What is Food Neutrality?
Written by: Raschelle Sabourin, Registered Dietitian
Reviewed by: Nüton’s Registered Dietitians
Food neutrality means all foods have the same moral value. No foods are inherently “good” or “bad” or “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
What is the Issue?
Growing up, did you hear comments that certain foods are “good” and “bad” or “healthy” and “unhealthy”? While this is a well-intentioned approach to food education, it can affect a kids’ relationship with food.
The problem with labelling foods as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”, “junk” or “superfoods” is that it creates a food hierarchy. Kids may feel guilt or shame about eating (or not eating!) certain foods when we put labels on them.1
When adults label foods with positive or negative associations, kids can transfer those feelings towards themselves. Have you ever said to yourself, “I was bad today; I ate cookies?” What you eat (or don’t eat) does not define the kind of a person you are. You are not a good or bad person for eating either cookies or an apple.
So, what is a helpful approach to use?
Using a Food Neutral Approach Can Help
Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and family therapist, explains food neutrality as:
- All foods have the same moral value
- No food is valued over another
- No foods are inherently “good” or “bad” or “healthy” or “unhealthy”
- All judgment from food is removed
By using a food neutral approach, we can give ourselves permission to eat foods that we enjoy without having feelings of guilt or shame.
Foods aren’t Nutritionally the Same, but they Should be Morally the Same
We’re not saying that cookies have the same nutritional profile as apples. Simply put, foods contain different nutrients. Food neutrality focuses on removing the moral judgments from food, thereby removing judgment about oneself and others for eating foods.
What does a Food Neutral Classroom or Childcare Centre look like?
Food neutrality focuses on taking the attention away from the benefits or consequences of food items. More specifically, it looks at creating a non-judgmental environment for children to feel safe eating a variety of foods.
How can you start Implementing Food Neutrality right away?
- Presenting all foods as acceptable or morally equivalent. Avoid grouping foods as “good” and “bad” or “healthy” and “unhealthy.”
- Calling foods by their names. For example, instead of calling a food a “treat,” call it a “chocolate bar.”
- Describing foods objectively based on things like colour, texture and flavour.
- Replacing food rewards with non-food related rewards (e.g., extended recess, music or a dance party).
- When kids try new foods, avoid praising. Congratulating someone for eating a certain food still feels like pressure, even though it’s positive. Instead, remain neutral by saying, “I see you tried it; how did you like it?” or avoid commenting altogether. This is hard to unlearn!
- Allowing kids to eat all foods they bring and in the order they prefer.
- Focusing on providing opportunities for kids to learn about safe food handling practices, food skills, and exploration of various foods.
- Role modelling flexible eating.
- Following the Division of Responsibility.
Are Your Education Materials Food Neutral? Consider Starting Here:
- Review nutrition education and resources
Do an audit on the resources you’re using with your students, lesson plans, and an environmental scan of your classroom. Are the messages shared in the resources and shown in your classroom reflecting food neutrality?
- Reflect on the language you’re using
How are you referring to different foods with kids? Could you change the way you talk about food to be neutral? What is preventing you from doing so e.g. curriculum guidelines?
- Review activities you use for rewarding kids
Are you rewarding kids with food to complete tasks, activities, or good behaviour? Could you reward kids with different activities instead?
What’s the Bottom Line?
Adopting food neutral language can help improve kids’ relationships with food and their body. It also supports kids in the long-term process of learning to eat a variety of foods.
You can start making small changes in your classroom or centre right away. Changing the way we talk about food can take time. Give yourself patience as you implement new ways of thinking and talking about food.
Nüton’s Free Workshops:
Nüton has created workshops for educators in schools and childcare centres that provide helpful strategies for implementing food neutrality. Book a free workshop here.
General eating advice: The eating advice in this blog is based on Ellyn Satter’s principles and guidelines. For more about Satter’s work, see: ellynsatterinstitute.org.
- Tribole, Evelyn. Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition. St Martin’s Press, 2020.