As if we weren’t already tasked with teaching our kids literally everything, it’s our job as parents to instill healthy eating habits that will shape their relationship with food for the rest of their lives.
Oh, and do all that without giving them any weird food hang-ups or body-image issues — no pressure!
In all seriousness, the way you talk to your kids about food and nutrition can have a lasting impact on their health.
With the right approach, you can help them build a healthy body image and develop a positive relationship with food — and maybe even sidestep some of the psychological challenges that can make it so hard to lose weight as an adult.
To help you out, we put together a few helpful tips for talking to your kids about food.
(Pro tip: If you don’t know where to start, Ultimate Portion Fix will help you and your whole family establish healthy eating habits for life. This nutrition program from Autumn Calabrese includes the FIXATE Vol. 2 Cookbook, a PDF of 75 Healthy Lunch Ideas for kids, and much more. Learn more about the program here.)
How to Talk to Your Kids About Food & Nutrition
Focus on health, not weight
But research suggests that focusing on weight rather than health is more likely to lead to unhealthy dieting habits down the road.
So when you’re talking to your kids about nutrition, try to leave weight out of the conversation, and focus on all the ways food can help their brain and body work better.
Let them dictate portion sizes
It may be hard to believe when you just watched your kid dip spaghetti in ketchup or eat a cold hot dog, but kids actually tend to be more intuitive eaters than adults — and they’re good (sometimes annoyingly so) at stopping when they’re full.
“Kids are naturally mindful,” Pearson says. “At any given meal or snack, a child might be more or less hungry than usual. Parents must learn to trust kids and their appetite so kids can, in turn, learn to trust themselves.”
Don’t label foods “good” or “bad”
“The only food that is categorically ‘unhealthy’ is a food a child is allergic to or one that’s been spoiled or contaminated,” Pearson says. “Nothing else needs to be judged in that way.”
Sure, you don’t want your toddler to eat three giant pieces of chocolate cake — but instead of telling them sugar is bad for you, explain that some foods help you grow and stay healthy, while others are just fun “sometimes” snacks.
Pro tip: If you’re stumped on how to get your kid to eat healthy snacks, sneak in some nutrition in a shake that taste like a fun snack; Daily Sunshine contains fruits & veggies, plant-based protein, healthy fats, and comes in two kid-approved flavors: chocolate and strawberry banana.
How to Get Your Kids to Try New Foods
Give them options
Skip the begging, bribing, pleading, and “you’re-not-leaving-this-table-until-you-take-a-bite-of-broccoli” warnings.
Just put a variety of healthy foods on the table every night and let your kids serve themselves what they want.
“There is no amount of cajoling that will help children try new foods in an emotionally and behaviorally healthy way,” says Amy Isabella Chalker, an R.D. who specializes in children’s healthy eating habits.
“Instead, present children with a wide variety of foods from meal to meal, and they’ll ultimately learn to eat what is served,” she suggests.
Get them involved
Kids love to get their hands dirty, so let them “play” with their food so that they establish a connection to what they’re eating.
“We have a little garden in the backyard. We teach him to feel honor and proud and be connected with the garden. We look at the leaves, we mulch together and we get dirty, ” she says. “He has a relationship with the vegetables and lettuce and beets, so he’s getting to like them and appreciate them. So when I explain to him later about the ingredients we use, he understands because I explain to him how we grow things. ”
Do take “no” for an answer
That’s not a typo — it’s okay to let your kids turn down food.
Giving your kids the power to politely say “no, thank you” actually helps them get into the habit of mindful eating and listening to their body’s hunger cues.
And as much as their picky eating may drive you nuts right now, it’s an important part of growing up.
“Children learn to gain autonomy by saying ‘no’ — a lot!” Chalker says. “While frustrating for parents, it shows solid emotional development.”
Eventually, they’ll eat other things besides dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets — some day.
Don’t reward them with sweets
“No dessert until you finish your peas! ”
Even though this strategy can be effective, you’re basically telling your kid, yeah, veggies suck — but if you can choke them down, you’ll get the “good” stuff.
“Using sweets as a reward elevates the status of sweets and lowers the status of the ‘work’ food,” says Adina Pearson, R.D. and blogger at Healthy Little Eaters.
Instead, reward them with praise: “Oh, you tried some chickpeas? That was a really healthy choice!”
How to Build Healthy Attitudes Toward Food
Don’t talk about “forbidden” foods
Whether you’re cutting calories or swearing off carbs, try to avoid talking to kids about your body-image woes or what you can’t or shouldn’t eat.
“Don’t model dieting behaviors for your kids,” Pearson says. “The includes being restrictive with foods or talking about how you’re unhappy with your body. Kids need to develop a positive attitude toward food and feel good about their appetite rather than worried they’ll take a wrong step.”
Don’t tell them to clean their plate
The “clean plate club” dates back to the days of WWI food rationing and it can be a crazy-hard habit to break.
But if you obsess about finishing every last bite, you’re inadvertently teaching your kids to ignore their own hunger and fullness cues.
“They learn to respond to external cues telling them what and how much to eat, rather than relying on their own innate ability to determine how much they need and what they are hungry for,” Chalker says.
And if they leave food behind, you can always find creative ways to use your leftovers in tomorrow’s lunch!
Use body-positive language
No matter how often you tell your kids to be happy with who they are, they’re going to mirror the way you talk about yourself.
So even if you’re not at your ideal weight right now, don’t let them hear your body-shaming yourself or anyone else.
“Parents need to avoid talking negatively about other people’s bodies — and their own,” Pearson says. “Kids need to learn positive attitudes toward body diversity. They need to know their worth has deep roots — and has nothing to do with appearance.”
This is especially true as your kids hit those awkward preteen years that we all remember soooo fondly.
So instead of obsessing about cutting calories and nixing sugar and losing X number of pounds, focus on teaching your kids to fuel their body with nutritious foods that help them stay strong and healthy. (And, ahem, don’t forget to follow your own advice!)