Creating Healthy Mental Food Perceptions in Kids

Not only can parents help instill good eating habits in children, but they also have significant influence over a child’s mental perceptions about food, a CHOC Children’s psychologist says.

“Food does more than just fulfill our basic needs for sustenance,” says Dr. Cindy Kim, a psychologist with expertise in pediatric feeding disorders. “Food also gets associated with a sense of comfort, fullness, safety and pleasure.”

Dr. Kim advises parents against linking food to rewards or consolation, as well as punishment. For example, consider a father taking a child for ice cream after a rough day. This activity might seem benign, but it can encourage children to turn to food in future tough times.healthy food perceptions

“It’s getting associated in our brains, memories and emotional states, and the food gets paired with the memory of my dad comforting me,” Dr. Kim explains. “That’s when those indirect meanings behind food can get formed.”

Avoid labeling, banning foods

Conversely, parents who label certain foods as bad, or outlaw specific foods, can set their children up for overeating and bingeing, Dr. Kim says.

“When you start banning a specific food, it can lead the child to have an unhealthy relationship with that food,” she says. “It’s human nature: If you tell someone they can’t have something, they usually want it even more.”

Children most definitely pick up on parents’ attitudes about food, and will notice if mom or dad obviously dislikes or avoids certain foods. This can be especially tricky for parents who are dieting or working to overcome food issues.

“When you’re teaching a child that you should eat all your food groups, but then you sit down and only have a smoothie, kids form an opinion and a concept about food that’s not mirroring the value that you’re intending to promote,” Dr. Kim says.

Strive for lifelong healthy eating

To reinforce positive mental associations with food for their children, the best thing parents can do is work to model good eating habits that a child should emulate.

Think beyond diets, and instead focus on good nutrition, Dr. Kim says. The former implies temporality, but the goal should be lifelong healthy choices, living and eating.

Further, parents should be mindful of their verbal and nonverbal cues about food: A child will notice if a parent grimaces when presented with a disliked food, and the child will assign a value to that food based on his parents’ reaction, she says.

Also, parents should try to speak neutrally about food, she adds.

“We encourage parents to frame things positively: ‘Your dad likes hamburgers, but I like them a little bit,’” Dr. Kim says. “Stay away from, ‘You’ll get fat if you eat that.’ Words can have a long lasting effect on children and how they see food and their bodies.”

Other tips for healthy food attitudes

Here are some other tips from Dr. Kim to help cultivate a child’s healthy mental food associations:

  • Eat family meals – Children are more likely to try new foods if they see parents enjoying them.
  • Work together – Encourage healthy eating choices by food shopping and preparing meals together. This presents an opportunity to talk about nutrition. Also, children are more likely to try a new food if they help prepare it.
  • Don’t clear plates – Emphasize that children should eat until they’re full – whether or not their plate is clear.
  • Eat with structure – Discourage sitting in front of television and eating mindlessly, as well as grazing throughout the day. This prevents children from noticing physiological cues of satiety/fullness.
  • Offer choices – Giving kids options between foods can help steer them toward new and healthful foods without infringing upon independence.

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Kids and Healthy Eating Habits

“It’s important to offer children a wide variety of foods so they can try new things,” says Dr. Alexandra Roche, a CHOC Children’s Pediatric Specialist. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are always the best for kids. One of my biggest recommendations is to limit sweetened beverages as much as possible. Encouraging milk and water is best, with juice being okay once a day. Soda should only be for special occasions. Snacks or weeknight desserts can be yogurt with fruit, and then on the weekends, maybe dessert can be a special treat like cookies. Whole grains help keep people full longer, so offer whole wheat bread and pasta as opposed to white or highly processed foods.” For healthy snacks, Dr. Roche suggests granola, apple slices with peanut butter, carrots, hummus, fruit smoothies and low-fat yogurt.

“It takes children a long time to get used to a new food so just because they don’t like it once doesn’t mean they won’t eat it later. Offer new foods multiple times in different situations, and many times the kids will get used to them,” says Dr. Roche. In addition, she says, “Parents should also be willing to try new foods because they are role models. Parents should model good eating habits. Eating dinner as a family together at the table definitely helps to establish good habits. People consume about 20 percent more calories when they are eating in front of the television. It’s like mindless eating.”

Overweight and obese children face many serious health threats. As kids, these threats include high blood pressure, joint problems and low self-esteem. Obese children and adolescents are likely to be obese as adults and are more at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Obese youths are two times more likely to die before the age of 55 compared to their healthy weight counterparts and 80 percent of obese teens will be obese adults. This is why prevention and early intervention is key,” says Dr. Roche.


  • The number of U.S. children and teens who are overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate from 1963: More than 1 in 3
  • Percent of obese children with abnormally high cholesterol levels: 40 %
  • Percent of obese teens who will become obese adults: 80 %


View the full feature on Healthy Eating Habits

Dr. Alexandra Roche
Dr. Alexandra Roche
CHOC Pediatric Specialist

PHYSICIAN FOCUS: Dr. Alexandra Roche

Dr. Roche, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is on staff at the CHOC Primary Care Clinic in Orange. Dr. Roche completed her residency at CHOC. She focuses much of her patient practice on obesity and eating disorders in adolescents.
Dr. Roche’s philosophy of care: “I think every child has the potential to be a stellar human being and I want to help them reach their potential in any way I can.”

New York Medical College in New York


More about Dr. Alexandra Roche

This article was featured in the Orange County Register on May 5, 2104, and was written by Amy Bentley.