What you should NOT say at the dinner table

Did you know that the way you speak to your child at mealtimes can inadvertently contribute to fussy eating? The good news is that making small changes to your own mealtime vocabulary can have a hugely positive influence on your child’s behaviour at the dinner table.

These are the two key things to understand about your choice of language at mealtimes.

1) Parents provide the food, but they shouldn’t have to convince their child to eat it. We want our children to know that they are in charge of their own eating, and that we will not pressure them to eat new food or more food. This is so important in reducing anxiety at mealtimes, for both parents and children.

Part of my approach is about teaching your child to be the person who regulates IF and HOW MUCH they eat. This concept is quite novel for some families but so critical in helping children to develop a healthy and positive relationship with food.

The principles come from the Ellyn Satter Division of Responsibility and they are something we can honour at all ages to help achieve appropriate growth and weight management (even in adults!). So, it might be time to let go of pleading or bargaining with your child to eat their broccoli…

2) Your words have to be the truth. A food that is yummy to you, may not be yummy to them. That food might be crunchy, or juicy, or creamy, or chewy, but it isn’t necessarily ‘delicious’. These words usually fall into the category of ‘trying to convince’ your child to eat it. And that takes us back to the point above!

Unhelpful phrases to limit at mealtimes

These are phrases that are intended to ‘get’ your child to eat. They either subtly or overtly put pressure on your child to accept a new food, or eat an amount determined by you.

  • “This is so yummy. You’ll really like it”

  • “Have a bite, it’s delicious”

  • “Do you like it? It tastes good doesn’t it”

  • “Just one more bite of each food before you’re done”

  • “Don’t forget those vegetables there”

  • “How about you eat the meat first?”

  • “Enough of the whingeing. Please just eat it”

  • “You didn’t eat anything so don’t complain if you’re hungry later”

  • “Great eating!”

  • “You ate so much today, well done”

  • “Are you sure you need more? You’ve eaten an awful lot already. Surely you can’t still be hungry.”

  • “Fine, get down. But you’re not getting dessert!”

Keep an eye on my Instagram posts, to see me discuss the unhelpful phrases in a bit more detail.

Helpful phrases to use at mealtimes

Instead of the unhelpful phrases above, consider practising these words at your dinner table.

  • “You don’t have to eat it” (This is the most important phrase of all!)

  • “If you’re still hungry then you can have some more”

  • “You’re in charge of your eating. You can decide which things to eat from your plate today"

  • “Mummy knows that this can be tricky for you. That’s why I made sure we had [a safe food] included at dinner”

  • “If you’ve had enough then you can get down”

  • “Two minutes left of dinner. Would you like any more before we pack away?”

  • “Daddy might like to hear about what we did at the playground today”

  • “Tell us about what you made at school today”

  • “We don’t throw food at mealtimes. Pass it to me if you don’t want it on your plate today."

  • “Dinner’s finished now. Let’s get ready for the bath.”

The change in your words may be subtle, but the change in your intention is crystal clear. Have a go at using these phrases in the next week and let me know how you go. I’d love to hear any suggestions that work well for your family.

About the author of this blog post:

Dr Kyla Smith is a paediatric dietitian specialising in fussy eating, feeding difficulties and childhood nutrition. She has a private practice called Mealtime Building Blocks in Perth, Western Australia. You can connect with Kyla on her website and her Facebook page or on her Instagram page.

You can also email her.

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