Intuitive eating is essentially normal eating. You know, the kind where you eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and don’t equate your self-worth with what’s on your plate. Children ~naturally~ practice intuitive eating. However, most kids learn to ignore their bodies’ natural hunger and fullness cues because, well, mom + dad said to clean their plate, or bread is bad for you, or some other BS that disempowers children and complicates their relationship with food.
Your relationship with food is a lifelong kind of gig, starting way earlier than most people think. So, when it comes to food and little kids? Let’s try to be more intentional. As an early childhood professional and eating disorder survivor, I have a few ideas to help your kids get a healthy start when it comes to eating intuitively.
Growing Up Well: Intuitive Eating Tips for Kids
1| Learn the Norms
Children are objectively weird. Their eating habits? Also typically pretty weird. Here are a few facts about young children’s eating habits. Learn them. Embrace them. (Oh yeah, and try not to stress so much!)
- It’s normal for young children to eat a lot some days and barely anything on other days. A good rule of thumb is this: If your pediatrician isn’t concerned, you probably shouldn’t be either.
- You might need to serve your child a new food a dozen times(!) before they’re willing to try it. It’s normal for kids to be slow to try new foods – don’t push too hard, just keep trying
- Not all children hate broccoli (but they might start hating it if you act like they should). The 1-year-old I nanny for loves raw onions and capers but won’t eat bread or cake. You never know. So try your best not to push your food biases onto your little one.
- If your child is a picky eater, that’s normal, too. Children’s taste buds are different than adults, so some foods genuinely taste worse to them. Keep offering new foods, don’t be afraid to offer their favorites on the regular, and be patient – they’ll most likely grow out of it sooner or later.
2| Avoid Labeling Foods as “Good” or “Bad”
I grew up with two serial dieters as parents, so I learned real quick which foods were “good” and which ones were “bad”.
That kind of thinking set the foundation for me to start cutting out “bad” foods at 10 years old and, at 11 years old, developing a legitimate fear of those “bad” foods. For me, this culminated in a serious eating disorder that stuck with me for more than a decade. Of course, some children have a similar background and don’t end up with an eating disorder. But let’s be real: It’s not worth the risk.
And, no, the word “healthy” doesn’t get a free pass, either.
It’s probably more common now to hear labels like “healthy” or “unhealthy” when we talk to kids about food, but those terms aren’t really any better. Why? Because the problem isn’t the words themselves but the fact that we’re setting children up to develop rigid, black-and-white ways of thinking about food from an early age.
So, how ~should~ we talk to kids about food, then?
Instead of categorizing foods outright as healthy/unhealthy, shift the conversation to help children understand the effects of different types of food on their bodies.
Let children know that the food they eat provides energy for their bodies. Certain types of food perform specific jobs for their bodies, and other foods perform different types of jobs. And, as in all things in life, emphasize balance.
3| Don’t Use Food As a Reward
Should you reward your dog with a treat? Sure. (Good boy!) But rewarding your child with an ice cream cone, organic all-fruit popsicle, or any other edible “treat”? Not the best idea.
Here’s why –
When you teach your child that food is a reward, you’re also teaching them some pretty messed-up ideas about food, such as:
- Food has to be earned. This can lead to vulnerable children developing a variety of emotional eating behaviors, including punishing themselves by restricting food or purging.
- Some foods are rarer and more desirable than others. This idea can trigger binge-eating in some children.
- Food can help you cope with your emotions. This is the big one. When children learn to use food to cope with or distract themselves from their problems, they can develop really harmful thoughts and behaviors surrounding food.
So, with popsicles out of the picture, how can you reward your child?
Spend time with them doing something they like. Take them to their favorite park. Play a game with them. Use your words and tell them what they did that you liked so much. Honestly, you know your child best. But I’ll promise you this: Food-free rewards don’t have to be anything crazy or complicated. Plus, you’ll get all the benefits of a “treat” without the messed-up consequences.
4| Model Intuitive Eating
Hey, yoga moms:
If you already practice mindful, intuitive eating, here’s what you can do: Share that experience with your child. Help them learn to listen to their body and pay attention to their natural hunger and fullness cues. Give them words to describe how they feel physically when they need to eat and when they’ve had enough.
Respect their decision to eat when they’re hungry and stop eating when they’re full (none of that “clean your plate” nonsense, okay?)
New to this whole ~mindfulness~ thing?
If mindfulness is not a word in your vocabulary, no worries. Here’s a quick tip when it comes to mindfulness for beginners: Start with the senses.
Ask your child how their food feels in their mouth while they’re chewing (I know it’s kind of gross, but it works!) Ask them what they smell. What colors do they see? Is their meal salty or sweet or sour…? Hot or cold? This extends to helping your child pinpoint their hunger and fullness cues, too. By practicing the simple act of noticing, your child can learn how to listen to their body and begin to practice mindful, intuitive eating.
Simple (Not Easy)
This is not a hot take, but parenting is not an easy gig. No one expects you to be perfect (okay, well, some people do, but, honestly, fuck them). So don’t stress (you will anyway, but you have permission not to, and that’s what counts sometimes).
I’m biased of course, but I believe that introducing more intentional, intuitive eating practices during mealtimes will have such a positive effect on both your little one and you! But it’s not about being perfect. Give yourself permission to do your best for your child, little by little. This stuff is simple (~hopefully~), but not always easy.
But your efforts matter and your best is always, always, always enough.