Healthy Habits

Building an Attitude of Food Gratitude: How to Talk Food with Kids

toddler smiling at lunch

Content provided by the Health & Wellness Team at GBS Benefits

From the Dietitian’s Desk
With Becca Rick, MS, RD

“Clean your plate” and “finish X if you want dessert” are common phrases in many households. Phrases like these are commonly used with good intention to encourage children, but often end up creating pressure and tension around eating. The words and phrases used around mealtime can have a lasting impact on a child’s relationship with food and the emotions and habits they associate with food.

Sensing Hunger and Fullness

The ability to sense hunger and fullness is innate in everyone. When a child overrides these bodily signals due to pressure to eat, the signals become less clear and are eventually dulled enough that they are no longer recognized. Grazing (frequent snacking) between meals can dampen hunger and fullness cues, increase picky eating, and displace more healthful foods at mealtime. Pressure feeding can also worsen picky eating. Instead, try pairing a new food with a favorite or “safe” food. Persistent exposure is key as it can take 20 or more exposures to a food before a toddler will accept it.

When mealtime becomes a stressful battle between the will of the caregiver and the will of the child, a negative relationship develops. You can shape a child’s food habits in a positive way by sitting down at the table, eating together, and establishing a structure of three meals and two to three snacks a day.

Division of Responsibility

Follow the division of responsibility in feeding: It is the caregiver’s responsibility to provide healthy meals and determine when and where to serve them. It is the child’s job to determine what foods are eaten and how much. Learn more about the division of responsibility in feeding at

Positive Food Phrasing

Here are some common food phrases and suggested swaps to create an attitude of gratitude around food:

GoalNegative Food PhrasingPositive Food Phrasing
Teach child to recognize their fullness.“Clean your plate!”“Is your tummy full?”
Avoid becoming a short-order cook by establishing the responsibility of eating what foods are served.“Eat your vegetables!”“You don’t have to eat it. However, these are the foods available for this meal.”
Build a healthy relationship with sweets through strategic exposure.“If you behave well, you can have a treat.”

“If you eat a bite of peas, you can have dessert.”

Place a piece of candy in their lunch box or with meals. By not restricting, candy loses its value as a reward and your child learns to enjoy treats without putting them on a pedestal.
Foster the child’s emotional relationship with food. Avoid the association of parental acceptance through food choices.“Make mommy proud and eat your broccoli!”“You can eat it when you’re ready.”


Build trust around food.

Keep your language around trying new foods neutral, which can help picky eaters stay open-minded about food. Let the child decide what and how much to eat.

“Give me one ‘no thank you’ bite.” (of tomatoes)“Tomatoes are a new food for you. They are red and juicy. They have a small, sweet taste.”


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