The Nine Worst and Best Things to Say to Kids at the Table

Feb 19, 2009 by

Brussels sprouts boy

The Nine Worst Things to Say to Children at Dinner Time

1. “Eat it.” / “You can’t leave the table until you eat your _______.

“Human babies, like the young of other species, have wonderful appetites unless they are sick or unless they’ve become disgusted with too much urging or forcing,” said Dr. Benjamin Spock.

We’re born willing to eat the foods our bodies need, and also knowing how much we need to eat. Force feeding results in the opposite of what you want, long-term. Encouraging a child to eat more than she wants not only teaches her to disregard her appetite but also builds resistance to eating what you want her to eat.

2. “Clean your plate.”

More classic force feeding. Why encourage a child to overeat? Perfect for getting kids used to ignoring their body’s signals.

3. “One more bite.”

Yet another version of force feeding. If eating is good, is eating more better? Babies know when they’ve had enough. If we listen to them, they’ll keep that ability. The more we push, the less interest they’ll have in eating. Kids, like the rest of us, also appreciate that their feelings matter.

4. “No dessert unless you eat that.” / “There’s dessert if you eat that.

Using these tactics is the best way to increase a child’s desire for dessert and decrease his interest in the target food.

5. “Good job!”

No better way to let a child know that healthy eating is a duty, an act of self-denial, not something we do for the joy of our hearts. Teaches them that there is virtue in eating when you’re not hungry (or if you’re an adult, in not eating when you are hungry). Everybody is born wanting to eat until we’re told we should eat. Why try to control a kid when no control is called for? Kids are people, and when people are controlled a lot, they tend to get negative and resistant. They may assert themselves in undesirable ways just to have some self-determination.

6. “It’s good for you.”

Not the most compelling reason to eat something. It implies that there is no other reason to eat it. It’s pretty clear at that point that taste isn’t its forte. Really, no reason need ever be given to eat. Humans have to eat. They are programmed to be satisfied by eating. If you regularly put nourishing, well prepared food in front of a hungry child, and give them permission to eat it, it will follow, as night the day, that they will eat it, with gusto even. Further action tends only to backfire.

7. “Kids are starving in Africa…”

Manipulative guilt trips only increase the unpleasantness children will associate with eating. It may make them eat but it won’t make them like it. Any reasonably normal kid will eat what they’re given if they are allowed to get hungry for it, just like those kids in Africa. They’ll even eat it with joy if they’re not pestered.

8. “Do you like it?

An invitation to fussiness, this question offers the option of not liking it. It’s a great way to direct a child’s mind toward the idea of refusing to eat, especially if she senses your fear.

The less you talk about not liking food, and the less you validate their pickiness, the better. The expectation to set up is that of course we like food. They might discover to their surprise some day that they don’t really like a certain food, but it shouldn’t be a routine test.

The question also demonstrates a lack of authority. You know what’s good; you know what kinds of foods to serve. Present a confident front.

9. “What do you want to eat?”

Another question that’s only asking for trouble, unless it’s for the child’s birthday dinner or maybe one of your very rare meals at a restaurant. More fear, more lack of authority. Don’t forget they have an appetite. Leverage that appetite by serving only the foods you want them to eat.

Girl with veg

Nine of the Best Things You Can Say to Children at the Table

1. “Bon appétit!”

This salutation takes the place of saying grace at most French tables. It is a blessing on the eaters, wishing them the joy of coming to the table with a healthy hunger to be satisfied.

Another French expression that points out the central role of the appetite in good eating habits is “Quand l’appétit va, tout va,” meaning “when the appetite goes, everything goes.”

2. “Are you hungry?”

This question puts a child in touch with the only necessary motivation to eat. If he’s not hungry, he shouldn’t eat (though if he is, dinner time’s the time). The combination of a hungry child and well prepared, tasty Real Foods—nothing more, nothing less—equals a kid who will eat his vegetables.

3. “Would you like some? How much do you want? Don’t take more than you can eat.”

Such comments further tune the child in to his own hunger and how much he feels like eating. Furthermore, it puts a premium value on the food itself. It communicates that “we care about food; it’s something precious.”

4. “Yum!”

Simply enjoying your own dinner is a completely natural, normal way to show kids the way things go. It’s a wisely passive and positive alternative to making an issue of what they are eating.

5. “I heard/read/saw something interesting/funny/surprising today…”

Having a pleasant conversation at the table rather than browbeating kids about what they’re eating leads to good digestion and better relationships.

6. “I didn’t really make enough for you.”

Once when my kids were small, they didn’t like the looks of something I’d fixed. My daughter said, “We don’t want any of that.”

“That’s good,” I responded. “I didn’t really make enough for you guys.” With no hesitation, they piped up, “But we want some!”

So I told them, “Well, I guess you can have a little bite.” Their instant reply? “No, a big bite!”

At the first crossroads, if I had taken up the gauntlet and said, “Well, you need to try a bite,” we can all imagine how the rest of the conversation would have gone.

7. “It’s kind of an adult taste.”

My mom would feed us this line any time we said we didn’t like something. I believed it then and I believe it now. Putting it in those terms takes a bit of the glory out of childish fussiness, gives them something to aspire to. It also gives them an out: they won’t lose face if they decide to like it later. Rather they get to show their maturity, like graduating to big boy pants, when they’re big enough to like those grown up foods. It’s a grown-up way to respond to their refusal to eat that defuses rebellion. If we push, kids tend to dig their heels in and hang onto their dislikes.

8. “Tastes do change. It’s been awhile; do you want to try it again?”

This tactic puts the ball in her court. Like No. 7, it gives her a chance to change her mind without feeling like she’s surrendered. No pressure, no force, just an opportunity.

9. “Good, that leaves more for the rest of us.”

Again places value on the food, sets it up as something we enjoy and we want, but that no one need fight over. So much more dignified and effective, not to mention more pleasant and natural than begging, pleading or negotiating.

© Sacred Appetite  / Anna Migeon / 19 February 2009 / All rights reserved


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