Intuitive eating for kids! Raising intuitive eaters is a great approach for helping kids build and maintain a healthy relationship with food and body throughout life. Do’s and don’ts for teaching kids intuitive eating skills.
Intuitive eating is an important skill at any age.
We’re built with this innate tool at birth (e.g., babies crying for milk or refusing more milk), but with so many conflicting messages (and advertising, frequently directed at children) and external influences, it’s not uncommon to lose it fairly early on.
This has many adults consciously trying to put intuitive eating back into practice later in life. And many parents wonder whether raising kids who continue to be intuitive eaters is possible. If this sounds like you – the answer is, yes! Intuitive eating is for everyone.
Teaching intuitive eating to kids is an incredible foundation that can serve them throughout life.
The practice of bringing intentional mindfulness to the table, and removing obstacles and distractions from peaceful and intentional eating, can help set kids up for a healthier relationship with food and their body as they grow up.
What is Intuitive Eating?
The concept of intuitive eating was created in 1995 by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
It’s an approach to eating that honors your health by listening and responding to what your body needs. Even better, it’s based on science!
Intuitive eating teaches us to be in-tune with our body’s needs, respect our cravings, and follow our own hunger-fullness cues. It’s not a diet, a meal plan, or a quick-fix for anything.
It’s intended to get our minds back in the food game in a healthy way. Then. we can feed our bodies in the way we’re meant to.
Intuitive eating skills are absolutely things you can help your children be aware of and master, too.
Do’s & Don’ts For Raising Intuitive Eaters
If you want to help your kids develop intuitive eating skills, keep these tips in mind!
Don’t restrict sweets.
Do: Offer sweets and desserts regularly, in moderate amounts – even alongside a meal or snack.
We’re not saying to make ice cream sundae bars a nightly routine or to make cookies the focal point of the dinner plate. But we are saying that offering treats as a normal part of your family’s meal pattern (and not as part of a reward/punishment system) is a good idea.
Why? Making sweets more normal places them on a level playing field with healthier foods. This is instead of on a pedestal of perceived high value.
In fact, restricting foods like these can actually backfire and have the opposite effect than intended, making kids crave them more – which can eventually lead to sneaking food and feelings of shame.
So what should this look like? Maybe it’s offering a piece of chocolate with certain meals, tossing a cookie into their school lunch, or offering a small candy alongside a piece of fruit for a snack.
Involve the family in a homemade dessert night, maybe even substituting some healthier ingredients (like making frozen banana ice cream, or using pitted dates in a pie crust for a natural sweetener).
And of course, dessert can also look like less traditional naturally-sweet treats in the form of fresh fruit, like a bowl of berries with a little whipped topping or some shaved chocolate on top.
Don’t label foods as healthy vs. unhealthy.
Do: Talk about the benefits of foods you offer in kid-friendly ways.
“Healthy” and “unhealthy” labels come across the same as “good” and “bad” foods, and neither is very helpful for raising intuitive eaters.
They can also place a certain stigma around foods and push kids away from eating the ones that actually do have nutritional value.
For instance, think about how this appears when you’re having conversations around the dinner table. Instead of saying things like, “Broccoli is so good for you! Will you please try some?” try “I wonder if this broccoli tastes different cooked than it does raw?”
Try other descriptive words, too.
For instance, say: “This apple is crunchy and tart!” rather than describing how “yummy” it tastes, or how healthy it is for them to eat. Kids don’t need nutrition lessons, and we recommend to focus on the physical attributes of food, how it tastes/smells/sounds and maybe even some fun lessons around where it comes from.
Don’t barter around what and how much to eat.
Do: Offer well-balanced meals and allow your child to decide what and how much they need.
We advocate for the Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DOR), a concept designed by fellow dietitian, Ellyn Satter.
In DOR, it’s your job as the parent to provide healthy, balanced, and appropriate foods for your child. It’s your child’s job, then, to decide what to eat, and how much to eat, to support optimal growth and fill their tummy.
That’s it! No deals, no threats, no bartering – as these can all end up backfiring and don’t support intuitive eating.
And if you’re concerned about how much (or little, rather) that your child is eating, food play is a great tool – especially for younger kids.
Food play is an approach designed to engage all of your child’s senses at the table and remove the pressure around eating. See this post for some food play ideas you can try.
Give it a Try!
All of these tips are designed to allow for flexible structure. Kids need boundaries and routines, but they also need some independence to make food choices that meet their body’s needs.
Gently encourage your child to learn how to fuel themselves well through consistency, positive reinforcement, and choice. It can take some time to get used to – and some patience – but we truly believe teaching intuitive eating to kids is one of the best tools we can give them.
Intuitive eating for kids is a great opportunity for all families. Raising intuitive eaters is an excellent approach for helping kids build and maintain a healthy relationship with food and body throughout their life. If you’re interested in practicing it, keep these do’s and don’ts for teaching kids intuitive eating in mind.
Chime In: What are some areas where you can make some positive changes to help your babe become an intuitive eater?
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I love this approach but am curious when you offer a well balanced meal that does include sweets/dessert-y type foods, what do you do if that’s the main food they keep asking for more of and ignore the rest of the food on the plate? Do you continue to give them more or are there tactics to pivot to the other foods.
Hi Sarah– short and long answer 🙂
We believe in using the Division of Responsibility and Responsive Feeding frameworks when it comes to feeding kids of all ages– which generally means both knowing that you are in charge of what and when is being offered while also being compassionate and responsive to your child’s needs. If you are choosing to give a dessert for that meal and your child really loves it and wants more of it, then we’d typically recommend giving more of it. Consider any potential harm that may be done in refusing more– will they want that food more? If given the opportunity, will they try and sneak/overeat that food the next time it’s offered? I know in the short term it can feel hard, but the goal in feeding is really that long term approach– I care less about how many “healthy” foods my kids eat at that moment and more on their eating competency in the long term and knowing intuitively how to balance sweets/desserts with other foods. And, also the reminder that you get to decide what foods are being served. So, when I don’t put out dessert and then my kids ask for it, I say “You want dessert tonight, but that’s not on the menu today. We’ll have some tomorrow.” And then follow though– we want our kids to trust our messages around food and also to feel supported that the foods they like show up on the menu too. There is a LOT of nuance in responsive feeding based on child’s personality, but in general this is what we recommend.
Very helpful guidance. Thank you!
Christina Goldfield says
Such a good question and very helpful answer – thank you both!!
Hi! I have been trying to approach food in this way for my 2 year old. But I get nervous that she is just too busy of a toddler to actually focus on eating. She sits at the table for most meals/snacks. When she says she’s done, I always question as to if she just wants to play more or if she is actually al done eating (especially if she only ate a couple of bites). So sometimes if she says she’s all done but hasn’t eaten much, I feed her by holding the spoonfull of foodand letting her initiate actually taking the bite. Do you have any pointers for a super busy little lady?