It’s well-known that the way a parent or caregiver speaks to a child has an impact on their behaviour, but research is increasingly showing that this is also true for how children form eating habits. How we speak to children about food is just as important for their on-going health and development, as what we put on their plates.
There’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food. Just food.
Avoid labels like ‘good vs bad’, and ‘red vs green’. Create an environment where children are free to explore all kinds of food, experiment with different tastes and textures, and build a positive relationship with food. By placing a moral value – good or bad, right or wrong – to different types of food can make children feel anxious about the foods they enjoy and perhaps result in unwanted behaviour such as sneaking food or hiding to eat foods they enjoy, which can see feelings such as shame and guilt become associated with eating. Similarly, using certain foods as treats or rewards makes them appear more valuable and desirable than other foods.
Emphasise the positives.
Let children see you enjoying the same healthy fruits, vegetables and proteins as offered to them, while emphasising the message that these types of foods give our bodies good energy to run, jump and play outside, and have fun with our friends. Talk about what specific foods do for their bodies – carrots help us see better, eggs make our muscles stronger and milk/cheese/yoghurt has calcium for our bones. Phrases such as “This kiwi fruit is very sweet’’ or “these celery sticks go crunch, crunch, crunch” or “mmm, this pasta smells yummy” highlight the different sensory characteristics of food and can encourage children to try new foods.
When enough is enough.
By using phrases such as ‘Is your tummy telling you it’s full?” or “Has your stomach stopped making it’s hungry growling noise?’ or “Do you like it? Would you like more?” rather than praising an empty plate, we teach children to recognise their fullness cues and avoid over-eating. It is important for children to stop eating when they’re full or satisfied, rather than when their plate is empty.
Eating means energy.
Meal and snack times are about fuelling our bodies, not gaining a parent or care-giver’s love or approval. Avoid saying things like “eat one more bite for me” or “I’ll be mad if you don’t eat all your dinner”, and using treats as a reward. Praise children when they try new foods, acknowledge that not everyone likes the same things and reward their efforts with your time, attention and patience. Ask what they liked or didn’t like about a new food, and give them options for trying it again another time. Using phrases such as “Next time would you like to try them raw or cooked?” can be helpful. Similarly, soothe upset children with cuddles and love, not sweet treats – a practice which could lead to comfort eating.
At The Wellbeing Food Company, we’re passionate about helping childcare centres, children and families to thrive – no matter what their dietary or cultural food requirements. Our menus are created by accredited practising dietitians alongside an expert team of chefs from diverse cultural backgrounds to balance optimal childhood nutrition with maximum ‘kid-approved’ appeal. Allergy-safe meals are individually sealed and labelled to eliminate guesswork and cross-contamination risk. Because every child deserves to eat great food – and providers and parents deserve simple certainty, every day.
Want safe and sensational meals for your childcare, with lashings of simplicity and confidence? Let’s talk.