Things Parents and Grandparents Say That Can Cause Eating & Weight Problems

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MILWAUKEE, Wisc. – Parents can sometimes forget that they are raising adults, not children. The goal is to equip kids with the skills and increasing responsibility for managing their lives without constant vigilance, according to Michelle May, M.D., author, board-certified family physician, and expert for TOPS Club, Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), the nonprofit weight-loss support organization.

One key life skill is the ability to navigate an abundant food environment while maintaining optimal health. Here are seven things that well-meaning parents commonly say that may have unintended consequences – and what to say instead:


1. You are such a good eater! – Children want nothing more than to please their parents. While mealtime should be a pleasant time to connect with your children, eating should remain intrinsically driven to meet your child’s fuel needs, NOT to earn your praise.

What you could say instead: You must have been really hungry today! Or, I love spending time with you while we have dinner.

2. You are such a picky eater! – All children (and adults) have some foods that they just don’t like. Some children are highly taste and/or texture sensitive, but most will outgrow it. Picky eating becomes an entrenched behavior when we berate, beg, bribe – or worse, feed kids only what they say they’ll eat.

What you could say instead: I know you didn’t like it last time; tell me what you think about it today after you have one polite bite. Or, Did you know your taste buds grow up just like you do? I wonder if you like this big kid food yet?

3. Clean your plate; there are starving children in ________. – Avoid teaching children scarcity eating behaviors in our plentiful food environment.

What you could say instead: It’s important to not be wasteful, so please only take as much as you think you need. Or, If you’re full, we can save the rest for later.

4. You have to eat all your vegetables or there will be no dessert. – Kids are smart. When you bribe them for eating certain foods, they quickly realize that those foods must be yucky and that dessert is the reward. They also learn to hold out until a reward is offered.

What you could say instead: I love all kinds of different foods – some that make me healthy and strong and some that are just for fun. What kinds of foods do you like? Or, Enjoy your dinner. We’ll be having dessert in a couple hours.

5. Eat all your dinner or you don’t get dessert. – This variation on the threat above translates to “you must overeat and I will reward you by giving you more to eat!” Children naturally love sweet foods, so they can learn to override their fullness signals. As an adult, they might be temped to order a 1,200-calorie salad to “earn” a 1,200-calorie piece of cheesecake.

What you could say instead: Save room for dessert tonight!

6. I was so bad at lunch today! Now I have to spend an extra hour on the treadmill. – Children are born to move. They naturally love exploring their environment, challenging themselves, and playing actively. Unfortunately, the messages they get from adults teach them that exercise is punishment for eating.

What you could say instead: I ate more than I needed and now I feel too full and uncomfortable. I think a walk would make me feel better. Want to join me? Or, anybody up for a bike ride?

7. I am so gross and fat! Or, I can’t believe _______ has let herself go! – Kids learn from us even when we think they aren’t listening. Statements like this teach kids that it’s okay to put yourself and others down and judge people for their weight or other physical attributes. Perhaps they also secretly wonder what you really think about them.

What you could say instead: I’m not perfect, but I do my best to make healthy choices.

And whatever else you say, remember to say often… I love you just the way you are.

TOPS Club Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), the original, nonprofit weight-loss support and wellness education organization, was established more than 63 years ago to champion weight-loss support and success. Founded and headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, TOPS promotes successful, affordable weight management with a philosophy that combines healthy eating, regular exercise, wellness information, and support from others at weekly chapter meetings. TOPS has about 170,000 members in nearly 10,000 chapters throughout the United States and Canada.

Visitors are welcome to attend their first TOPS meeting free of charge. To find a local chapter, visit or call (800) 932-8677.

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