I have been meaning to write this post for a while now, in fact it was one of my first ideas. It has been on my mind because the language and environment we create around eating can significantly impact how our kids eat, for the good or for the bad. I hear parent’s say these statements so often and I know that they probably don’t realize that they may be making mealtimes worse. Here are five of these common phrases and why you shouldn’t say them.
1. “Oh, ‘Suzy’ doesn’t like that.” I am starting off with one that probably makes me the most crazy. I am always so surprised by how often I actually hear this and it is usually at a party when there is a ton of food around.
Why You Shouldn’t Say It: Years ago I was watching Rachael Ray, long before I had kids, and she told this story that has stuck with me… Before she was on TV, she was in the gourmet food industry, and would be giving samples out of a recipe she had made in grocery stores. Kids would often watch interested in what she was doing or handing out, yet, when she offered a sample to them, most parents stepped in saying, “They won’t eat that.” This story perfectly illustrates my point. Always, give your child the opportunity to try something new or try something again. They may surprise you, but more importantly you will be creating an open, inviting, positive environment around a large variety of foods!
Also, try to keep in mind that kids need to try a food at least 10-12 times before you really know if they don’t like something, most of the time they haven’t even come close to that number (See my Basic Strategies for more info on this). Even if they have tried chicken 30 times, it still doesn’t hurt to give it another try. So what if they don’t eat it, no harm no foul. If you don’t want to waste food, just give them a small piece and encourage them to interact with it (touch, smell, taste). By putting something new or non-preferred on their plate, you are sending a message that you are at least hopeful that they will try a bite, instead of instating or reconfirming a dislike towards a food that you probably wish they would eat.
2. “Clean your plate!” ‘Finish all your food’ and ‘make a happy’ plate both apply here, too!
Why You Shouldn’t Say it: We want to teach kids to eat until they are full not till their plates are clean. The portions we give them are usually too big and even if they aren’t, we want to teach them to respect that feeling of satiation (something so many of us ignore). Of course, if your kiddo has had two bites or you feel they legitimately haven’t eaten enough, it’s ok to encourage them to eat more, but the goal shouldn’t be for them to eat it ALL.
3. “‘Sam’ is such a picky eater.” I have touched on this in other posts and yes, I know I have a regular segment titled “Picky Eater Tips“. It wasn’t my first choice to use that term, but it is a simple term that people immediately understand, so I caved. However, I try not to ever say it about my own children and especially not in their presence.
Why You Shouldn’t Say It: We all know kids are little sponges and miss little of what we say, even when it isn’t directed to them. “Picky eater” has a negative connotation and I always want to keep everything associated with food and eating as positive as possible. Also, I want to give them the opportunity to move out of picky eating, it isn’t set in stone that they will always be “picky eaters”. But, when we use this phrase it may turn into a self fulfilling prophesy, as your child knows the bar hasn’t been set very high. Try and be positive and if you find yourself needing to describe your kid’s eating, maybe say something like, “Sam can be particular about what he eats, but we are working on it.”
4. “Daddy doesn’t like ‘peas’.” I am not trying to stereotype here, just an example Dad’s, this goes for anyone that is regularly eating with your kids.
Why You Shouldn’t Say It: It isn’t fair to kids to expect them to eat the peas when you aren’t. You can’t go around making exceptions for yourself because you really really hate peas. Whoever is regularly eating with your child should be on the same page about this and at a minimum not make a statement like, “Oh, Daddy doesn’t like peas,” when they are wondering why Daddy doesn’t have any on his plate. By drawing attention to an adult’s dislike of food you risk opening the door to all kinds of similar statements coming from your child’s mouth about their own food preferences. Besides I am sure you and the other adult’s in your kid’s life want to set a good example for them to model. If you or another adult really can’t bring yourself to have a bite, then be discreet about it, trying not to call any attention to the fact that you aren’t eating them.
5. “What do you want to eat?” Or any litany of specific foods, like, “Do you want bread or cheese or crackers or yogurt, etc.”
Why You Shouldn’t Say It: Parents tend to use this phrase in two instances. First, parents will often go to this when a child is refusing to eat what was originally presented. For instance, you give your kid spaghetti and meatballs and all they do is push it around their plate. You are frustrated and want them to eat something, so you may say, “What do you want to eat?” Not a great idea because you are turning yourself into a short order cook and reinforcing the idea that they don’t have to eat what you have prepared, but can have whatever they want. My Basic Strategies page for a lot more info on this.
Second, parents may ask this when they don’t know what to feed their kid or want to make sure they are going to eat what they make. I don’t like this because it is giving the child way too much control. They are likely to keep themselves very limited, only choosing their favorite foods, and reducing exposure to a larger variety of foods. It also gives them the idea that they are running the ship, which leaves little room for you to encourage a larger variety and/or quantity of food. Instead of asking what they want, give them a choice between 2-3 foods. As children get older, I would let them help get into meal planning and reinforce planning a healthy balanced meal.
This is a do-able list, right? Erasing some of this language from your conversation is an easy fix that will make your kid a better eater in the long run. You will be creating a positive environment that your child feels comfortable, and not pressured, to try new foods in!
Are any of these going to be hard habit for you to break? Have any other phrases you think should be on the list?
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