(720) 727-7105 | 400 McCaslin Boulevard, Suite 210, Louisville, CO 80027

What is best when it comes to how to talk to kids about food?

I’m a pediatric nutritionist with long experience, and I wish you’d stop talking so much about food and nutrition with your kids. That sounds crazy, I know. Food and nutrition are absolutely pivotal for your kids’ brains, behavior, growth, mood, learning… everything. No wonder then that food, recipes, and nutrition talk are all over the internet and mom blogger universe. From how to make killer bento lunches to keto, yeast free, or other elimination diets, everyone has something to say.

With all this talk about food, the good thing is that we are all woke now on the importance of what we eat, where food comes from, and how we grow it, whether it’s chickens, chocolate, or chard. We really are what we eat. We eat, and we turn the food into us – hair, bones, teeth, mood, and all.

On the down side, too much talk about food to kids is … bad for kids. It creates undue anxiety, stress, and overwhelm for kids, young ones and teens alike. It really stresses moms out too. I think we reached the pinnacle on this when the almond mom phenomenon got traction.

I run into this often in my clinical practice, and I can tell you that it has gotten worse as our enthusiasm for whole, healthy foods has exploded in the last 10-15 years. You’ll want to avoid these pitfalls when you talk to your kids about food. Here’s  my list of Fail vs Fabulous, when encouraging healthy nutrition and food habits in your family.

  • 1 – Stop Demonizing Food

It’s so easy to label a food “good” or “bad”. There’s plenty of junk out there, including organic junk. Obviously, it isn’t what kids should live on. But don’t drill these labels into your kids’ minds. What they need to learn is discernment – and they will. Eventually, ideally, when they’re out and about on their own without you, those “bad” foods should be neutral to them. What do I mean by “neutral”? I mean that the idea of eating that food doesn’t provoke anxiety. It isn’t even compelling, because it was never forbidden in the first place. It doesn’t elicit judgment or shaming for themselves or friends and peers who eat those foods. As long as there is no safety or egregious comfort issue – as in, needing an Epi Pen, or a vomit-to-shock (FPIES) reaction, hives, migraine, nausea, bloating, burning diarrhea, disabling gas pain – then let kids have forays into junk. Not daily staples or regular snacks, mind you, but occasional dabbling.

Instead: Provide treats for special occasions (or every so often for no reason other than it’s fun) with no discussion about whether it’s “good” or “bad”. Again, safety issues, food allergens, or triggers aside, simply make or buy some fun food, and let your child enjoy, care-free. Visit my recipe blog for all sorts of kid and allergy friendly recipes that deliver nourishing ingredients instead of empty sugary processed food. My one exception: Spoiled food. This IS bad and dangerous and kids need to learn that.So, tell them.

  • 2 – Don’t Expect A Young Child to Have Discernment (or even care)

Speaking of discernment, forget needing your four year old to have it. That’s your job. Unless it specifically interests them, and/or they have context for these topics (as in, you farm or grow your own organic food; or, there is a severe reaction to a particular food or ingredient), children under the age of 8 or 10 years do not need to know what organic is, or glyphosate, MSG, colors, additives, gluten or what have you. They shouldn’t care either. They’re little and they have much more important stuff going on in their little worlds. Please stop walking them through the supermarket and asking them to pay attention to labels or what you’re buying. Believe me, they are observing. They don’t need specifics – it will only be information overload that can lead to anxiety or meal time control battles.

Instead: Lead by example. Say less, do more. If your child accompanies you shopping, let them day dream and leave them alone; if they love chatter, join them in the randomness of it. Your child doesn’t need every moment to be teachable, no need to talk to kids about food in the grocery aisles. If they see something truly junky or processed that they pitch a fit for (and they will, because supermarkets place colorful cartoony packaging at your child’s eye level on purpose), that’s your call. Sometimes we can get away with floating to the next aisle with a soothing “Hmm no I don’t want to do that today” (and refrain from giving a reason why). Other days, you know the both of you don’t have it in you to make it home without giving in. Up to you, but avoid each supermarket trip rewarded with a junk treat. If you’re in servitude to your stove or kitchen and miserable making all this scratch beautiful food, guess what – your kids know. Even your baby can tell. The most important thing here is that you get to be happy and enjoy food. Even if there is legitimate stress about what can be safely eaten in your household, endeavor to find the joy in some of it. Joy is, above all else, why we’re here. Talk with your kids about food should mostly be about what you love to eat together, what’s delicious, and what’s fun to make.

  • 3 – Stop Explaining Everything and Stop Feeling Sorry For Your Kids with Diet Restrictions

You’re in charge. You’re the adult. If you know your child does poorly with a particular food, and they are fiendish about getting it and asking for it constantly anyway, oh well! You know best and have decided that they’re not going to have that food, period.

This goes for foods that are a known danger or debilitating to your child – not for foods that are imperfect, but harmless. Explaining and justifying your parenting choices to a young child (or even a teen) is, um, a bad idea. Doing so engenders entitlement in your child, which can make their opposition and protests even bigger. In little ones, expect tantrums, anxiety, and meltdowns when you try the “here’s why” route. In teens, expect impressive arguments, brooding, and door slamming. Most of all, don’t need your kids understanding or approval when setting necessary limits.

Instead: If a child asks why a particular food is off the menu, explain in a developmentally concrete way appropriate for that child’s age. Omit comments like “it’s bad for you” or “will make you sick” or “your body can’t have that.” Don’t label the food or your child’s body as defective or bad. Younger kids can be redirected with “there isn’t any more of that at the store so I found this one instead” or “I don’t have that, but I found this one that looked good. I’m going to try it and see if it’s any good.” Let your child watch you “try it”. Let them initiate their own request to also try it. Allow the rejection if it comes, with a neutral countenance. Don’t explain why it’s a better food.

Teens are practicing discernment on their own. Experimentation and screw ups are par for the course at this age. Let them experience the discomfort of eating the wrong food. You will decide when you have had enough as a parent: “I realize this isn’t what you want, but I am the one taking care of/rescuing you each time you feel sick from eating xyz. So, that food is no longer going to be in the house, and I won’t buy it anymore. If you eat it on purpose outside of here, and it makes you feel sick, oh well. If you need my help, I know you’ll let me know.” And then there’s always “..because I am the one buying the food.”

  • 4 – Stop Feeding Your Kids Like They’re Gwyneth Paltrow (or expecting them to like it)

How many, many food diaries I have seen that look this beautiful: Green smoothies, pumpkin seeds, sprouted Einkorn homemade bread, kombucha, fermented kvass, homemade dosa, coconut flour pancakes, avocado toast, bone broth… Or, a list of light veggie snacks all day long: Carrots, celery, nori, cucumbers, and apple slices with a few cashews. Or, a food diary that shows me 120 grams of protein and less than 60 grams of carbs (a nearly ketogenic intake).

Those are beautiful foods. Some kids really love this stuff, which is great. But, this can get a little too almond-mom like. There are too many food rules in the house, and it’s causing tension to comply so stringently with eating only organic, zero-sugar, unprocessed, low carb, perfect whole foods.

I’ll also usually discover that in these households, kids are  falling off their growth patterns, experiencing stunting, or underweight. What tends to happen here is kids end up low for total calories, low for carbohydrates, and high for fats and protein. This is a great eating style for adults (who are not growing), but it can cause stunting and underweight in children.

Here is a common anecdote from my practice: I began working with a mom whose child was eating an overly restricted diet. Mom removed all processed foods entirely, based on the belief that any of them, at any time, are bad. Her child also happened to be a picky eater and refused many textures, limiting her choices more. On top of this, based on a misinterpreted blood test for a food sensitivity panel done by another provider, the child was only allowed to eat 7 foods. They had been eating this very restricted diet for years. They were not growing, had miserable behavior and sleep problems, and were trending toward anemia.

We dismantled the food rules. It turned out, right off the bat, the child could comfortably eat many foods that mom assumed were bad per her rules. A shift in view point on the good vs bad food mythology helped a lot. The child’s behavior improved immediately, as they finally had enough to eat and gained some much needed weight. Finally, their brain and body were getting replenished.

After a few sessions, things didn’t sound quite right. So I asked for an updated food diary. Mom shared a usual day food intake of small quantities, throughout the day, of raisins, peanuts, maple syrup, rice, potato chips, and a brownie. That was it. That was a usual day of food. This explained the re-emerging problems: No protein, no good fats or oils, too little food over all, a grazing pattern, and few micronutrient or fiber rich foods. Mom said this child would sometimes eat chicken. So I asked – what if you gave a chicken nugget, would they like that, or try it? A big silence followed. Mom was stunned. She had never done that, and wouldn’t, “because, you know, they’re so junky.” We agreed to give it a try after a quick search gave us some organic, gluten free, no sugar brand options she could live with. There are ready to heat and eat versions of this stuff that aren’t so terrible after all!

Instead – This child was already eating a junky poor diet. It didn’t matter if the peanuts and maple syrup were organic. Those alone don’t make up a whole foods diet. So, toss in some fun. Find some ready to serve, heat-and-eat stuff so you don’t have to work so hard cooking it all from scratch. Especially where I live in Boulder, Colorado, I see new food start ups and cleaner, healthier food products coming to market constantly. The options are wide open. If you hit on something, then you can make your own scratch version even better if you like. Let kids be kids. They need different diets than adults. They shouldn’t be eating they way you do, most likely. Peruse my blog for more ideas and tips on how kids eat, what they need, and some recipes to try.

• 5 – Baby Led Weaning Is Great… For Babies

No, babies and children don’t know what they need all the time, and don’t necessarily have a keen inner wisdom that they can tap at a moment’s notice. Some babies wean because they feel eager and ready to move on. Some can’t get there, and won’t, even when they need to and their bodies are ready.

Don’t pressure your young child to know everything. I’ve met many toddlers way past the day they needed to wean, and mom is still waiting for permission from the child. Nope nope nope. You’re in charge, mom. Likewise, toddlers and kids need direction too. Weaned or not, presenting food all day long in a parade of choices is often just plain overwhelming and frustrating for little kids. It’s too demanding to expect that they will know what to do. This strategy can create anxiety in young kids, while mom or dad get super frustrated by the poor growth and picky appetite that grazing into toddler years can trigger. Some DON’Ts…

    • Don’t expect them to guide you in making their food choices. Sure they will have their preferences, but it is your job to feed them.
    • Don’t expect that they will always know or verbalize when they’re full or when they’re hungry. Especially when kids have used reflux medicines, hunger and fullness cues can be disrupted. If you need help with this, contact me or speak to your pediatrician.
    • Don’t chatter about how important food is. Just make or buy something you love to eat, and enjoy it with your family.
    • Don’t allow non stop grazing past age two years. Toddlers and young kids grow, sleep, and behave better with distinct snack times and mealtimes, as they leave infancy behind.
    • Don’t limit texture options to just pincer grasp foods and pouches. Kids can be rigid. The longer you wait for them to ask for a new food or food texture, the longer you may be waiting. I’ve met several four and five year olds who don’t know how to chew well. It’s ok to rock their world a bit and expect them to progress earlier on.

Instead –  Make food a pleasant background piece in your family. At snack or meal times, it’s just there, beckoning. Allow a choice between 2, maybe 3 foods at most. Present mixed textures and novelty, including foods that might be messy or that require mastery of a utensil. Let your child feed himself or get messy. Good help can be had with a pediatric occupational therapist if need be – let your doctor know you’d like help, and get a referral, if feeding is so stalled that your child isn’t growing or gaining well. For extreme picky eaters, you may have other problems afoot that need tackling. Check out my e book here for more details on how to redirect that too.

Joy IS Why We Are Here

I truly believe that the most important reason why we are all here is joy, and lifting each other up. Eating and food are great ways to create, share, and enhance joy. More than anything you say or do around food in your household, making food a generally positive, inquisitive, and expansive experience is what will create good self care and eating habits in your growing family. It’s well documented that family meals create better emotional and physical well being for children. Make this a goal in your home at least twice a week.Thanks for stopping by!