Teacher Insights

How can we change our language when talking about food to eliminate the hierarchy of foods that society has created? Allowing children to value all food the same and to never feel shame about eating certain foods, which can lead to disordered eating.

To allow kids to grow up in a world without diet culture and being intuitive eaters we need to look at the language we as adults are using when talking about food around kids. Its imperative we think about the message we are sending and how this may influence their relationship with food long term.

Phrases like:

‘You can’t have your pudding until you have finished your main meal’

“You can’t have your pudding until you have eaten your vegetables”

These phrases are used everywhere daily at the dinner table. For adults it’s coming from a place of love and care and just trying to get food into your little one but for the child we are putting the pudding up on a pedestal and almost saying ‘well if you get through the horrible dinner part you can then have a treat!

Another phrase that we as adults tend to use is to highlight when a child is eating a sweet treat and say things like “oh wow you have a chocolate doughnut, you are so lucky, can we share?” Whereas when we see the child eating maybe a carrot, it is unlikely we would give the same reaction, if any at all! We have to think what is that actually teaching the child about that particular food? In that scenario the doughnut now seems like the best food in the world to the child because of the reaction it received from the adult! Is that the message we want to be sending? We want to try and avoid creating a hierarchy of foods, no food should be more valued or less valued than another. We want to model this to the child and reinforce a variety of foods. Instead try valuing and speaking in this positive way about a range of foods from all food groups,

“oh look at that juicy apple, that looks delicious, can I have one of those”

“look at those potatoes you have, I would love to try some of those”

It’s almost a parental innate instinct and responsibility that we think I must get them to eat else they won’t grow or I must get them to finish their dinner else they won’t learn or they won’t sleep. As adults we take on the responsibility at meal times of saying absolutely anything to get the child to eat, persuading and bribing them to eat as much as possible. If we want to raise intuitive eaters we need to consider the impact of the way we frame our language about food and the long term effects this may have on the relationship the child develops with food.

Other forms of language that tends to be in our vocabulary regularly is saying things like:

“oh I can’t have that today I have already eaten my sins for the day”

“I can’t have that chocolate cake I am having a good day”

“oh go on then, I’ll be naughty and have a biscuit”

Labelling foods as good or bad and healthy or unhealthy is again promoting this hierarchy of foods and valuing certain foods over others. Again we need to consider what message we are teaching them using this language, how will they interpret bad? Will they think we are bad when we serve them this food, will they think they are a bad person for eating these foods? How will they interpret unhealthy, will they think they are going to get sick if they eat these foods, will they want to restrict these foods? We want to avoid labelling foods as bad or unhealthy as this can create the feeling of shame around these foods, which can in adulthood lead to disordered eating, such as binge eating or secret eating. Instead why don’t we try using language that doesn’t put any food higher than the other and rather use terms such as

‘there are some foods that we eat less often and some foods that we eat more often”

“that isn’t an everyday food, we had that yesterday so we could have it again at the weekend”

“there is no food that is better than the other, different foods provide different nutrients”

Again try swapping terms like bad foods, junk foods, treat foods and naughty foods for just the name of the food! We want to move away from the labels of food that could create the feelings of shame.

Another common phrase that is used from a very young age is “If your good today you can have a biscuit treat later” or “if you tidy your toys I will get you a sweetie”, this again puts sugary food up on that pedestal above other foods, so this food group is seen as the best to the child and also potentially sends the child the message that if they are good they should be rewarded with sugary food. We need to shift this thinking and instead try phrases like “If you are good today lets walk down to the park this evening” and “if you tidy your toys you can pick an extra story at bedtime”.

This shift in language is a huge movement away from how we instinctively want to talk to children, so be kind to yourself!! Try and break it down into these small steps:

  • Try not to label foods into groups of good, bad, healthy or unhealthy.
  • Eliminate the hierarchy of foods, all foods have the same value
  • If you comment on the lovely looking doughnut one day, comment on the juicy looking apple the next day!

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