11 Things to Stop Saying to Your Child Around Food

Subjecting children to shame, fear, and guilt is a societal norm that I’m desperately trying to abolish. The negative outcomes are numerous. But when shame, fear, and guilt are tied to food, it creates a uniquely tragic situation.

What we say and do to children around food causes mental, emotional, and physical ripples. Depending on the frequency and severity, these ripples can become tsunamis that cause tragic destruction in a child’s life as they enter adulthood. The consequences range from minor disordered eating habits that people struggle with for decades to full blown eating disorders that lead to hospitalization or worse.

The unfortunate stories are not uncommon. I’ve talked to thousands of people about this. Most adults with disordered eating habits were regularly subjected to shame and guilt as children. And people who end up with full blown eating disorders will tell you that the eating disorder started around puberty. In the worst cases, well before that.

Disordered eating habits and clinical eating disorders don’t just happen. They’re symptoms of trauma — trauma that the vast majority of children in today’s society are subjected to routinely (not just at meal time, by the way). Some deal with it better than others, but the goal is to eradicate it.

The following is a list of 11 eating messages that are extremely common. They might seem innocent at first glance, but they have profound implications. If you want to create a better outcome for your children, cross check this list and work to make improvements.

“You didn’t eat enough. Take a few more bites and you can be done.”

Children are younger than you. They’ve been interacting with society for far fewer years than you have. Do you know what that means?

It means you’re more broken than they are. It means that their body still works in ways that yours might not. For example, they’re better able to determine when they’re hungry and when they’re full.

Telling a child, “You didn’t eat enough” is the same as telling them, “Don’t listen to your body, listen to me instead.”

Even if the child hasn’t eaten much at all, it’s not up to you. The need for food is programmed into their nature. If they’re hungry, they’ll eat. It’s perfectly normal for children to go days without eating much. That will often be followed by periods of abnormally large consumption.

Since nobody has insight into their current state of cellular nutrition, the current rhythm of their growth and development, or a detailed list of their activity intricately matched with the corresponding caloric need based on their height, weight, and genetics, I’d say nobody is qualified to determine how much they need to eat except them.

Trust your child and they’ll learn to trust themselves. Interfere, and they’ll lose the ability to listen to their body (like many adults have).

“Clean your plate (there are starving children in Africa).”

Even worse than egging your children on to take a few more bites is the arbitrary rule set by many families that plates must be clean before children are dismissed (always watch out for authoritarian language — it’s a symptom that someone is being manipulated) from the table.

This is a catastrophe.

First of all, the reason there’s an obesity and preventable disease epidemic is that we’re part of the first era that’s facing an evolutionary mismatch: a complete abundance of food that takes little to no effort to acquire. On top of that, 80% of the food didn’t exist 100 years ago. It’s food that’s breaking our bodies.

We’re not developmentally prepared to deal with this. Our bodies are programmed for specific types of food. On top of that, it’s programmed for dealing with famine.

Carrying that programming into a society where food is available around the clock — most of which we’re not designed to metabolize — is a dangerous proposition. Add to that the reality that movement has decreased to a level that’s pathological and what you have is a perfect storm of obesity and disease.

Instead of preparing children for this by teaching them what real food looks like, how to connect with that food, and how to listen to their bodies, we’re choosing manipulation. We’re teaching forced overconsumption and using the tragic stories of people in a country they’ve never been to as a guilt manipulator.

Waste not, want not!

No. Our kids deserve better.

“If you do/don’t do [task], you can/can’t have [treat].”

It’s popular to use food as punishment or reward. This can be for eating some other food, like vegetables, or for other tasks like cleaning your room, getting good grades, or achieving some other accomplishment.

Your goal is to get a great behavior to continue or to diminish an undesirable behavior. I get it. But there’s a better approach than using the reward/punishment system.

We have to be careful with how we try to accomplish our goals (that’s the underlying theme of this entire site, by the way). “Doing what’s best” for our children often means that we’re doing what WE think is best. When it comes to raising children, the ends do not justify the means because the means have massive consequences on developing human beings.

“…good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” ~ Albert Camus

The punishment/reward paradigm is a form of mental and emotional manipulation that erodes intrinsic motivation wherever its employed. Using food within this strategy is just taking the damage to a whole new level.

With food, the reward mindset becomes programmed to a greater degree than other types of rewards. Food has a direct influence on the reward centers of the brain and is difficult to break free from.

Aside from that, using the strategy in the context of dessert in exchange for eating real food (“eat your veggies and you can have dessert!”) creates a warped good vs bad mentality. Nutritionally poor and metabolically destructive food becomes the prize (good) while wholesome, nourishing food becomes the chore (bad).

Lastly, you’re creating an automatic over-eating situation. If a child is full, but has “done the work” of eating the veggies, there’s no way they’ll forego dessert now because they earned it.

There’s so many negatives to this type of manipulation and no positives other than the short-term feeling of accomplishment if your child agrees to the manipulation and eats his veggies today. And it makes it harder to get them to eat healthy tomorrow, especially if there’s no prize.

You’re creating a laundry list of long-term consequences for short-term cooperation or the appearance of healthy eating. That’s a losing tradeoff.

“Your brother is eating it, why aren’t you?”

The comparison game is popular, but it’s shame and guilt city.

Really, it’s nothing more than a cop out. You don’t know how to get your child to eat something healthy (or to eat at all) so you resort to showing one child how deficient they are compared to another based on an arbitrary measure of who is eating what or how much.

That’s not your intention, but it’s how the child feels when she’s compared. It fosters sibling rivalry (something parents always complain about) and is unproductive, based purely on manipulation of emotions.

It’s also hypocritical. Are you suggesting that you love what all other adults love? Are you suggesting that you’re always hungry when other adults are hungry and full when they’re full?

Let me give you a real world example of why this is shaming and disrespectful.

My wife hates fish but my daughter loves it. I’d love for my wife to eat fish a few times a week because it’s healthy.  But I would never turn to my wife and say, “your daughter is eating fish, why aren’t you?”

A general rule of thumb is: if you wouldn’t say something to another adult, think twice before saying it to your child. It’s probably a good sign that what you’re about to say is shaming or disrespectful. If you want to raise respectful kids, disrespecting them is a surefire way to fail.

“You don’t like it? Boy, you certainly are picky!”

This statement is another lapse in understanding that children are individual people with unique preferences. But this time, we’re using the labeling game to manipulate them with shame.

Labels, by the way, tend to backfire. Badly. You think that by labeling kids, they’ll realize that they’re acting “strangely” and change their ways.

Almost always, the child becomes exactly what you label them if it’s a negative label and the opposite of what you label them if it’s a “positive” label. Probably because feeling abnormal doesn’t suddenly make you act normal. And that presupposes that “acting normal” is right, much less authentic.

If you label a child “picky,” they won’t miraculously start trying new things, they’ll get pickier. If you label them “smart,” they’ll actually reduce their effort and risk and fall short of their potential. If you label a child “shy,” they won’t suddenly gain the confidence to open up and talk to everyone, they’ll withdraw further. Get it?

Labeling is manipulation based on hoping your child will conform to your expectations. Or, it’s a tool that helps you save face in public or that helps you try to dictate other people’s reactions. “Oh, she’s a picky eater (which is why she’s not eating the food you gave her — please don’t think less of me or be upset/sad/etc. because my child didn’t eat your food!)”

Worse, the child might be picky because you’ve used other shame and guilt tactics on them in the past. So you’ve created the outcome you’re now shaming them for. Can you quantify how tragic that is?

So, it’s never about the child is it? It’s not about having the child’s best interest in mind, it’s about having the parent’s best interest in mind. Or a stranger’s best interest in mind. It takes the full weight of your baggage and drops it squarely in your child’s lap.

That’s not fair. It’s not respectful. It’s not authentic.

This isn’t about you. It’s not about your mom. It’s not about your boss. It’s not about your friend. It’s not about the cook at a the restaurant. Your child is your number one priority.

“You’re such a great eater!”or “Good job, you ate [new food].”

When your children do things you’re happy with or proud of, the urge to state your approval creeps in, doesn’t it?

It does for me too. But it’s important to withhold these comments because they interfere with intrinsic motivation. What’s happening is that you’re levying your own judgements and assessments on the child.

When this happens, the child is robbed of the opportunity to judge and assess themselves.  It also turns their focus to praise-seeking rather than behaving in ways they naturally enjoy or avoiding things they naturally oppose.

We already talked about reward manipulation using dessert or treats. If you offer a cookie as a reward for eating vegetables or for cleaning their plate, or anything else for that matter, that creates negative outcomes. But get this: your verbal praise is like a verbal cookie.

Soon, they’ll be eating a certain amount or certain foods simply for your approval. “If I don’t eat all of this or eat [this particular food] my mom won’t be happy with me. It won’t be a good job.” Even worse, they may fear other manipulative language that usually follows, such as the bribery and other shame tactics in this list.

Instead of focusing on food, they’re now focusing on your approval or disapproval. They’re not listening to their body, they’re aiming to please. Often, that means acting against what their body is telling them. Yet, as adults, we wish we could consistently listen to our bodies and leave food on the plate, don’t we?

So, is your goal for them to please you or to nourish and trust their body? If it’s the latter, then your assessments are interfering with your goals for them. Besides, it’s demeaning. You wouldn’t go to lunch with your coworker and then say, “Great job Dan, you ate all your food! You’re such a good eater!”

If children knew how to respond to this, they’d probably say, “Yes, I did. I was hungry. That’s what hungry people do. Can we stop talking about my eating habits now, I’m feeling really scrutinized.”

“I bet some [treat] would make that all better.”

I was at a park the other day with my daughter and a boy who was probably around two years of age tripped and fell. He mostly caught himself, but his face hit the ground a bit and he started crying.

The mom picked him up and started talking to him. The dad promptly swooped in with a bag of crackers, using the food to distract the child, hoping he’d quickly shift gears.

This is all too common. Crying children trigger adults. It’s uncomfortable and parents try everything to quiet it: “shhhhh…you’re okay,” or “here’s some [treat],” or even worse, “it’s not that bad, stop being a baby.”

Food isn’t just used to stop crying, it’s used to numb all kinds of pain. Treats are offered to children when they’re frustrated, sad, or recovering from some sort of trauma. Parents take kids for ice cream after they get a cast on a broken arm or give “boo boo treats” to “make kids feel better.”

The question is, what are the repercussions of this strategy?

One of the biggest issues facing society is emotional eating. Rather than eating when we’re hungry, we’re eating to dull pain. Where do you suppose we learned that fancy technique?

If you give a child food to distract from pain or distress, you’re creating a future adult who uses food to do the same. It may seem to help at the time and it might help you feel better, but it’s doing your child a great disservice.

Tears happen for a reason. Pain needs to be felt, not numbed. One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is a safe shoulder to cry on. And no, they don’t need to “grow up” and “get over it” anymore than you do when you’re hurting.

“Don’t eat that, it’s bad for you.”

A lot of my Total Body Reboot clients come to me stuck in the paradigm of good food and bad food. Diets are based on this paradigm as well.

While it’s true that some foods are nutritionally rich and some are nutritionally poor, that’s not the only way to measure food. Everything has to be put in context and we have to explore the why behind certain behaviors and labels.

What’s the goal of labeling a food bad? Is it to teach your child what healthy food is? Is it to program them to not eat something? What is it?

If your goal is to teach them what healthy food is, calling foods good and bad is a poor way to do it. That’s not education, it’s just labeling.

If your goal is to program them to not eat something, labeling is a poor choice here as well. Even adults can’t adhere to these labels, right? So why should we expect kids to?

What is effective?

With adults, I’ve been very effective with changing their relationship with food and then showing them how certain foods make them feel.

When humans connect the dots between how certain foods make them feel, they’re intrinsically motivated to include rich foods and shun poor foods.

That can’t happen until the connection is re-programmed. Almost everyone who is currently overweight or otherwise unhealthy is deaf to the immediate consequences of their food choices.

By the way, this doesn’t mean that you never eat candy or ice cream or gluten. It just means that you naturally limit these things in your life and don’t engage in the shaming and power struggle mindset when you do choose to enjoy a dessert or treat.

The same paradigm can be created for children. Actually, it must be created for children. I talked earlier about the evolutionary mismatch they’re facing. If your child doesn’t have a healthy relationship with food, our food supply will absolutely make them sick and eventually kill them.

“Eat properly.”

Here’s how you use a fork. Sit up straight. Put your left hand in your lap. Put your feet on the floor. Cut your food this way. Chew with your mouth closed. For heaven’s sake child, get it together.

Parents often obsess over etiquette because of an underlying fear that their children will eat like savages if never “taught” to do otherwise.

Or, the parent is embarrassed because they care so much about what other people think. “If my kid doesn’t shape up, these other restaurant patrons will think I’m raising a neanderthal.”

There’s no faster way to destroy a child’s relationship with food than through shame, rule setting, and an obsession over etiquette that no child is interested in.

Here’s the deal: your child won’t eat like a savage when they’re older unless you eat like one. They’ll learn these things through osmosis.

Besides, they probably will have enough self-respect to eat decently on their own. I don’t know any 16 year old who wants to put their hand in the soup bowl and lather tomato basil all over their face and mouth. Just because your 3 year old does that doesn’t mean they’ll still do it later without your intervention.

Eating isn’t quantum physics. No education is necessary to “get it.” Besides, there’s far more important things to account for with kids and food that DO matter.

If there are one or two things your child hasn’t picked up on by the time they’re 10 or 12 or so, you can easily guide them to make those adjustments at that time. No shame or guilt necessary.

“Eat whatever you want, whenever you want.”

I threw this one in to cover the flip side of the coin: complete permissiveness.

Permissive parenting is just as damaging as authoritarian parenting. Instead of manipulative, ineffective leadership it’s absent, ineffective leadership.

Your child desperately wants an authentic leader to show them around this strange, scary, and crazy world. They don’t want you to train them the way you’d train your dog and they don’t want you to completely cut them loose and allow them to walk all over you and everyone else.

This is important to mention because alternative parenting methods are always attacked with this false dichotomy. “If you don’t show kids who’s boss, they’ll walk all over you!”

The truth is that you can — and should — reject both authoritarian parenting and permissive parenting. Neither serve you (in the long run) or the child. Authenticity is the third option and authentic leadership means having clear boundaries and limits.

Just because you’ve decided not to manipulate a child in order to get them to eat healthy (or do whatever), doesn’t mean you’re going to watch them eat cake and ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Exploring your options further for achieving a win-win is beyond the scope of this article, so for now realize that permissiveness is not a viable option, much less the goal.

“Wow, I was bad tonight. I’m going to have to workout extra tomorrow.”

This isn’t something you say to your child is it? It’s on the list because it’s critical that you realize that you’re always teaching, even if you’re not speaking directly to your child.

Dozens of my Total Body Reboot clients have recounted how they watched their mom or dad look at themselves in the mirror with disgust, step on the scale and immediately tear themselves down, or talk incessantly about their body at meal time. This is partially why they’re struggling with their own weight and body image issues decades later.

How you talk to yourself is just as important as how you talk to your kids. So this quote is representative of all of the negative things you say about your eating and your body in front of them.

You’re a parent that cares deeply about doing the absolute best you can. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading this. So realize that you can change how you speak to your children and make great progress, but if you don’t change how you speak to yourself it’s still going to leave a deep scar on them.

Okay, I’m guilty. So, what do I do now?

If you’ve used some of the phrases and tactics in this list, my first recommendation would be to take a deep breath and avoid shaming yourself. As I’ve said before and I’m sure I’ll say again, all that matters is what you’re willing to do to change the future.

The second thing I’d recommend is to apologize to your children. Yes, seriously.

You’re not perfect. Nobody is. And when you make a mistake with your children, you owe them an apology just the same as when you make a mistake with another adult.

Side note: by apologizing to them, you’re teaching them how to apologize when they’re wrong in the future. You’re modeling healthy behavior. That’s a giant leap forward.

Third, explain to them why you now realize that what you said was a mistake and vow to use healthier language and leadership in the future. Then take baby steps toward making those changes.

If you tend to say these things without thinking them through, it might help to set an audio recorder on the table or in the kitchen to record yourself and then play it back later. This way, you can really hear what you sound like when you interact with your children.

If you need help or if I was unclear at any point, I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.

46 comments
  • Ellen

    I do not label food bad, but since I have been eating a nutrient-dense paleo-esque diet since pre-conception, there are plenty of foods my son (2 1/2) has never even tried – sweets, candies, pastries, bread of any sort. So the “teach your child how certain foods make him feel” approach obviously would not work for us. When he asks about things like bread or sweets (maybe when he sees friends or neighbors eating them) I explain to him (out of earshot of said friends) that in our family we do not eat (insert anti-food here) because it makes our stomachs hurt and does not help our bodies to grow healthy and strong. For now this seems to satisfy his curiosity, and for now he has no interest in trying these foods. I was just wondering how you would approach a similar situation with a child that has been paleo since birth, and what language you (and your reading community) would use. Are there any more/better ways of explaining things to him?

    • Kevin Geary

      It’s a tough situation, because as an adult, you know what these foods do. At the younger ages, I don’t see a problem with your strategy. As he gets older (5,6,7), I don’t think it will be appropriate to continue with that particular strategy. At some point he needs to decide for himself and needs to see what reaction the foods have on him.

      At that point, you can continue teaching about the philosophy of eating real food and start to teach how the body works to empower him with the right information. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that letting a child have ice cream will mean they will suddenly start binge eating sugar. I’m not saying that’s your fear, but I think it’s a fear a lot of “clean eating” parents have.

      Also keep in mind that what you model is far more powerful than what a child is exposed to from time to time. They will mostly adopt the habits they observe, so by eating healthy yourself (which means having ice cream once in a while out of pure enjoyment), then you’re demonstrating to your child what a healthy approach to food looks like.

      Hope that helps.

  • Ellen

    Yes, what you are saying makes perfect sense. Thank you for your detailed reply! I know that he will be exposed to “treat” foods in the future, and I am fine with that. Age 5-7 seems like a reasonable age to start letting him try and make those decisions for himself . He is already a very intelligent and self-aware boy who knows his body, so I have total faith that he will make reasonable and healthy decisions. I think that issues of diet are relatively simple now. It seems like a lot of aspects of parenting (dietary choices included) get trickier to navigate, or at least more nuanced, as kids get older and more independent.

  • Olivia Long

    I grew up with the “clean plate” rule, I have battled with my weight seemingly my entire life. This was a big deal for me being a mom to not do that to my children, I struggle with my mother and husband with the just a few more bites and most of the other items mentioned in the article. My husband has come around with my constantly telling the kids, “stop when your tummy tells you to.” My daughter has a problem with sweets, she has a tipping point, if the line is crossed, she vomits.” My mom thought it was funny to let her eat an ice cream cone and ice cream from a bucket, cause they can do what they want at her house… #notfunny

    • Kevin Geary

      I’m very sorry to hear this Olivia. I would definitely recommend setting a firm boundary with your mom. And if she can’t respect it, then the kids can’t visit anymore. It’s not fair to you OR your children for her to behave that way.

  • Susan Farnum

    Amazing! You have taken the painful, raw words of our youth and used them to teach us a new way to interact with our children. This of course, not only can be used for food issues, but if we think about what we say, we can apply the same principles to many areas in child rearing. You make things so simple and easy to understand. I myself grew up with the “hungry kids in Africa,” “picky eater” label, and the clean plate issue. My father was a real stickler, as was I at the beginning of raising my children. I’m now helping to raise my grandchildren, and oh what a difference. My grandson of two lives with me and trust me, there are days when he seems to each nothing but 1 yogurt. And then other days, I can’t find enough food in the house to keep him satisfied. I thank you for all the good advice and your knack of putting it into words that most of us understand. I am very grateful I have another chance with my grandchildren and that I have this guidance to see me though.

  • Curt Mardis

    From Kevin’s book, food is primarily for nourishing the body.
    I think this is just pure brilliance, and fits my keep it simple philosophy.
    Let go of our baggage surrounding food.

    Kevin, my wife and I typically offer a plate of carbs, protein, and vegetables.
    We do place a limit on the daily amount of highly processed, refined, and ubiquitous sugars.
    The children are 9 and 7.

    Is this consistent with your advice to set clear limits and boundaries?

    • Kevin Geary

      Thanks for the comment and question Curt. So, most people view this as, “not setting limits is bad” and “setting limits is good.” It’s not that simple though. I would change the messaging to: “Setting limits is important.” That’s the STRATEGY.

      Then we’d go on to discuss HOW limits get set and followed through with. That’s the TACTICS. The how is most important. Setting limits in a destructive way or setting limits in the wrong situations would not be beneficial.

      To accomplish this, I’m going to use precise examples to explain the how and why behind the tactics. “Without a Fight,” of course, was the strategy guide and this particular article was a lot of strategy as well. As we move forward, we’re going to get deep into the tactics. Stay tuned.

      p.s. If anyone wants to email me specific situations (or post them in the Facebook group), then I can use those as examples and walk through the tactics on the blog.

  • Erin spicer

    I found this blog REALLY helpful. My nine month old is taking to food with gusto & I really want to ensure we foster healthy eating habits with her from the start. I am wondering though, whilst I am clear on what not to do, is there another blog or can you provide any advice on what we can do to foster a healthy love & respect for food? I have come across ‘don’t be rude to food’ (don’t say ‘I hate brocolli’ for example) and also taking the time to discuss the textures, flavours, etc that children are experiencing when trying new foods. Do you have any other recommendations? Many thanks, Erin

    • Kevin Geary

      Thanks Erin — there are definitely future blog posts coming on this topic with example dialogue. My recommendation would be to subscribe to the newsletter and you’ll be notified of important new content like that when it’s released. Thanks for being a part of the community!

  • Danielle

    Any ideas on how to approach grandparents who say these things. They mostly tell my two-year old that she is a “good girl” or a “good eater”. I try to let most of the things they say go because they are generally wonderful and mean no harm. I know that in the grand scheme of things we (her parents) are the main influences. But when she asks me at dinnertime if she’s a good eater, I wonder if its time to say something…

    • Kevin Geary

      Hi Danielle,

      Great question! Yes, I think it’s definitely time to say something. You can simply say, “I know what you’re trying to say Grandma, but we try not to label her, especially with eating.” If that doesn’t work, you can be more direct the next time.

  • Melissa

    As a Registered Dietitian specializing in eating disorder prevention and recovery, I do agree with most of the points in this post. You are right on about avoiding labels, including “good foods, bad foods,” but the terms “rich foods, poor foods,” or worse, “metabolically destructive foods” are exactly that and encourage a diet mindset in both parents and kids, which can lead to (or exacerbate) disordered eating. The words you use, as an authority, will be the words that parents use when speaking to their kids. Parents should be able to offer food lovingly prepared from a box without worrying that it might be a pancreas time-bomb and/or that they are slowly killing their kids. I encourage families to add to what’s already on the menu, and to be attuned to how their bodies respond to food consumed as a guide.

    • Kevin Geary

      but the terms “rich foods, poor foods,” or worse, “metabolically destructive foods” are exactly that and encourage a diet mindset in both parents and kids, which can lead to (or exacerbate) disordered eating.

      Eh…I gotta disagree. If that’s the case, then there’s no way to teach anyone about nutrition. I’m not talking about using these words from a young age. In fact, the statement in context is the same point you just made: “When humans connect the dots between how certain foods make them feel, they’re intrinsically motivated to include rich foods and shun poor foods.”

      But at some point, children need to know which foods are nutritionally rich and which are nutritionally poor. Not at age 5, but certainly the conversation — if you want to teach your children about nutrition — has to be had.

  • Jaimie

    I really love the points you make in this article. I have twins so it will probably be hardest for me to keep from comparing who eats what. But I’ve bookmarked this page and shared it on my Facebook so I can refer back to it later on.

  • Tavi

    Oy. I have to learn to stop expecting to see my own childhood experiences in these kinds of articles. I can certainly see where all of these have serious repercussions, and I work hard to make sure my children never have these issues. One that has always perturbed me, is when people force their children to eat foods that they despise. Nobody is forcing the adult to eat foods they don’t like, so why expect the child to do so? My husband hated kidney beans, and was forced to sit until he’d eaten them all. Now, it doesn’t matter if his tastes have changed or not…the bad memory of being forced to eat them makes him dislike and reject them today at the age of 46.
    As for myself, I went through extreme abuse as a child, and food was no different. Food was frequently withheld as punishment, and I was called ugly, fat, etc. My mother took a picture of how ugly I was, and put it on the fridge so I wouldn’t want to eat. I was forced to run 3 miles every night and fell asleep in class every day from exhaustion in the 1st grade.
    When I was 8 years old, I was caught sneaking an Oreo out of a package, and was beaten with a large, frat sized heavy paddle until I was black and blue over that single cookie after not having been allowed to eat all day.
    I cannot eat cookies now, I feel only intense nausea at the sight of them. I’ve gone from overweight to losing so much weight and avoiding fat to the point of my hair falling out. I want more than anything for people to stop doing these things to their children. I see the phrases you listed every single day, and I know they’re damaging.

  • Tavi

    I’d like to add that with my kids, I simply cook nutritious foods for them, and serve them. Every now and then, I’ll made a casual comment about the nutritional benefits. For instance, “I think it’s cool that you like broccoli so much. Did you know that broccoli has vitamins in them that can make you feel good, give you lots of energy, and even make you stronger? That green color is one way you know, especially since it’s a vegetable. And these strawberries are really good. We got a great batch, didn’t we? They’re even your favorite color. That bright red means they have special nutrients to help your body and organs work.” Eventually they’ll want something like a Twinkie or a cupcake, and they’ll have one, no problem. But the gears start turning, and they’ll ask, “What do cupcakes do for my body?” My answer: “Not much, really. Sugary sweets don’t really have anything in them that benefit our bodies, they’re just treats that we can have every now and then, but they don’t help us feel good like the veggies and lean meats do.” Next thing I know, they’re foraging for veggies and fruits, because kids have the ability to think these things through and make informed decisions, especially when they don’t feel like good and bad food ideas are being, excuse the pun, forced down their throats.

  • Lori

    As I am learning more about peaceful parenting from you (& others) and begin trying new tactics, it produces this very uncomfortable “no man’s land” at home. One area is inviting my husband along on the journey – he’s willing but has very little time to devote to books and articles and long conversations that lead to change. So we find ourselves at odds at the dinner table when he implements our previous tactics (“three more bites, then you may have your treat”) and I gently say to him “Here’s a new way to consider”. AT the table IN the moment is probably the worst time to deal with it as the kids see us out of sync. Yet finding time to work these things out away from the table privately, and for him to remember to whip out these new tactics – well, there’s the challenge! The HOW of implementing new strategies seems very important, but it is not always immediately apparent. It also means embracing the season of discomfort for a higher purpose in our homes.

    • Kevin Geary

      Thanks for the comment Lori. This is a really useful comment in that it highlights an obstacle that most families likely face.

      In terms of the practicality of gaining new insight on limited time, this is why I love podcasts. Is he willing to listen to podcasts on the way to and from work? Or when mowing the yard? Etc.?

      Assuming he’s open to work on his parenting style, this would probably be the fastest way to get him on your page without much pushback, considering that he doesn’t need to remove anything from his schedule to listen.

  • Rose

    I have so many questions about this. I have a 12 and 14 year old who for reasons of food sensitivities, I have severely limited their access to processed foods (colours, additivies etc) Unfortunately, now they are pretty obsessed with packet food and treat it as a prized possession. I have started to purchase some items in the weekly shop. They will still eat their meals I provide them and fruit etc if it is laid out for them. Sadly, due to a stressful time this year, my 12 year old is now overweight, and at the same time I am trying to relax about the food he eats, which is hard. Do I just not say anything when he wants to snack on junk food? Any tips on how to handle this would be very much appreciated.

      • Rose

        He probably spent an hour outside yesterday after school. Depends on the day though. He snacked on junk food (chips, crackers), from the time he got home on and off for a couple of hours. I had already given him a more healthy afternoon tea.

          • Rose

            No, not normally. For the last 10 years I have been quite regimented regarding healthy food, even not having sugar in the house, however I feel that has caused my kids to go the other way as they flat out reject a lot of healthy food and desire anything processed. The reason we do have some junk in the house now is as I said, I am trying to relax the strictness that I have had for the last 10 years having had no junk food. They are 12 and 14 so I am trying to give them some choices in the shopping. I don’t like it but I am trying to find a happy medium.

          • Kevin Geary

            Right, so if they feel you’ve been a bit overbearing in the past with the healthiness, they’re likely to rebel against it. That means there’s probably going to be an adjustment period where they experiment with eating a ton of junk. But you’re still the buyer. You can set a limit on how long something should last. In other words, a bag of chips shouldn’t be gone in an hour, rather, four or five days might be a better time frame to shoot for. And just let them know that if they tear through it, you’re not going to buy another bag right away. That kind of thing.

  • Heather

    We are having some supper-time struggles. For example: our 5 year old son asked what was for dinner this evening. when I told him I made meatloaf and mashed potatoes he said, “yuck! I want a hot dog.” I told him that he should try a bite first before deciding it was yucky. Nope, wouldn’t try it. The night before the 3 year old took one look at her fettuccini Alfredo and shoved it across the table. They went to bed early after those incidents. Maybe they’re just too tired by 6:00. I don’t know, they don’t normally behave so rudely. I’m getting ready to scrap the family suppers altogether for awhile and feed the kids whatever at 4:30 and have supper later with my husband. We have tried saying things like, “You don’t have to eat it all but I’d like you to try it.” Or something to that effect.
    I’ve also taken them shopping for groceries and have had them help make things and they still won’t try most new food.
    I have caved and given them other foods so I’m sure I’m to blame. Consistency is key, right? So, can you give me some ideas on what to say/do in similar scenarios mentioned above? Thanks!

      • Heather

        I did read that other post and asked a question about it in the comments. And “rude” was the wrong choice of word on my part. I was feeling very frustrated when I wrote that. I’m aware of development appropriateness. I know my 5 year old, tact, truthfulness, whatever word you want to use, I get it.
        I was asking what to say next time in such a scenario. Thanks.

        • Kevin Geary

          I just say, “I hear you don’t want this, but it’s the only option right now.” Then I leave it up to them knowing that they won’t starve themselves or that I can include something I know they’ll like at the next meal. You can also prompt a “let’s all pick something new to try” activity. It doesn’t even have to be food centered. Let them pick a new activity for the family to try. Then migrate that same logic into food. Maybe start with them getting to pick something for YOU to try. And then reverse it.

  • Sarah

    Thanks for this article. I do pretty well with almost all your list (ie don’t say them), but am wondering if I’m sending a ‘good’ food/’bad’ food message. My children are 9 and 12. We don’t keep candy or too much sugar in the house, but do have the occasional treat. Unfortunately, both kids seem pretty obsessed with candy and get as much as they can from birthday parties and any time someone has a bowl of candy available (eg the bank, doctor’s office etc). I have found them hiding it in their rooms from each other. I definitely don’t want to add shame about it and don’t label it as “bad”, but do ask them to listen to their bodies after eating it. I’m not sure how to limit it (especially with Halloween coming up), without creating that scarcity mentality. Any suggestions?

  • Rachel

    What a great first article to read thanks! Another question re. ‘good food’ vs ‘bad food’. For my 6 year olds packed lunches at school ( in New Zealand, all food is brought from home), I don’t send any processed or packaged food so will often include hard boiled eggs, fresh beans dates etc. For a whole year, she has loved this, but lots of the food is now coming home uneaten. She says she is embarrassed to eat her “weird” food (i.e not cakes, chips etc) in front of other kids. Any suggestions on how to handle this? Peer pressure so early. It sucks!

  • Jenn

    hi. So I’m new to this blog and feel in my gut that what I grew up with is not what I want for my kids. For a while I would make sure that we didn’t use the if you don’t eat dinner you can’t have treat, but without an alternative I caved and that is what we are now doing. I definitely don’t feel right about it. So here are some specifics I would love a response to:
    Both kids 4 & 2 have a bag of candy from Halloween, how do I let them have it when they aren’t eating any dinner? My 4 will just eat “the bread” and nothing else then say she is hungry and wants more bread. What do I do?
    I tell them if they don’t get off the table or take feet off table or lay on bench, then they are done and I take their plates. I also have infant twins so cleaning up a war zone after every (5) meals is impossible. What do I do?
    I am emotionally and intellectually on board with the authentic parenting approach but my real problem is in follow through- I am only one person, authentic parenting seems to take a lot of dedication and seemingly extra time, which I’m not against in theory but in practice I’m tired, very tired.

  • Julie

    I definitely label foods and have taught my daughter about eating well her whole life. She had no sugar at all until after age 5. Now she is allowed to eat sweets at parties, etc if she wants them as well as pizza, etc. But at home she eats nutrient dense food.

    I try to model eating well, living actively, etc.

    I do tend towards extremes however and luckily my daughter is way more chill. She so far has none of my neurotic tendencies and is more like her dad.

    She loves healthy foods and movement and sees junk as something to enjoy occasionally and then forget.

    This article is such a great reminder of honoring our children as unique people who get to find their way, with our guidance, but also with their own inner knowing.

  • Melissa

    Hi Kevin,
    I’m not a momma yet. But I’m a nanny. So it’s a bit more complicated in that I have to model healthy interactions in front of mom and dad and when they see that it works, then they tell me to do this new thing that they discovered with their son… I work with one family wherein the mom lives to have these conversations with me, but the other family, are resistant, so just letting them observe my technique with the baby, 1yr 4 months, seems to be best.
    My concern is that as of the past few weeks, he had begin wanting more snacks anytime I or anybody does into the kitchen and he becomes hysterical if he doesn’t get something. In particular he goes for the pantry with the junk food that mom dad and big brother all have treats from and he gets far fewer trays from there.
    When we’re home alone, it’s easier because we play away from the kitchen and if he wants a snack we have fruits or veggies and he is happy to pick one of those for himself. Sometimes it is difficult when I have to prepare a bottle for his there month old sis and he wants a year, I suppose because she is having a bottle.
    But also when I am preparing his food, he had stayed becoming very upset if it isn’t ready super quickly, to the point of hysterical and I’m not sure why that is.
    I intentionally hang around and find ways to help when the patents are at home, so that I can gather info about their dynamic and also to give them a chance to see how I do things and the results of that with their wee ones.
    Thanks ahead for any input.
    I have other questions around other topics and am really excited and appreciative to you.

    • Kevin

      Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for your question. It’s okay if he has a temper tantrum. It’s to be expected. If he’s hungry you can offer food. If he only wants the treat and it’s not a good time for a treat, then just say that you’re not going to get him a treat. And then validate him when he has a breakdown about it. “You really want a treat and I said no. That must be really frustrating.” You can offer a hug as well.

      Same if he’s upset that you’re not preparing his food fast enough. “You want your food right now. But it’s not ready yet. I know it’s hard to wait.”

      If you have more questions, the Facebook group is a great place to ask them. You’ll get a lot of input from different people.

      Cheers 🙂

  • Kevin

    Kevin, thanks for the article. I am the father of two young girls, ages 8 and 6. In my family, there is a history of eating disorders among the women. I am trying to help my daughters create a positive relationship with food, but I do find it difficult. I worry that if I spend too much time stressing and limiting them to healthy foods, they will become frustrated with me as they watch their friends consume so much junk food and ultimately rebel. If I give them too much freedom to choose what they eat, I worry they will become addicted to junk food. It’s trying to strike that balance that I find so difficult. My wife and I, fortunately, are on the same page, and we both eat extremely healthy. Right now, our philosophy is to focus on showing our children how to eat healthy and why to eat healthy, and provide them with some freedom to choose what they eat. Now, when we visit friends and family, we allow them to eat whatever is being served, reiterating that we expect them to think about what they are choosing to put into their bodies.

    Thanks to all who have posted on here. The more people reading and commenting, the better. I’m hoping to learn a lot from the people on this forum because I’ve found this aspect of raising children (relationship with food), given my family history, to be the most stressful.

  • Jim Chang

    I hate it when parents use the word “yum” with their kids because it is such a childish word, and the children will soon learn that. If they were around 8+ and said “yum” at a party or whatever, they’d be laughed at. Also they will think that you treat them like a baby.

  • Alyssa

    Hi, I read this article when it was shared on Facebook, so I don’t know if there is more background information elsewhere on this blog I may be missing, but I would have to say I disagree with many things this article says, either in content or the individual ideas presentation. I do believe in ‘labelling’ food, not as good or bad, but as health or unhealthy. Children do not understand the cellular reasons they need specific food, so yes, explaining to them simply is often the best way to have them understand.
    I make almost everything for my little family, by choice and necessity. I almost wish more parents were in the situation where they have to shy away from processed foods, as my son eats a very healthy diet because of it.
    It is very common however for children to refuse food for no reason for long periods of time, and the fact is that some children do get sick from it. Allowing them to always listen to their bodies isn’t always the best parenting strategy. Kids need food, and nutrition, and it is important that they get it. A short period of time with a low appetite is expected with anyone, but it is a fact, children do starve themselves, and cannot be ‘trusted’ to interpret their bodies signals properly. They do not have the experience to do so, but adults can, with the help of more knowledgeable people if necessary, interpret if they need more calories or nutrients.
    I respect when my son does not like a certain food, and he is not force fed or blackmailed into eating, but healthy food is necessary. Positive reinforcement for eating well is a great thing. It’s the same as when a child makes a good choice in any aspect of life, or does something well. ‘I’m happy to see you eating your dinner’, or ‘strawberries are a good choice for a snack, so healthy for you’. If a child does something well, it is okay to tell them. If you are focusing on only the amount of food, not the quality, or using positive reinforcement to force over eating or whatever, it becomes more inappropriate, but I disagree completely with not telling a child that they have done something well. Food is not an issue to ignore, it is something we need to live and be healthy, and children need to learn early how to be healthy and use it to their advantage, in a positive way.
    Again, I am writing this because I disagree with the content and presentation of this article. I read it, and it is kind of aggravating that the information is either misdirected (specific to only a very small number of people) or written in a way that could make many families stop using ways that are encouraging healthy eating habits. I’m sure it could be beneficial to some people, but maybe directing it to those people more clearly would be helpful.

    • Kevin Geary

      Children do not understand the cellular reasons they need specific food, so yes, explaining to them simply is often the best way to have them understand.

      Children also don’t care. And kids often sniff out intentions, which means that constantly talking about food in a healthy vs unhealthy paradigm can lead them to shunning foods they think you *want* them to eat.

      It is very common however for children to refuse food for no reason for long periods of time, and the fact is that some children do get sick from it. Allowing them to always listen to their bodies isn’t always the best parenting strategy. Kids need food, and nutrition, and it is important that they get it.

      Human beings have been surviving for hundreds of thousands of years. Children are not going to starve themselves or malnourish themselves when provided with real, whole foods in any quantity they deem appropriate at the time.

      Positive reinforcement for eating well is a great thing.

      The research disagrees with you.

      It’s the same as when a child makes a good choice in any aspect of life, or does something well. ‘I’m happy to see you eating your dinner…’”

      This *is* manipulation. When a child makes a “good choice” is often defined arbitrarily by whether or not the parent agreed with that choice. Aside from that, telling a child that you’re “happy” that they ate their dinner is quite manipulative. Children should eat for their own happiness and enjoyment and nourishment and survival, not to influence your emotions. Your statement makes your child responsible for how you feel. That’s very destructive.

  • Yulia

    This article has great potential, but it only does half of the job. It tells the parents what they’re doing wrong, but where are the alternatives/solutions to each one of those quotes? It ends up being useless knowing your mistakes but being clueless on how to fix them.

    • Kevin Geary

      All articles are incomlete. If they covered EVERYTHING, they’d be called a book. Poke around the site. Join the community. join the email list. There are PLENTY of solutions.

  • Kristin

    What do you think of a buffet style of serving dinner? Every night my 5 year old hates the idea of dinner now. She becomes sick to her stomach. I know my husband and I were doing a few of these old fashioned tactics recently because she was all of a sudden hating dinner and mealtime in general, but then realized when she goes to my ex husband’s house they are forcing her to eat when and what she doesn’t eat. She is apparently also being told when they know she is hungry, it seems to be a whole, “I’ll tell you when you’re hungry,” situation. I’ll work on that end of as best as I can, but now that she is so traumatized, I wonder if I can make different simple fruits, veggies, and proteins in containers and get her to make her own plate based on what’s out there. Any thoughts?

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11 Things to Stop Saying to Your Child Around Food

by Kevin Geary time to read: 15 min
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