Talking About Food with Your Child – Dr. Anna Flores

talking about food with yout child

Children are impressionable and childhood habits about food can be lifelong.

Notes from Dr, Anna Flores’s presentation “Talking About Food with Your Child”

Language matters. Children are wildly impressionable and there is a strong connection between what we say about food, how we eat, and how we feed ourselves as adults, and what the young people around us are going to say about food, how they feed themselves, and what they eat. It is important to remember the messages about food you learned from your family. When I give this presentation, I usually get a laugh at this point and someone says, “Non-fat milk. No whipped cream.” It serves as a reminder that children are impressionable and childhood habits about food can be lifelong.


Talking About Food With Your Child

Right away, I see the wheels turning with people in the audience. They are thinking, wait a minute. I had parents who cared about me like I care about my kids. But I still inherited some messed up notions about food from them that I remember to this day. I also ask people to think about the habits they learned from their families  about feeding themselves and eating. For example, I had a friend whose mother never ate after 8:00 PM, and she never ate after 8:00 PM.


Do we want our kids to follow some of our food habits? If we tell ourselves we can’t have cake, is that the life we want for our kiddos and young people around us? We all have a food story we tell ourselves about our relationship with food. Thankfully, it is malleable. So, we have the opportunity to change the story and to grow as our kids grow.  I grew up in New York with a father from Portugal, and my mom had immigrant parents from Italy and Germany. Part of my food story was inherited from my family. Italian, German, and Portuguese food are part of my food story. New York cultural foods come into play as well: Jewish foods because of the community around me. Add to that the personal beliefs, “If you don’t eat my food, you don’t love me” or, “You’re such a big eater! Such a BIG girl!” and you have your food story.

talking about food with your child


Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders

At Sanford Behavioral Health, we address the “food story” with our eating disorder clients and their families. It’s tough to jot down, it’s more like a reflective journaling piece, but writing out one’s food story is a valuable exercise. It includes answering the following questions:

  • What is your family history as relates to food and eating?
  • What are the things that influence how you feel about food?
  • How does food impact your life?
  • Do you eat for enjoyment? Do you not? Because that is part of your food story too.
  • Is food fuel?


chart listing importance of food in recovery


Our nutritional priorities are adequacy, balance, variety, flexibility, and enjoyment. We encourage eating disorder  clients to explore each of these while receiving treatment at Sanford and beyond in their recovery. Every day at Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders, our dietary team strives to provide each individual with adequate, balanced nutrition from a variety of foods while integrating enjoyment and real-life circumstances to support skills of flexibility and resilience. 


Talking the Talk With Your Kids

After the internal work that we need to do as caregivers, the next step is using our words and having an external experience with our children. Here are some things to think about:

  • First and foremost, foster an environment of openness.
  • Do your best to take out judgmental language about food.  Any sort of speech that operates on a binary is probably contributing some kind of judgement. For example, foods that are “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
  • We should also pull-out language that speaks to morality. Not just that food is good, but you are a good person or a bad person for eating it. Let’s be bad today and eat whatever we want. Let’s be naughty and get French fries! You can just say, “Let’s get a plate of fries.”
  • Junk food is a label or category, it is how we compartmentalize food in our food story. So is health food, treat food, celebration food as they are all ways to label food. How about a cheat meal? I’m going to have my cheat meal tonight and get pizza. You could just say, “I’m going to get pizza.” When we label food we are externalizing an internal judgement. Perhaps we feel guilty or are seeking reassurance. You deserve it.


“Remember that we all make mistakes, and if you’ve done or said these things a few times it will not hurt your child. The important thing is that you are aware, working on it, and doing your best.” Dr. Anna Flores


  • In the context of speaking to our loved ones, we are using this language to serve ourselves and it deserves some internal reflection. Just call food what it is, fruit, carrots, cake, candy, steak. Speaking of carrots, it’s inaccurate to say, “Eat carrots, you’ll turn into a bunny.” We know you are just trying to get your child to eat vegetables and try new foods, but it may backfire.
  • Sometimes, despite the best intentions, we’re not clear or accurate. This can cause confusion around food, especially when you think about the brain of a developing child. Their logic system is not quite there yet, and they begin to doubt everything you say. They might think my family wants to punish me and make me eat foods I don’t like.
  • Bribery is also not going to be helpful in fostering a supportive relationship with food and the body and how we feed ourselves. In other words, If you eat the spinach, you can have a toy. Or, if you eat four more bites of chicken, you can have dessert/leave the table. 
  • Instead of sensationalizing desert, serve it with the meal. All foods are even, and all foods fit when you nourish yourself. The balance is different for each family.



Okay, We Get It, But What Do We Do Instead?

When I talk about the things that might not be helpful (above), I usually get the question, “So, what can we do instead?” My answer is, talk about foods for what they do for our bodies. So you might tell your child, bell peppers are good for you. However, we have learned that is moral language. A child, who does not know what “good” means may take from that, if I don’t eat them or I don’t like them, am I bad? Instead, you can say, “Eating red foods give you a strong heart and lots of energy.”


Orange foods like carrots help you see in the dark. Yellow foods help you grow, eat the mango, it makes you grow. Here is an interesting story. I worked with a client who said that one of their earliest memories of understanding their body was playing hide and seek. Their reputation in the family was that they were the best hider, and it was a little bit harder to get into their best hiding place than usual. They had a realization, “Oh my gosh, one day I’m going to outgrow this hiding place and my body’s going to change and things are going to change!” So, their family telling them food would help them grow was a negative.


I know, I know it’s challenging! I don’t want you to have to think five times before opening your mouth, just do your best.

A more neutral way of saying it might be, “Yellow foods help your body heal cuts and scrapes.” So if we think about what the food does for our body in a real way and communicate that. If you don’t know, don’t make it up. if a parent has a relationship with their children or loved one, they can explore together. There are many resources available, and the language can grow as your child grows. Use simple language, I don’t think anybody outgrows simple concepts. Blue and purple foods help you think. White foods give us fast energy. So, if we need energy for a long time, maybe we make a different choice. Or we don’t eat it by itself.


Talking About Food Preferences and Picky Eaters

Food preferences or pickiness is real and because the brain and nervous system are developing at a fast rare, we honor them. But we shouldn’t dismiss foods because of a child’s preferences. The brain is still building connections to formulate that experience. And at 10 months, two years, five years old, there’s still not enough information and not enough systems are online to solidify preferences.


If you have a young person in your life, and you are trying to support a healthy relationship with food, one thing we can do if you have a picky eater is reduce pressures during mealtimes. Reduce the pressures, bribes and requirements. Because if your child is using their picky eating as a way to explore their relationship with you in terms of power, dynamic controls, and boundaries, all you’re doing is asking them to double down. This is not easy or comfortable. But remember, the goal is to create an environment that is welcoming and warm. Try using words like, “Try this when you’re ready.”


Another good idea with a picky eater is no screen time during dinner. Why? Because it there’s nothing to do but eat, there’s nothing to do but eat. It also reduces the risk of choaking and helps young people slow down and listen to their body. When having a mindful meal without other stimulus, you can learn a lot about yourself (even as an adult). I tell clients that it may seem easy to just serve what the child likes, but if you do it is sending a contradictory message. It is also reinforcing the power dynamic relationship the child is exploring.


Instead, think about it as your job as a caregiver is to serve balanced meals. It is the child’s job to decide if they’re going to eat or how they’re going to engage with the food, balancing the powers a little bit more. You are there to help and support them. You can change the meal, but make sure a food you know they eat is in the mix.

Additional Tips

  • Incorporate food activities like making your own pizza together
  • Wash fruits and vegetables in the sink together
  • Cut food into new and exciting shapes
  • Present the food differently and it often is more appealing to try
  • Mix up temperatures of food
  • Put the layers together differently on a sandwich
  • Teach them about food – how it is made, what it does for the body
  • Role model your expectations

Picky eaters will feed themselves. They will eventually figure it out. That is the difference between picky eaters and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). A picky eater is going to find a path to nourishment, someone with ARFID may not. For more information on ARFID, click HERE.


Where Do Eating Disorders Come From?

Eating disorders can develop from a number of pressures and factors including heredity. Unfortunately, it’s hard to decide what the pressures and factors are because everyone’s internal experience is different. For some, it might be diet talk. For others, it might be pressures in academia. It could be sexual trauma or assault, or mental or emotional trauma. It might start with a diet in high school or college. One might see a movie with a stunning star and think I look nothing like that gorgeous person.


I think if everyone got it right all the time, there would still be eating disorders. Eating disorders are more complex than just the things that we’re able to control. The bottom line is that if a loved one has a preoccupation with a combination of food, weight, shape and size they are at risk of developing an eating disorder.


If your child exhibits behaviors and attitudes that indicate weight loss, dieting or control of food being their primary concern, or control of their weight, shape or size being a primary concern, that is problematic behavior. If they are growing safely and going to regular checkups and you’re working potentially with a professional if you need to, things should be under control. But if their rigidity doesn’t find some room for flexibility over three months, that should be a yellow flag. The time to get another professional on our team or try a different approach.


In Conclusion

Thankfully, there are a lot of great resources available on the internet, help lines, and support groups. Nutritionists, dietitians, clinicians, and treatments are available in a variety of milieus. Raising awareness of behaviors and cultures our clients and their families have grown up with can be a big piece of the family program and family therapy at Sanford Behavioral Health. The good news is that if you are listening to one of my presentations, or reading this article the subject of eating disorders is important to you. So, give yourself a little bit of a break.


Sanford Behavioral Health is licensed and accredited as an addiction, eating disorder, and co-occurring mental health treatment facility, serving all of Michigan and beyond. Each of Sanford’s facilities in Greater Grand Rapids is carefully and diligently crafted to create a welcoming and comforting environment. Sanford is led by a psychiatrist-led team of medical, clinical, and support personnel providing medication-assisted, evidenced-based treatment to residential, outpatient, and telehealth patients. For more information, visit