Ask the Dietitian: What to Say: How to Discuss Diet and Weight Issues with a Child or Teen

I am frequently asked how to discuss diet and weight issues with a child or teen. My go-to answer is “Don’t”. However, I recognize that this does not fully address the concerns of parents, family members, and other health professionals.

Recently, an article was shared with me that was published on the F.E.A.S.T. website called “How Can I Help? A guide for family and friends.” F.E.A.S.T. is a non-profit organization for parents and caregivers of loved ones affected by eating disorders. The article gave me pause and has since been rolling around in the back of my mind, intermingling with lessons I’ve learned over the years as a parent and a dietitian. So I’m excited to write this blog post as a starting point for what I hope will evolve into a useful tool for anyone who ever interacts with different-sized people or people who have different health challenges than their own (read… that means everyone!)

Do not comment on other people’s bodies.

My first tip on how to discuss diet and weight issues with a child or teen is not commenting on other people’s bodies. This includes babies, toddlers, children and teenagers. Things people say with good intent: “Oh, you’re SO tall!”, “You look like you work out,” “Wow, you’ve lost some weight! You look great!” “Are you eating enough? You look so thin.” “You shouldn’t eat that, it’s not good for you.” “You can’t be hungry again, you just ate!”

All statements of this sort are presumptive and judgmental. They are spoken from one person’s lens, without consideration of what the recipient may be experiencing. Children take these comments from family members even more personally than if it were an acquaintance. Even challenging children are wired innately to please parents and caregivers. The moment we draw interest to appearance and diet, we are giving attention and communicating that it is important to us. The child’s natural response will be the reinforcement of the behavior, or if it’s unachievable, shame.  

Teach by Inquiry, Not By Command

What I mean is that a child will be more positively responsive to a question in which they have choice and power such as “Are you full?” than a statement such as “That’s enough. You’ve eaten plenty.” Both can elicit the child to reflect upon their appetite, but using a question gives the child/person dignity and agency, which promotes better decision-making now and next time. The latter promotes anger and a lack of control. 

Don’t Talk About Your Diet in Front of Children and Teens

If you are trying to make some healthy changes for yourself, do it subtly and attempt to blend in with what other family members are doing at meal times.

Good Foods and Bad Foods

Don’t make disparaging self-righteous comments that create a sense of good foods and bad foods. For example, “I don’t eat fried foods, they’re bad for you.” or “I read that dairy causes acne. I would never consume dairy.” No one eats perfectly all the time and all foods can fit into a balanced lifestyle as long as there is no allergy or food intolerance. You’re not perfect.

Language Matters

If you overate, don’t discuss how full you feel, how fat you are getting, that you need to work out, or that you are going to skip the next meal to compensate. This type of commentary connects eating to shame.

“Picky” Eater

If your child is a picky eater, don’t focus on that. Don’t label the child as “picky”. Don’t advertise your frustration about it to other people, ESPECIALLY NOT in front of your child. Set a good example, continue to offer a variety of foods to everyone at every meal, and give your child some space to experience new foods until he/she becomes more comfortable with tasting them on their own.

When Your Child Isn’t Aware

If your child’s BMI is elevated and the child is NOT aware that he/she is overweight, don’t turn it into a focus or give it attention. If changes need to be made in the food or exercise routine, make changes that are good for the entire family. Don’t point out “Good” and “Bad” foods. Cook and serve what you know you should all be eating, don’t provide extra portions, keep junk food out of your house (trust me, there are plenty of opportunities at other life events for these treats) and get the entire family more active.

When Your Child Is Aware

If your child’s BMI IS elevated and the child is aware he/she is overweight, do not deny it or pretend like it is fine. The child already knows and feels self-conscious, and your denial leads to a lack of trust in you as the caregiver. I said Care.Giver. Giving care requires solutions. We tend to get caught up with BMI as if it’s a choice or a character judgment. An elevated BMI is a health diagnosis. It indicates that a change or a treatment may be necessary to keep your child well. Many medical treatments are uncomfortable – think about shots, IV’s, surgeries. As the parent, since it is your job to assist your child’s growth and development in the healthiest way possible (physically AND emotionally), you may need to implement food or exercise adjustments that make you or your child uncomfortable. Your child appreciates that you are setting boundaries for them, because children need boundaries and the support you provide to keep them safe and look out for their best interests. 


Don’t use derogatory labels such as the “F” word (fat). That includes the “S” word (skinny), and any other terminology that puts a person in a category. We are all individuals.

Restrictions and Child Behaviors

Lastly, if your child is hiding food or sneaking food, this is a behavior letting you know that the child feels shame. Ask yourself why. Is the environment too restricted? Are there perceptions of “good” and “bad” foods in the home? Are there unrealistic examples or expectations being set? How can you create a more positive environment? (the answer is usually in one of the above tips).

If you read to the end of this, well-done. If you discovered some areas that you can work on, don’t feel badly or beat yourself up. You are a kind-hearted person who is seeking information to be the best you that you can be. And now, I think I’ll go start a blog on BMI…

Written by Betsy Hjelmgren, MS, RDN, CSP, LDN, and Founder of Feed to Succeed LLC.

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