How your food talk impacts your child’s eating habits

Have you ever thought how the food language you use could be affecting your child’s attitude to eating? Here’s how to make sure you leave a positive impression.

One weekend I was at a child’s birthday party when the cake came out and I heard a boy (about age 7) declare, “I only want a tiny piece because I don’t want to get fat”.

I wondered how a young child had attached such a negative outcome to what’s typically the highlight of any party.

But, in reality, the answer is simple: Children today are surrounded by diet culture.

And the language we use as parents, whether we realise it or not, is one avenue that can leave a lasting impact – good or bad.

As the saying goes, children are always listening; so should we be choosing our words more wisely when it comes to food?

Why a parent’s food language matters

“Diet culture is rife in our society and when you hear it come from a child’s mouth, you realise how prevalent it really is,” La Trobe University researcher Dr Stephanie Damiano says.

No stranger to young people’s diet dialect, Dr Damiano studies the factors that contribute to children’s body image and their relationship with food and eating.

She says parents’ food language can be a powerful influence.

“We know that parents are one really important influence on a child’s attitudes and behaviours towards food, and they’re one of the main influences during those early childhood years,” Dr Damiano says.

A mother’s food language is most influential

A recent Flinders University study looking at the role female family members play in shaping young women’s body image found mothers may be unknowingly contributing to body dissatisfaction by exposing their daughters to “fat talk”.

The study also found mothers are more likely to use this kind of language than sisters, and are more influential in how young women see themselves.

“If parents are dieting, that can increase the likelihood of their child dieting at some point, particularly with mothers and adolescent girls,” Dr Damiano says.

So, what is “good” food language?

Butterfly Foundation education manager Helen Bird says the best way for parents to speak about food is to just let food be food.

This can mean using sensory words such as “juicy” and “buttery”, or talking about how foods make us feel, or what they do for our body or energy levels.

“Rather than talking about healthy or unhealthy foods, we can talk about what vitamins and minerals are in foods, what support they give to our bodies,” Helen says.

As well as providing information around what foods can do for us, it helps children see their body as a functional tool, something Helen says can support positive body image.

How to help kids have a positive relationship with food

Model food enjoyment

Dr Damiano says parents who model enjoyment of a range of foods, devoid of judgement and moral-based language (using words such as “bad” or ”good”), will have the biggest positive impact.

Avoid diet language

Kids see and hear everything so if we engage in dieting behaviour or use fat talk or diet language, we’re inadvertently posing this as normal or necessary.

Remember, exercise is not a trade-off for food

Helen says parents should avoid giving children the message food should be earned or compensated for with exercise.

More on healthy eating for kids:

Written by Sarah Vercoe.