9 Phrases to Avoid When Your Child Doesn't Want to Eat

When children don't want to eat, parents get desperate and don't know what to do. Often, we resort to phrases that do not help at all. We tell you what you should avoid saying if you want to improve mealtimes.
9 Phrases to Avoid When Your Child Doesn't Want to Eat
Mara Amor López

Written and verified by the psychologist Mara Amor López.

Last update: 13 December, 2022

When children don’t want to eat or continually have a poor appetite, parents get worried and try to do everything possible to reverse the situation. However, sometimes they go about it the wrong way, due to the desperation they experience. That’s when they use phrases that, rather than convincing the child to enjoy the act of eating, only make the situation worse.

It’s important to take into account that we must avoid using phrases, actions, or comparisons that transform mealtime into a traumatic moment for children and for parents. For this reason, in this article, we put together a compilation of phrases that you shouldn’t say to children when they don’t want to eat. That way, you can see if these phrases are in your repertoire or not and start avoiding them. Let’s get to it!

These are the phrases you shouldn’t say to children when they don’t want to eat

There are children who have a hard time eating or who constantly say they don’t like food. This turns lunch or dinner time into a nightmare for them and for their parents. We all care about our children and making sure they’re well-fed is one of our missions, hence the desperation. So, many of us have used phrases that we think may help, but that do more damage than good in the long run.

Here, we’ll offer you a compilation of phrases that you shouldn’t use if you want your children to eat well and have a positive relationship with food.

1. “You won’t grow if you don’t eat.”

With this type of phrase, the only thing you’ll achieve is making children feel guilty. This is a form of emotional blackmail that hurts them. What we can explain to them is that eating helps us to grow strong and healthy and to develop in the right way. Therefore, it’s important that they eat well.

A small child sitting at the table refusing to eat.
Threatening children with punishment for not eating is pointless and unhelpful. It can also affect the parent’s relationship with the child.

2. “Eat everything on your plate or else…!”

Threatening your children with punishments if they don’t want to eat makes no sense and won’t help at all. How would you like to be punished for not eating something you don’t like or for not eating because you’re already full? If you use this phrase and carry out our threat, the only thing you’ll achieve is that your child will associate food with a negative moment, whether they continue to refuse to eat or they eat out of obligation. In addition, we’ll also break the trust in our relationship.

3. “If you don’t eat your food, then no dessert!”

This phrase is another threat that may or may not get your child to eat, but either way, they’ll end up having a negative relationship with food. There are other forms of threats hidden in phrases such as the following: “Eat it all and you can go to the park” or “If you eat it all, we can go to the movies”.

4. “Look how well your brother eats”

Comparisons are never good and neither are comparisons when it comes to eating. You shouldn’t compare your child with another, as each child is unique and shouldn’t feel like they have to be like anyone else.

5. “Open your mouth, the plane is coming”

This phrase may seem harmless, but when we use it, we do it to distract their attention and put the spoon in their mouth. Of course, it’s not the most harmful of scenarios. Even so, we shouldn’t teach our children to eat while distracted, with the TV on, or with other distractions, as this will take away their awareness of the experience. If they always eat with distractions, they won’t want to do so if they don’t have them. What’s more, they won’t pay attention to how much they’re eating and may develop a tendency to overeat.

6. “Grandma will be sad if you don’t eat the food she so lovingly prepared”

This is another phrase that counts as emotional blackmail. We make the child feel responsible for someone else’s emotions, when in fact, another person’s emotional state doesn’t depend on them, and they shouldn’t be made to feel responsible for pleasing others.

A child who doens't want to eat the food in front of him at the table.
Phrases with comparisons or disqualifications affect the emotions of children and don’t solve the problem regarding food.

7. “You eat like a baby”

Phrases like this, or saying things like “you should eat like a big boy/girl”, are very negative, as children experience them as disqualifications that have a high emotional load. We mustn’t forget that children must be respected, even if they refuse to eat.

8. “So many children in the world are hungry, and here you are wasting food”

If children aren’t responsible for our well-being, then they’re even less responsible for the well-being of the rest of the world’s children. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that because we say these kinds of phrases, we make our children more sensitive to the serious situation of many small children on the planet. On the contrary, all we do is make them feel bad about their own tastes and decisions.

9. “If you eat your vegetables, I’ll give you ice cream”

Trying to get our children to eat foods they don’t like by rewarding them with sweet desserts isn’t a good resource. They’ll end up understanding that the former are undesireable foods and the latter are all the more desirable. This won’t help their experience with food and can lead them to obsess over those foods you use as a reward.

Phrases that can be harmful when children don’t want to eat

It’s true that mealtimes can become an ordeal for parents when children don’t want to eat. In any case, there are certain things you shouldn’t do if you want this situation to improve. For example, you can start by eliminating from your vocabulary the phrases we’ve mentioned in the above list. The only thing you’ll achieve with them is turning this moment into a real nightmare for the whole family.

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