Are you talking too much about nutrition? Too much nutrition talk at the table can be counter-productive. Learn what to do instead.
In my in my 27+ years of working with families, there is one trend I see happening.
Too much nutrition talk.
I think this is a tricky topic. I want you to talk and teach your child about nutrition. In fact, I want you to be your first resource on all things food and nutrition. I happen to think that is part of your parenting job.
However, I don’t want you to do it too much.
Unhealthy Eating and Nutrition Talk
Teaching your child about food and nutrition is essential to his or her understanding, but it can be done in ways that are pressure-filled, manipulative or even shame-based.
Janet was concerned about her daughter’s weight, and her eating. Jesse didn’t pick healthy choices when left to her own devices, and her weight was creeping up.
Janet frequently talked about the benefits of healthy food choices, questioned what her daughter picked to eat:
“Are you sure you want that?
Couldn’t you choose something healthier?”
She tried to use education to mold her food choices and eating behavior.
Janet was really using a veil of nutrition education, plus criticism and shame, to urge better choices.
Was it effective? Not really.
Although Jesse made better choices sometimes, she did it to avoid more pressure and negative repercussions. Jesse knew more about what not to eat, what food was “bad” and inherited shame around the unhealthy choices she liked and made.
Ultimately, Jesse became conflicted about food, which started to eat away at her self-esteem. She didn’t feel good about herself (or the foods she enjoyed eating) and knew she wasn’t meeting her mom’s food expectations.
I know in my heart this wasn’t the end result Janet was after, but she didn’t know another way.
How to Talk to Picky Eaters about Food
Another example, a picky eater, experienced a lot of nutrition talk at the meal table, also. He “learned” about the health benefits of vegetables and the desirable nutrients found in every food he didn’t like, and much more—all to motivate his eating.
While all this talk about nutrition was done with good intention, this child felt too much pressure from food talk. Sadly, this wasn’t motivating adventurous eating, and ultimately, it had the opposite effect.
Nutrition talk felt like pressure, shutting down his appetite and making him dread mealtime.
I could go on and on with stories about food talk at the table. Triggering statements that result in food fear like “That’s loaded with crap!” or “Why would you ever put that in your body?! It’s toxic.”
Most of the families with which I work are asked to ditch the food talk at the table. I find food talk at the table to be ineffective with children, and even counter-productive to really raising a healthy eater.
How to Keep it Positive at the Table
So, what can you do instead? Here’s my advice:
1. No table talk about food, eating or nutrition
Leave any educational conversations about nutrition to another time. At the table, I find it all feels very personal for kids—almost like a performance evaluation.
If your child enjoys unhealthy food, then he is bad or unhealthy. Translated: judgment.
If he hears commentary about trying, eating or liking food (and he’s picky), that may feel like pressure.
Exception: If your child inquires about food, then feel free to answer his or her questions.
2. Hands on nutrition lessons are most impactful
Get your child in the kitchen to prep and cook food. Shop together. Start a garden together and watch it grow. Conversations and questions will naturally flow from these experiences.
3. Lead by example
Show your child how to eat healthfully by making healthy meals, filling your own plate with balanced nutrition from all food groups, and enjoying what you eat, even if it is dessert.
When you show your child how to eat healthfully and how to enjoy all foods, he will absorb this as the norm.
What doesn’t work well? Eliminating certain food groups like grains or dairy for weight loss or uber healthy eating.
If you have to eliminate these for health reasons, be sure to explain.
Vilifying dessert or other indulgent foods doesn’t work, either. Kids need to see how to fit all foods into their day, in a balanced fashion.
4. Let your child ask
Children are naturally curious, and when they are interested in learning, they listen and internalize the information for which they are asking.
I have found this to be true with my clients and my own four kids. In fact, I encourage parents to wait for the questions, and to be ready with meaningful answers that foster understanding.
5. Know your facts
We all have our opinions about food and nutrition, but that doesn’t mean these are the facts. I think kids need the facts from their parents—they get plenty of opinions from the rest of the world!
If you don’t know, do a dive into the topic of childhood nutrition so you’re ready.
Age-Appropriate, Sensitive Nutrition Education
In the end, I want you to strike the delicate balance of nutrition education. Kids do need to learn and understand, so it’s essential to teach, but let them lead the way with their questions, statements and observations.
My little client this week summed it up when I asked him how things were going at home and he said, “Mommy stopped talking about food.”
“Oh good! I was helping your mom with that,” I said. “How does it feel?” I asked.
“It feels great!”
Are you talking too much about nutrition?