When talking to clients, the family table is almost always an early topic of discussion. So much of our development around food and eating behavior comes from the time spent sharing meals with those we love. Sometimes, the stories from the family table are cherished like my memories of my dad’s not-so-funny jokes (that we laughed at anyway) or my mom’s spaghetti casserole that was a family favorite. We learn so much about family dynamics, values, and cultural impact around the family table. But, not all memories are fond ones. Sometimes table talk leads to fear, disconnection, and the loss of self-regulation. Our table talk can support a child’s resilience or perpetuate the dangers of diet culture.

Children can be assertive when their self-regulation is being imposed upon.

It’s hard as a parent. We get so much information about diet, health, and raising kids. The information never stops and often contradicts our gut instincts. When in doubt, go with conversation and strategies that help our kids maintain the amazing self-regulation tools they’re born with.  Even if, as parents, we feel that we’ve lost that ability ourselves (we’ve got you covered in Chapter 10 of Born To Eat). Here are some common, yet harmful, table conversations and the reasons we should stop having them right now.

“How many calories are in this?” –  Calories are simply a measure of energy, a rough measure at that. If we want our children to be able to self-regulate (eat when hungry and stop when full), we can undermine it with calorie talk. Calorie counting is a perceived external control. It is the complete opposite of eating when hungry and stopping when full which is an internal control mechanism – one that worked well for us humans for thousands of years. We are far more sophisticated than calories in and calories out.

“That’s not on my diet.” – Diet talk is an unwelcome visitor at any table. Not only does it undermine self-regulation, it can cause children to fear certain foods. A healthy relationship with food and body is not rooted in fearing food. Diets are futile and set children and adults alike up for failure, weight concerns, and disordered eating. Dieting talk doesn’t belong at the table, near little ears, or anywhere really.

“This is so fattening!” –  Thanks to diet industry marketing and some lobbyist-fueled guidelines, we fear fat in our diets. Fat is a necessary macronutrient that helps us feel satisfied and provides energy for the body to use. When we use fat in this way, we perpetuate the use of the word fat as negative or unpleasing. People have fat in their bodies. Fat in a body is normal and regardless of size, all bodies are good bodies. See how far that comment goes…

“Are you really going to eat that?” – Yes, I am. And, mind your own plate! When we suggest that a child shouldn’t eat what they’re eating we’ve lost track of the Division of Responsibility. Parents are in charge of what, when, and where food is eaten. Children are in charge of if and how much they’ll eat. This comment questions their self-regulation and can diminish their confidence in eating. This goes for adults as well. It’s okay to teach a child to be assertive when they feel their self-regulation is being imposed upon from another person (friends, lunchroom monitors, etc). My little gal says “mind your own plate!”

The Born To Eat dietitians recommend Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility

“Why don’t you finish that, it’s only a few more bites.” –  Insisting that a child (or adult) eat food just because there are a few bites left undermines self-regulation and teaches overeating. If a child is finished or their “tummy is done,” a few more bites may teach them to override their innate cues. This goes for adults as well. I’m sure many of us were in the clean plate club. I finally recovered from clean plate eating in college. What we learn at the table lingers – sometimes for a lifetime.

These are just a few phrases that undermine self-regulation. In our diet culture, there are so many. We recommend keeping mealtimes pleasant with phrases that support body trust for everyone.

“What’s your tummy saying?”

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