Here are our 5 top tips on how to speak to children about food:
- Use neutral language
- Introduce the concept of nutrition
- Use their context to explain food
- Encourage moderation
- Focus on the pleasure of eating
Keep reading or jump here for more detail on these language suggestions.
Why is language important?
Language can have a powerful influence on a child’s relationship with food. The language we use to describe food can shape children’s attitudes and beliefs, affecting their eating habits and overall health and well-being.
Research shows that using language that places a moral judgement on food can:
1) Create a sense of guilt and shame – when we label foods as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”, we create a moral judgment around food choices. This can make children feel guilty or ashamed if they eat “bad” foods.
2) Promote a restrictive mindset – when we speak negatively about certain foods, it can create a sense of anxiety or fear around these foods, leading to restrictive eating habits. This can make it difficult for children to enjoy food and can contribute to nutritional deficiencies.
We understand how challenging it is as parents to navigate conflicting nutrition advice, the pressure to do the right thing for our kids, and picky eaters, especially when balancing busy schedules and tight budgets.
Unfortunately, there are also things that influence our children’s eating habits but are out of our control like food marketing and the foods our kids are offered in social environments (e.g. at school or with friends).
At the same time, it’s important to recognise what’s within our control and focus on this. The way we speak about food is something we can take responsibility for and will have a powerful impact on our children’s relationship with food.
It may not always be easy to get it right and we might make mistakes – remember, we’re only human. But if we strive to use neutral language around food while avoiding labels and restrictive language, we can help our children develop a healthy relationship with food.
Here are a few ways we can use language positively with our children:
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1) Use neutral language
Instead of using labels like “healthy”, “unhealthy”, “good”, or “bad” to describe food, use neutral language.
This might mean focusing on how a food looks, tastes, or smells, rather than its moral value or negative health implications. This is particularly helpful for introducing new foods.
Instead of saying
‘Here’s a healthy dinner with lots of vegetables, much better than the fish and chips you had for lunch’
You could say
‘Here’s a yummy dinner I made for you. The chicken is cooked until it’s juicy, the veggies are crispy and seasoned with herbs, and the potatoes are mashed so they’re soft and creamy’
2) Introduce the concept of nutrition
Introducing the idea that food gives us energy and nutrients is a powerful way to help children learn about healthy lifestyles and the role of food in these.
For example, explaining how oranges and peppers provide vitamin C, which can help our body fight off bugs.
Children might not understand it entirely while they’re young, but over time they’ll become aware of how food supports our body to function and plays a role in our health and well-being.
3) Use their context to explain food
When explaining the role of food in our lives, it’s helpful to use examples that are relevant to our children’s interests and hobbies. This can be helpful as it shows that eating food is a positive thing for us to do to support our lifestyles.
‘You’ve used your muscles today while playing football. The chicken on your plate has a lot of protein which will help you build stronger muscles so you can get better at football.’
4) Encourage moderation
Focusing on how often we eat different foods is a useful way to encourage moderation. We should do this not only through our language but our behaviour too.
For example, you might explain how foods like fruit and vegetables are included in our diets more often to keep us healthy and energised, while foods like sweets and cakes we include less often for taste preferences or fun.
To mirror this in your behaviour, you could try to always give them some fruit or vegetables in their meals, and not always give them sweets and cake.
This is a great way to educate children about food and nutrition and bake in the idea of ‘all foods in moderation’, rather than excluding or banning foods.
5) Focus on the pleasure of eating
Emphasise the pleasure of eating and enjoying different flavours and textures. Encourage children to savour their food and pay attention to how it makes them feel – we have an insightful guide on mindful eating for kids you can visit here.
You could also talk with children about the role of food in celebrations, cultural events, and religious festivals. This will help them to see how food is to be enjoyed, not just eaten for nutrients and energy.
Take away messages
- Language can have a powerful influence on a child’s relationship with food
- Using language that places a moral judgment on food can create a sense of guilt and shame and promote a restrictive mindset
- Parents can use language positively by using neutral language, introducing the idea that food gives us energy and nutrients, using context to explain food, encouraging moderation, and focusing on the pleasure of eating