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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jennifer McGinness

Talking to Kids About Food

Healthy eating is a hot topic in our appearance-focused and diet-obsessed culture. Naturally, parents want to encourage their children to eat balanced meals and have a basic understanding of nutrition. However, it can be difficult to talk to kids about food without messages about diet culture and appearance concerns sneaking in. Picky eating and preference for highly palatable foods can also make the discussion about food and nutrition more difficult. So how do we encourage kids and teens to eat a balanced diet without causing anxiety around mealtimes and bogging them down with concerns about appearance?

How Parents Can Help:

Using Neutral Language Surrounding Foods

Oftentimes, we are making judgments about foods without even realizing we are doing it! Even using words like “healthy” and “junk food” places a judgment on different kinds of foods and indicates to children that some foods are bad while others are good. In reality, all foods serve us in different ways. While some foods may provide protein and vitamins, other foods provide certain experiences like gathering with friends for a birthday party or trading candies after trick-or-treating.

In an attempt to encourage kids to eat nutrient and vitamin-rich foods, parents sometimes place unnecessary judgments on food and eating. To help your child have a more holistic view of food and eating, it is important to discuss the value of all foods with children. For example, instead of making statements like “that’s a ton of sugar” or “you’re such a good boy for eating all your vegetables,” try to create statements that highlight the value of different foods such as “it was so much fun singing happy birthday and having a slice of birthday cake” or “vegetables like carrots have vitamins that help us to feel more energized.” This helps children to have a better understanding of how foods are important for physical health and are an enjoyable part of socializing and learning about the world.

Below is a list of food descriptors to replace with neutral language:

Neutral Food Descriptors

Hunger and Fullness Cues

Another way to enrich your child’s relationship with food is to provide them with tools to listen to their bodies. One way to talk to kids about hunger and fullness cues is to start a conversation about hunger and fullness. Ask your child, “how do you know when you are hungry?” or “what does hunger feel like in your body?” Similarly, ask kids to identify body sensations associated with fullness and encourage them to listen to and act on these cues. Sometimes, parents rely on tried-and-true tactics like “the clean plate club” and “if you finish your chicken nuggets, you can have dessert” to encourage kids to eat a wide variety of foods. While well-intentioned, these strategies do not allow kids to listen to their hunger and fullness cues.

Instead, kids are motivated to push themselves to eat to earn a reward. In these situations, get curious and ask your kids what they’re feeling. For example, say, “I noticed you left most of your chicken nuggets, how is your body feeling right now?” Similarly, rather than encouraging kids to eat their meals by rewarding them with dessert, wait at least 15 minutes after mealtime to offer dessert. This will give your child a chance to notice fullness cues. Then, offer a choice, “Would you like to have dessert now or if you are feeling full, we can wait until a little later? How are you feeling?”

Alternatively, if kids are having difficulty identifying hunger and fullness cues, it may be helpful to show them a hunger/fullness scale like the one pictured below. Helping your kids to stay in the “3,4, and 5” range can help to improve mood, energy, and concentration. This tool can also help kids to express how they are feeling on the inside and empower them to communicate about food, hunger, and fullness.

hunger fullness scale for kids
Hunger Fullness Scale

Getting Professional Support

If you are concerned about your child’s weight or nutrition, it is important to first consult with your pediatrician. Your doctor will be able to rule-out physical health concerns and address serious illnesses like diabetes, malnutrition, and obesity and may direct you to a child nutritionist. If you are struggling to have an open conversation about food with your child or notice your child acting out or expressing negative emotions at mealtime, speaking with a therapist is a great start!

Furthermore, if you are noticing your child being secretive about food, regularly refusing food, or expressing significant body dissatisfaction, they may be experiencing a more serious concern such as body dysmorphia or disordered eating. It is imperative to reach out to a pediatrician or therapist immediately if you are noticing any of these more serious concerns.


At Balanced Minds Psychology & Wellness we specialize in assisting teens and children with navigating life’s challenges. To learn more about myself and the services I provide, checkout my profile. If you are ready to start the therapy process, contact us today to start a free consultation, either over telehealth or in person!


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