Do any of these sound familiar? Clean your plate or no dessert! Why do you have to be so picky? There are starving people in China! If so, then you’re likely a parent who has gone to battle at the dinner table with kids who refuse to eat the meals prepared for them.
Meal time can be so frustrating. Parents hustle together dinners_sometimes with kids’ sports or activities looming_and pull their children in from their yards or away from games or TV. Only then do their children hold up their noses at what they see on their plates. (When this happens in my house, the immortal words of Weird Al Yankovic emerge: Just eat it!)
It’s more constructive, I suppose, to take advice from an expert such as Dr. Michelle May than the world’s foremost parody singer. So here’s a tip list from May, released by the TOPS Club weight-loss support organization:
Seven things that well-meaning parents commonly say that may have unintended consequences _ and what to say instead:
1. “You are such a good eater!” Children want nothing more than to please their parents. While mealtime should be a pleasant time to connect with your children, eating should remain intrinsically driven to meet your child’s fuel needs, NOT to earn your praise.
What you could say instead: “You must have been really hungry today!” Or, “I love spending time with you while we have dinner.”
2. “You are such a picky eater!” All children (and adults) have some foods that they just don’t like. Some children are highly taste and/or texture sensitive, but most will outgrow it. Picky eating becomes an entrenched behavior when we berate, beg, bribe _ or worse, feed kids only what they say they’ll eat.
What you could say instead: “I know you didn’t like it last time; tell me what you think about it today after you have one polite bite.” Or, “Did you know your taste buds grow up just like you do? I wonder if you like this big kid food yet?”
3. “Clean your plate; there are starving children in (fill in the blank).” Avoid teaching children scarcity eating behaviors in our plentiful food environment.
What you could say instead: “It’s important to not be wasteful, so please only take as much as you think you need.” Or, “If you’re full, we can save the rest for later.”
4. “You have to eat all your vegetables or there will be no dessert.” Kids are smart. When you bribe them for eating certain foods, they quickly realize that those foods must be yucky and that dessert is the reward. They also learn to hold out until a reward is offered.
What you could say instead: “I love all kinds of different foods _ some that make me healthy and strong and some that are just for fun. What kinds of foods do you like?” Or, “Enjoy your dinner. We’ll be having dessert in a couple hours.”
5. “Eat all your dinner or you don’t get dessert.” This variation on the threat above translates to “you must overeat and I will reward you by giving you more to eat!” Children naturally love sweet foods, so they can learn to override their fullness signals. As an adult, they might be tempted to order a 1,200-calorie salad to “earn” a 1,200-calorie piece of cheesecake.
What you could say instead: “Save room for dessert tonight!”
6. “I was so bad at lunch today! Now I have to spend an extra hour on the treadmill.” Children are born to move. They naturally love exploring their environment, challenging themselves, and playing actively. Unfortunately, the messages they get from adults teach them that exercise is punishment for eating.
What you could say instead: “I ate more than I needed and now I feel too full and uncomfortable. I think a walk would make me feel better. Want to join me?” Or, “Anybody up for a bike ride?”
7. “I am so gross and fat!” Or, “I can’t believe (fill in the blank) has let herself go!” Kids learn from us even when we think they aren’t listening. Statements like this teach kids that it’s okay to put yourself and others down and judge people for their weight or other physical attributes. Perhaps they also secretly wonder what you really think about them.
What you could say instead: I’m not perfect, but I do my best to make healthy choices.
And whatever else you say, remember to say often … I love you just the way you are.