Kids, the original intuitive eaters. From the very beginning, you cry and you are fed. When a baby is done eating, he or she will turn away and there is no forcing a baby to have more. They can truly respect their fullness. Toddlers too — they are fascinating to watch eat. They eat what sounds good and when they are done, they are done. One day my daughter loves mac and cheese, then the next day it doesn’t really sound good, so she’ll leave half of it and eat the other options on the plate. So interesting. Why am I writing about intuitive eating and kids if they already have the ability? Well, I want to illustrate that we all were intuitive eaters once, but that often gets hijacked at some point in life. We heard someone in our lives talk about food or bodies in a way that made us think, “there is something wrong with me and I need to change”. Thus, doubt in our own ability to feed ourselves and trust our bodies is born.
There are many ways that food rules can start, and they don’t always start in the home, but they can. You may remember some rules from when you were growing up; being told you couldn’t leave the table until you finish your vegetables, or “just take one more bite” when you knew you were full, or getting to have ice cream because you ate all of your meal. Those are some examples of ways we interfere with kids and their eating behaviors. The way we talk about food and our bodies as parents can shape our kids’ views. I am not sharing this to stress you out, rather to see it as an opportunity to help our children have a positive relationship with food and their bodies. It starts with looking within ourselves.
Learning how to heal my relationship with food and my body has helped me talk to my family and hopefully send a more positive message. It has also been an area I have to maintain some boundaries for myself and remember that not everyone is ready to accept their bodies or heal their relationship with food.
Currently, our little one is very intuitive. She eats what and how much she wants, and if she isn’t hungry, she doesn’t eat. It is very important to me that she hears a strong and positive message about food. Food is a big part of our family and I want her to feel safe around food. I also want her to be able to trust her body, and that starts with us as her parents not interfering. Studies have shown the more you try to micromanage your kids eating, the more likely they are to struggle with their relationship with food. Which is kind of nice, because it means we can relax a little. (With that I can honestly say I am not a relaxed parent — haha. I worry about lots of stuff, but not food, not anymore.)
A few tips for raising intuitive eaters:
1. Heal your relationship with food, if it needs healing (in the meantime, fake it ‘til you make it). If you talk down about your food choices or your body, your kids will pick up on that. I heard someone once say something along the lines of “Your child thinks you are perfection, so if you are saying negative things about yourself, what then does that child then think of themselves.” Food applies too; if you are always talking about food in a “good” versus “bad” way, they will pick up on this. If you talk about you being “good” or “bad” based on what you ate that day, then they will think that about themselves too. Remove the guilt and shame from your food talk.
2. Provide options and aim for balance. Aim to include different colors and textures. Offer a variety of nutrients at meals and snacks. Balance over a week is good enough, even if you offer fruits and vegetables at every meal, it is OK if none of it gets eaten. Usually over the course of a week, kids and adults alike will get all of what they need. You can also introduce the concept of nutrition, explaining that food provides us with energy and helps us grow. Calling these foods “growing” foods is likely more helpful than calling foods “healthy” or telling them it is “good for them.” Growing foods and fun foods are both important to include in the conversation and at the table.
3. Just keep offering. It takes a lot of exposures to different types of foods for kids to really gain a preference. It is okay if they don’t want to try it, but keep offering lots of different options and variety at meals. You can also try describing the foods; using words like crunchy, sweet or sour and see if that makes them more interested. I know some parents have luck with cutting foods into different shapes or using fun utensils to keep things interesting. Letting them explore their food and play is all part of the process.
4. Let them eat or not eat, it is up to them. As parents we provide the options of what food is available and some basic guidance around when meals and snacks are. Have you ever noticed if you eat a lot at one meal, you are typically not as hungry when the next meal rolls around? That is totally normal and intuitive. Your kids have that same ability — let them use it.
Lastly, I will say being a parent is really hard. My daughter is only four so I have a lot left to learn still. This advice is rooted in my clinical experience with clients and from my education/research about feeding children and one’s relationships with food and body image. But, I know what works for some doesn’t always work for others. I want to also extend some compassion for anyone out there who dealt with food rules as a child or is passing some of those along. It is OK. Most parents are very well-meaning when they say things to their kids about food and health. It comes from a good place and while some of it might not be super helpful, a lot of times parents don’t know any other way. This, my friends, is another way!