Learn how to talk about food with toddlers in age-appropriate ways that support their development and relationship with food.
As parents, we play a crucial role in shaping our children’s attitudes about food. How we talk about food with toddlers can have a lasting impact on their eating habits and overall well-being.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the importance of age-appropriate food communication, dichotomous versus spectrum thinking and language, and three ways to build your toddler’s food knowledge while nurturing healthy eating habits and a positive relationship with food.
Understanding Toddler Development
Toddlerhood might be my favorite developmental stage. I love to see toddlers show their independence, curiosity, and autonomy. But this can be quite a change for parents who are used to their (mostly) compliant infant!
As children enter toddlerhood, their eating behavior may change. For one, there may be a power struggle around food, especially as picky eating emerges.
A balanced diet including a variety of foods like whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and other nutritious foods at meal times will help toddlers meet their nutrient needs, gain weight, and grow well.
While toddlers, hopefully, are trying new foods and being exposed to different types of food, they may refuse these and only want their favorite foods. If any of you have picky eaters, you know how challenging (and frustrating) this stage of development can be!
The Curious Explorer Stage
Here are a few things you can expect from the toddler:
- Toddlers are naturally curious and exploratory. Naturally, this can extend to food choices.
- They crave independence but may still seek comfort from caregivers.
- Their cognitive capacity is limited, requiring simple, basic information as a foundation for future knowledge. How we talk about food can have a powerful influence on them.
Dichotomous vs. Spectrum Thinking
It’s easy for adults to think in black-and-white concepts. Our society, especially regarding health, food, and eating, is quite dichotomous in its presentation of these ideas.
An example of dichotomous, or binary thinking, is ‘good versus bad,’ or ‘healthy versus unhealthy.’
For example, junk food and ice cream are bad for you and fresh fruit and healthy snacks not only are healthier, they have some moral superiority.
When we describe food using these binaries, we may shame, blame, and stigmatize (often unintentionally).
For instance, when a toddler learns that cake is bad or unhealthy, they may grow up feeling guilt when they enjoy eating it.
Over time, this can turn into a negative association, and even shame, a belief that they are bad or unhealthy for liking cake.
- Black and white, good or bad thinking.
- Can be detrimental when applied to food.
When we’re teaching and talking about food with toddlers, we want to be more open-minded, using neutral language. Spectrum thinking is a formal term to describe being more inclusive and neutral when talking about food.
For instance, “all foods can fit” implies a range of contexts and environments where sweets like cake can be included. Spectrum or open-minded thinking about food can remove guilt and shame and support toddlers in being curious and adventurous with food and support a child’s relationship with food.
- More open-minded and inclusive.
- Acknowledges the gray area in various aspects, including food.
- Encourages positive attitudes and a flexible, balanced approach to eating.
Three Ways to Talk About Food with Toddlers
How can you talk about food with toddlers in creative ways that open their minds to learn, and encourage their curiosity? And how might you avoid the risk of seeding guilt and shame about food?
Here are three ways to talk about food with toddlers that honor their developmental stage and avoid negative talk and binary attitudes about food:
Use the Proper Name for Food
Language development is happening at a rapid pace in toddlers. Use descriptive words for young children. It will work to your advantage!
- Use proper names for foods (e.g., broccoli, chicken, banana, french fries).
- Teach your toddler food vocabulary without judgment.
- The proper food names build a strong foundation for more food education.
Highlight Color, Shape, and Texture
Just like learning about appetite cues like hunger and fullness, toddlers are also learning about their senses. Talking about food can further their self-awareness and expand their language and understanding of food properties.
- Describe food using color words (e.g., red pepper, yellow banana).
- Talk about the texture (e.g., soft, crunchy, mushy) of different foods and how it feels on their tongue.
- Use shape words to describe food items (e.g., round grapes, square cheese).
Describe Flavor or Taste
How food tastes is an extension of all the senses, especially smell and flavor. By equipping your toddler with the words to describe what they experience on their taste buds when eating helps them develop a broader food vocabulary without assigning a moral value (good vs. bad) to food.
- Discuss the taste of foods (e.g., salty crackers, sweet cookies).
- Introduce your toddler to various flavor experiences (spicy, sweet, bitter, sour, umami).
How You Talk about Food with Toddlers Can Nurture a Healthy Food Relationship
Remember, toddlers are learning and they are little sponges. Keep food education fun and age-appropriate. Avoid overwhelming them with complex nutritional information – they won’t understand.
And leave your food biases at the door. Young children deserve to stay in curiosity mode and learn about all foods!
The way we talk about food with toddlers can shape their food knowledge, attitudes, and even biases in the future.
Using age-appropriate language, embracing spectrum thinking, and following the three strategies mentioned above is a great way to help your toddler develop a healthy relationship with food, increasingly explore a variety of healthy foods, and try new things.
Remember to keep it simple, fun, and positive, nurturing their curiosity and love for exploring the world of food.