How to Raise Intuitive Eaters
Written by: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | March 8, 2022
Intuitive eating (IE) is a non-diet, weight-neutral approach to eating. It emphasizes the importance of not only tuning into our body’s cues of hunger and fullness, but preference, satisfaction, and emotions. It also includes having a positive relationship with our bodies and exercise.
What's amazing is that we are all born with the ability to eat intuitively. For most of us, at some point growing up our views of and relationship with food and exercise become tainted by diet culture. But by relearning how to let go of diet mentality and tune back in to practicing IE, we can repair that relationship.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could prevent our kids from getting this tainted view? The good news is, we can certainly help by laying the groundwork and providing an atmosphere where they can continue to practice IE.
Mealtime can be stressful for parents. There is no doubt that you want your kids to be healthy, so that may push you to try to feed them more fruits, vegetables, whole grains — all the things we’ve learned are “healthy.” It may also make you weary of the amount of candy, sweets, processed snacks, etc. that they want, because those are the foods we’ve learned are “unhealthy.”
But what if your child only wants the “unhealthy” foods and doesn’t seem interested in trying the “healthy” ones? (Hence, when mealtimes become stressful).
Here is where a couple of helpful reminders come in. To raise an intuitive eater, you must first think about what is in your control and what is not when it comes to meal and snack time.
What is in your control?
1. Modeling a healthy relationship with food and body image.
There are 3 important aspects of this. First, normalize all foods in your diet and your family's. In other words, don't create a morality around foods (i.e., good vs. bad, healthy vs. unhealthy, can vs. can't eat, or can only eat if...), because the truth is, all foods fit into our diet and provide something good: nutrients, enjoyment, celebration, etc. The only foods that are bad for us are those that are rotten, moldy, or we're allergic to. Knowing all foods are allowed in our diet is paramount for IE. (More on this and why it's important below).
Second, avoid talking negatively about food and your body, or making associations with what you eat and how it may affect your weight. (Or how what another family member eats may affect their weight). For example “I was so bad yesterday — I had a burger and fries. I’m not eating carbs today.” Or reminding your spouse “Our beach trip is a few weeks away, do you really want to eat that?”
And third, eat a variety of foods — including those you want your child to eat more of (which are usually fruits and vegetables). Let them see that fruits and vegetables are a normal part of your day. And let them see that eating regularly is part of your day, too. If they have to eat breakfast, but mom or dad just has coffee, or if dad comes home and says he hasn’t eaten all day, these things can send mixed messages.
2. Providing the what, when, and where of the meal.
What foods are you providing?
You decide what is served for meals and snacks. Provide a variety of food groups at meals: fruit or vegetable, protein, starch, fat, and be sure to include at least one food your child will eat. Vary the new foods you’re trying to incorporate (i.e., broccoli one night, asparagus another), and continue to revisit the ones that get rejected.
Offer snacks in between meals that provide extra opportunities for nutrients as well (more on this below).
Set consistent meal and snack times. Kids thrive on routine, so plan to offer meal and snack times as consistently as possible. This can help to prevent grazing so that they will be hungry for the next meal or snack, and more willing to eat and potentially try new things. This also helps with closing the kitchen after a meal (more on this below, too).
Choose a comfortable place conducive to eating with minimal distractions. When possible, this means at the kitchen table, without screens. I know this can be a tough one for parents and kids. I almost always have my laptop or phone distracting me at meals and can see how it does impact my sense of satiety. I’ll often be taking my last bite and realizing, “Oh! I’m all done?” And can’t tell if I am still hungry or satisfied — this happens for kids, too.
3. Creating a positive mealtime experience.
This might look like: sitting around the table as a family connecting, laughing, sharing positive parts of your day (free of distractions from TV or cell phones). I realize it can be so hard not to focus on what or how much your child is eating or not eating. But remember that this part of mealtime is in their control, not yours. All you can do is try to remain calm, even when you want to say (or maybe yell) “just eat it!" Try taking a step back and letting your child figure that out.
This also means refraining from bargaining. “You can’t have more pasta until you eat your meat… take 5 more bites, then you can have dessert.” To be honest, I 100% understand bargaining. I do it with myself daily — “if you answer 5 more emails then you can take a break.” The issue here is that the parent is now taking over control of the part that the child is supposed to be in control of: if they eat and how much. This over time can make it harder for them to listen to and trust their own internal cues for eating. Kind of like if you always had to finish your plate growing up, you might still feel at times that you need to and do so regardless of how hungry or full you are.
Bargaining, arguing, punishing, etc. at the table also makes mealtime stressful for the child. We want the table to be a comfortable, positive place to encourage IE.
What is in their control?
If, and how much.
You can provide a plate that includes a variety of foods with at least one that you know your child will eat. It will be up to them to: 1. try the other foods if they want to, and 2. decide how much they will eat.
But what if they eat nothing? Or only the food they like?
Here are 5 tips that can help:
For family-style meals, try allowing them to serve themselves (if able/old enough) and encourage them to try a bit of everything. Self-serving helps to empower kids and make them more likely to try what’s on their plate. You can have them follow your lead after you make your plate with a serving of everything. Then step back: now your only job is to eat your meal and keep mealtime positive.
2. Try, and try again.
If they don’t like a new food, continue to incorporate it and encourage them to try it again. Sometimes when a food appears with different sides or is prepared slightly differently (in a sauce, with different seasonings, etc.) it can be more appealing. Continue to keep offering a variety of fruits and vegetables often — one at each meal and snack if possible.
3. Close the kitchen after meals and snacks.
Kids will learn that their current meal or snack is time to eat, and if they do not eat, they will have to wait for the next meal or snack opportunity. Sarah Remmer, RD, recommends checking in towards the end of a meal: “Did your tummy finish eating? Because the kitchen will be closed for a little while after mealtime.” If they ask for a snack immediately after a meal, a gentle reminder that they didn’t choose to eat at mealtime but will have the opportunity to [at the next snack, in the morning] can help them learn this schedule. I know this sounds kind of harsh, but it will ultimately help your child to try and eat more foods at mealtime, knowing that is the time to eat and that they can’t just refuse the meal and choose to fill up on their favorite snacks after.
Please note: I am not saying to put your kids to bed hungry if they are still wanting a snack or saying they are hungry for a while after a meal! I mean having the kitchen closed immediately after a meal, so they don't get up from their chair and walk right over to the snack cabinet because they didn’t touch their plate. Try to stick to your meal and snack schedule as much as possible.
4. Involve them in meal prep.
From picking out produce in the market to setting the table — getting kids involved in meal prep can increase their interest and curiosity. Explain or let them see the process of how you’re making your stir-fry. Let them see how the vegetables make a colorful dish and maybe ask “what colors do you see?” Get the whole family involved in a homemade pizza night. Maybe make a few different kinds (great spot to fit in some veggies) and encourage everyone try each other's pizza.
5. Eat together!
As often as you can. This provides another opportunity to be a positive influence and show them that you eat fruits, vegetables, beans — whatever you are hoping they will start to include in their diet. It also gives them the sense that mealtime is a positive thing; it's a time to nourish our bodies and relationships.
Some worries that this more “laid back” approach can bring up:
If I allow all foods, what if my child never stops eating sweets?
There is a chance kids will gravitate more to foods that were once forbidden but now permitted. But cravings, along with weight, tend to stabilize on their own. A great example comes from Evelyn Tribole, RD, who talks about a parent who owned a home-based candy shop allowed her kids to freely eat the candy whenever they wanted. At first they ate a lot, but eventually they could take it or leave it. Once the food became normal and accessible (not forbidden and “only if you eat your veggies first”) the allure wore off. When other kids came over however, those children would overeat the candy because it was forbidden in their houses.
What if my child doesn’t eat enough to grow and thrive?
If mealtimes aren’t going well, remember there are always snacks. Offering consistent snacks that contain at least 2 macronutrients (carb + fat/protein, etc.) can help fill in gaps. These could look like: apples + cheese, crackers + peanut butter, nuts + raisins, PB + J toast, yogurt + berries, etc.
Multivitamins, smoothies with fruits and veggies, vegetables added to pasta dishes or on top of pizza are a few ways of fitting some more nutrients into the day, too. But remember that it’s not always going to be balanced all of the time. Your job is to offer nutritious foods consistently in a safe and pleasant setting. You ultimately cannot force them to eat a well-balanced diet all of the time. And the goal shouldn’t be 100% balanced, 100% of the time for kids (or adults) — take that pressure off of yourself!
This brings us back to mirroring. What a parent does behaviorally is more influential than what they say. You can keep saying broccoli is good for you until you are blue in the face but if your child doesn’t see you eating or enjoying broccoli, it won’t matter. In fact, it was found that mothers who consumed more fruits and vegetables were less likely to pressure their daughters to eat, and that their daughters ate more fruits and vegetables and were less picky about food in general.
So where do I start?
According to Brandi Olden, RDN, CSP, CD, "The number one change parents can make when feeding their children is to not say anything... Once the food is in front of the child, it's no longer the parent or anyone else's business how much or whether the child eats. That part is solely the child's responsibility, and they need to own it.” (Quoted in Today's Dietitian)
It is also important to note that if you are still working on your relationship with food, you will need to address that first.
Mirroring for your child can be a helpful motivator for yourself and speaking with a HAES-aligned health professional (RDN, therapist, etc). can help, too. The good news is, it is typically easier and quicker for kids to learn IE than adults. (Just think — they have a lot less diet culture to unlearn).
Another note: I do not have kids yet, and the thought of mealtime (and pretty much all aspects of parenting) is already stressful to me. As I have learned some of these tips, and worked with parents who were trying some of these tips, deep down I was like “but HOW do you just sit back and relax?!” I realize this is all easier said than done, and will take some time and practice.
Be patient and kind with yourself during the process and remember the most important, influential, and helpful thing you can do for your child when it comes to IE is model a healthy relationship with food & your body.