being.

Here are seven things that well-meaning parents commonly say that may have unintended consequences on children’s eating–and some ideas for what to say instead.

1. You are such a good eater!

Children want nothing more than to please their parents. While mealtime should be a pleasant time to connect with your children, eating should remain intrinsically driven to meet the child’s fuel needs, NOT to earn your praise. (Read my previous post You’re Not the Boss of My Body!)

What you could say instead: You must have been really hungry today! Or, I love spending time with you while we have dinner.

Picky Eating2. You are such a picky eater!

All children (and most adults) have some foods they just don’t like. Some children are highly taste and/or texture sensitive and many of them will outgrow it. Selective eating becomes an entrenched behavior when we berate, beg, bribe–or worse, feed kids only what they say they’ll eat.

What you could say instead: Yes, I remember that you didn’t like it last time; tell me what you think about it today when test one bite. Or, Did you know your taste buds grow up just like you do? I wonder if you like this big kid food yet?

3. Clean your plate; there are starving children in _______ (third world country).

Avoid teaching children scarcity eating behaviors in our abundant food environment.

What you could say instead: It is important not to be wasteful so please only take as much as you think you need. Or, If you’re full, we can save the rest for later.

4. You have to eat all your vegetables or there will be no dessert.

Kids are smart. When you bribe them for eating certain foods, they quickly realize those foods must be yucky and that dessert is the reward. They also learn to hold out until a reward is offered.

What you could say instead: I love all kinds of different foods–some that make me healthy and strong and some that are just for fun. What kinds of foods do you like? Or, Enjoy your dinner. We’ll be having dessert in a couple of hours.

5. Eat all your dinner or you don’t get dessert.

This variation on the threat above translates to “you must overeat so I will reward you by giving you more to eat!” Children naturally love sweet foods so they can learn to override their fullness signals. As an adult they may still clean their plate to justify eating the dessert they want.

What you could say instead: Save room for dessert tonight!

6. I was so bad at lunch today! Now I have to spend an extra hour on the treadmill.

Children are born to move. They naturally love exploring their environment, challenging themselves, and playing actively. Unfortunately, the messages they get from adults teaches them that exercise is punishment for eating.

What you could say instead: I ate more than I needed and now I feel too full and uncomfortable. I think a walk would help me feel better. Want to join me? Or, Anybody for a bike ride?!

7. I am so gross and fat! (Or, I can’t believe ____ has let herself go!)

Kids learn from us even when we think they aren’t listening. Statements like this teach kids that it’s OK to put yourself and others down and judge people for their weight or other physical attributes. Perhaps they also secretly wonder what you really think about them.

What you could say instead: I’m not perfect and I don’t need to be, so I just do my best to make balanced choices.

And, no matter what else you say, remember to say often: I love you just the way you are!

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

13 Comments

  1. Moe says:

    I remember 3 and 5 for sure. I also had an aunt that made me sit at the dinner table for hours into the evening until I ate the liver on my plate.

  2. Oh, the things we do to children! I remember being forced to sit at the table until I ate all of my overcooked, bitter brussel sprouts. I refused to try them again for 30 years! My husband roasted them in the oven with olive oil and kosher salt – YUM!

  3. What a great post! I catch myself saying some of these things to my toddler sometimes. Thanks for the reminder of what not to say as well as tips on what to say instead. Very helpful!

  4. Melanie Lane says:

    I particularly resonate with watching what we say about ourselves. I am really cautious about saying to my daughter that I need to get back to the gym because I’ve gained a pound. (I’m of normal weight.) I also try very hard not to discuss my frustration with flab on my arms or thighs, which is admittedly not that much, in front of her. She has said on more than one occasion that she’s afraid she’s bigger than the other girls at school. She’s in the 25% for weight for her age. Hellooo, Mom! Be careful. I am working really hard to encourage her that she looks healthy and it is just as unhealthy to be too thin as it is to be too fat. I also have her doctor reassure her every time she goes for a physical.

  5. Dina Rose says:

    I agree with everything you have to say. Great post!
    Dina Rose, PhD
    http://www.itsnotaboutnutrition.com

  6. Woops! I do some of these to my 3 year old daughter already! Thanks for the great tips.

  7. What an insightful post! Sometimes parents say these things, espcially offering rewards or threats, out of plain desperation. Parents feel a lot of pressure these days and they don’t want to feel like they are doing a bad job at parenting. If the child does not eat “enough”, or if he does not even touch his fruits and veggies, parents feel a sense of failure or even fear that the child will not grow healthy. Feeding a young child is a very emotional experience for parents.It is hard to be objective.
    I think we have to be aware of our fears and emotions but not let them control our behavior when feeding our children. Instead of focusing on getting it “right”, we should try to make family meals a pleasant, stress free experience for everyone.
    You give wonderful suggestions. We will certainly be using them in our conversations at the dinner table!

  8. Great observations! You are absolutely right that much of this table-talk is out of fear and pressure to get it right.
    I’ve worked with thousands of adults with food and weight problems and many of them learned thought patterns in childhood that are contributing to their current problems. They find that it is challenging to undo habits like cleaning your plate, earning dessert, and hating exercise. They have to relearn to trust their instinctive ability to eat when they’re hungry, stop when they’re full, and eat what they love without overeating or feeling guilty.
    It’s much better to teach children good nutrition through modeling, hands-on experience, and conversation than through bribing, coercion, and deprivation.
    The key is TRUST. Trust them to know when and how much to eat. Offer a variety of healthful and enjoyable foods, involve them in the process whenever possible, then sit back and enjoy eating together–with your mouth shut if necessary!:)

  9. Susan Dopart says:

    What a wonderful post Michelle – thank you for giving us useful information to turn our words into meaning and help for our children. Much appreciated!

  10. Liz says:

    Wow, found this post from Dina’s site (above) and I love it! I’m going to have to come back and read more!

  11. Kia says:

    This is one of the best articles that I have read! I love your ideas and suggestions! I will be sure to remember you points when I’m at the dinner table!!
    Thank you for putting together such a wonderful and useful post!

  12. Oh wow Michelle – I heard so many of these when I was a child! In particular number 3, 4 and 5. I was definitely raised as part of the ‘clean the plate club’. It is really difficult to ‘unlearn’ these conditioned behaviours. Even now as an adult, dessert feels like a reward for eating my vegetables! Argh! I have banned the word dessert in our house and will offer something sweet (usually fruit) as part of the main meal. My son is happy to eat his mango along with his chicken 🙂
    I particularly agree with the comment to TRUST your child. I’ve started this early with my little boy (he’s only 9 months old) by letting him eat as much or as little as he likes at meal times (he self-feeds). I’ve even had other mums ask how do I know if my son is eating enough and I always tell them that I trust him to eat as much as he needs, that he is not going to starve himself (and he doesn’t).
    Like Twin Toddlers Dad said, raising a ‘healthy eater’ in today’s world is a very stressful experience for parents. It can become so stressful at times that it is easy to overlook the long term goal – to sit and enjoy a pleasant nourishing meal with your kids.
    Great post!

  13. Gwen Henson says:

    This is great information for parents. People assume teenage boys eat everything, but my son sometimes still exhibits “picky eater” tendencies. I am grateful for your ideas on how to encourage him to explore new tastes and textures.

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