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Teaching Intuitive Eating to Kids

Ready to bypass the battles over broccoli and introduce your kids to the magic of intuitive eating?

Raising an intuitive eater may actually be easier than you think. But you may not be 100% clear on what that actually means as it relates to feeding your child. How can a kid eat intuitively? Don’t we need to impose limits for their own good? 

As a Registered Dietitian who specializes in kids nutrition, this is how I’m personally raising my own kids. I feel it’s the best approach for them to have a healthy relationship with food and their body. And that’s ultimately the best thing for them!  

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3 kids eating ice cream

What IS intuitive eating?

Simply put, intuitive eating is an evidence-based way of eating that focuses on listening to your own body cues as a guide.

The “intuitive eating” concept was created by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. They wrote a book that explains all the principles of intuitive eating in detail. It’s a great read!

Listening to your body seems simple, right? 

In theory, yes! In practice, it’s a little bit trickier!

It takes a lot of practice to tune into what our bodies are telling us. In fact, most adults struggle with this. It’s because there are a lot of external factors that compete with our attentiveness to our internal cues.

The 10 principles of intuitive eating

Not all of these principles apply to children, but it’s helpful to get the full picture of what intuitive eating includes.

  1. Reject the diet mentality
  2. Honor your hunger
  3. Make peace with food
  4. Challenge the food police
  5. Feel your fullness
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
  8. Respect your body
  9. Movement- feel the difference
  10. Honor your health- gentle nutrition 

Children are born with the natural ability to do some of these things. At the heart of intuitive eating is listening to your body. Babies are EXCELLENT at this! They cry when they are hungry, and stop eating when they are full.

Intuitive Eating Principles Breakdown

Let’s go through some of the principles of intuitive eating that you can instill in your kids.

Principle 1: Reject the diet mentality

Oh, diet culture. *Biggest eye roll*

This principle involves breaking up with the idea that dieting and maintaining a certain weight is necessary.

Diet culture is basically just synonymous with culture these days. It’s the messaging that we (including our kids) receive about beauty standards, about which bodies are acceptable and which bodies aren’t, and about all the things we should be doing/buying/eating to achieve these impossible ideals.

Some of diet culture’s myths:

  • skinnier is better
  • smaller body sizes are more desirable
  • smaller body size equates to health
  • we should deprive ourselves of things to flex our willpower muscles

The saddest part is that our kids are no exception to this cultural marketing. Once you tune into the diet culture messaging that’s all around us, you’ll see that much of it even extends to the younger age groups. A recent meta analysis of over 30 separate studies showed that about 1 in 5 kids shows signs of what we call “disordered eating”- or eating behaviors that can be the precursor to eating disorders. These behaviors often stem from body dissatisfaction that they are taught to embrace at a young age.

Your takeaway:

The first step here is working through your own battle with the diet mentality. You do not need to live life on a diet or feeling like you should be on a diet. This is one of my favorite resources to break up with dieting for good.

fruit bowl with tape measure

Principles #2: Honor your hunger (and #6: Feel your fullness)

I’m combining these two here because they fit so well together when thinking about feeding your kids.

These principles incorporate the concept of interoception. Interoception is the skill of connecting body sensations to behavior. Your child’s stomach feels full, so they stop eating. Their stomach is hungry, so they decide to eat their meal.

It seems simple, but allowing them to honor these cues is the basis for developing healthy habits. So many of us don’t eat when we’re hungry because we think we’ve already eaten “enough” based on some arbitrary standard we’re going by. And so many of us eat past fullness because we are unable to detect when we’ve had enough.

Kids can intuitively sense these feelings, but outside factors can get in the way. are the same! That’s why sometimes they’ll say they’re done with dinner after two bites only to realize they didn’t eat enough come bedtime. Or why they’ll get caught up in the moment and overeat, ignoring that they were already full. 

Refining this ability is so important for kids because it builds a foundational trust in their bodies. When they listen to those body cues and interpret them correctly, they eat what they need to feel satisfied. Not more or less.

Recognizing satiety

This concept goes along with interoception. Satiety is the feeling of satisfaction you get when your needs have been met. Full, but not too full. I created this teddy bear graphic to help talk to kids about where they are on the hunger-fullness scale. It helps to give them a visual to go along with their feelings! 

Teddy Bear Hunger & Fullness Guide Download Button

 We want our kids to eat when they’re hungry, but that doesn’t mean we let them graze all day with access to unlimited snacks. In fact, grazing is one of the behaviors that can actually mess up hunger and fullness cues the most. Hunger (usually) is not an emergency for kids. It’s okay to feel a little hungry, and it’s good for that hunger to build toward meal or snack time. We want to encourage them to eat to satiety during those meal/snack occasions (you, as the parent determine when those are), and it’s okay to say no to constant snacking outside of those times.

See related: How To Stop Your Toddler From Grazing

Your takeaway:

Implement the Division of Responsibility in Feeding. This is where you decide what to serve and when, and your child decides if and how much to eat.

Principle #3: Make peace with food

With this principle, you help your kids understand that ALL foods can fit into a healthy diet. Nothing is completely off limits (unless there’s a medical reason of course).

Good vs. Bad Foods

child eating hamburger and french fries

The good foods/bad foods dichotomy is one of the hardest to break free from. Using words like “clean” or “healthy/unhealthy” can suggest that some foods are morally superior to others. All of us, adults and kids alike, internalize those messages and start to attach morality to foods. (“I’m good if I eat this, I’m bad if I eat that.”) This happens from a very young age, and I don’t say that to scare you. Awareness of this demonstrates the power that words hold in shaping the way our kids view food and their bodies.

The good foods vs. bad foods dichotomy is actually the exact opposite of listening to your body. We can’t tell our kids to listen to their body, and then to tell them their body is bad for wanting another serving of cookies or not craving a plate of broccoli. You see the mixed messaging? 

Now, this conversation is nuanced, because I’m not saying all foods are nutritionally equal. We know that’s not true. Some foods do a lot of things in our bodies, and some do very few things in our bodies. There’s no getting around that, and really no need to!

Intuitive eating isn’t telling our kids to eat cookies all day long and don’t worry about touching a vegetable. It’s removing morality from foods so we can help them truly figure out what feels good in their bodies and what their bodies need. Spoiler alert: neither a diet of cookies and candy OR a diet of raw vegetables will satisfy them. Nutrition IS still important- of course. But intuitive eating is a holistic approach that takes into account more than just the nutritional content of food.

I truly believe there is a way to talk to our kids about food that doesn’t villainize certain foods while putting others on a pedestal. We’ll touch on that more later. 

This topic- especially as it relates to sweets/more ‘sometimes’ foods- is so important that I dedicated an entire ebook to it. You can read this ebook for free right now! It will help you navigate conversations and situations that come up around these foods that get a bad reputation.

sweets and treats graphic

Your takeaway:

Skip the good vs. bad foods talk, and instead focus on serving a balanced diet.

Principle #8: Respect your body

Respecting your body helps you feel better about who you are. And I know we want our kids to grow up feeling good about who they are!

Genetics are unchangeable. You can’t wear a size 6 shoe if your foot is a size 9. It is equally impossible to expect our kids to be the 50th percentile for weight if their whole life they’ve been the 80th.

Contrary to what you may have been told, BMI is actually not a great marker of health. Your child’s BMI should NOT be used to automatically make conclusions about their health. There are several factors that can influence body size. How much they eat is only one of them.

Using BMI and weight alone ignores other markers of health that are very important, including energy levels, sleep patterns, mood, activity levels, etc. 

When we focus on those and take some emphasis off body size, then we free our children up to do the same. We can start to talk about how food makes us feel. Not what we think it does to our weight. We can focus on having positive meal experiences together, and promoting a healthy relationship with body and food. 

A certain BMI is not the goal. A child in the 50th percentile is not the goal. Some bodies are meant to be smaller and some are meant to be larger, and that’s okay! The goal isn’t to change your child’s genetic blueprint. The most important thing is that your child’s growth follows their growth curve and shows all the signs of growth and development that are appropriate for their age.

So, how do we talk to kids about intuitive eating?

The best way to do this is to help your child hone their skills of listening to their body. 

When I pitch intuitive eating to parents, I often am met with puzzled looks like, “so I’m just supposed to let them decide what they eat? They’ll just eat candy and snacks!” That’s not what I’m saying here. Kids are still new little people and they need our help and guidance in this arena. They aren’t able to make all the necessary decisions or prepare food for themselves. They need us to provide them with structure and a healthy framework for developing those abilities. So, no, this isn’t a free-for-all! It’s helping them foster curiosity and and hone the skill of listening to their bodies.

We can and should give them age-appropriate information about food. I’m not asking you to tell them cookies are the perfect food and we should eat them for every meal! It’s okay to give factual information, but make every effort to avoid adding the negative spin/connotation about foods. Especially about sweets, “junk food,” etc. That is how those foods get villainized and how we start to internalize shame about eating them from a young age. 

Try to avoid all negative talk about food. And believe me, this can be hard for those of us who grew up with parents who partook in diet culture. I’ll give you some tips for what we can say to swap out negative food talk for neutral, or even positive language.

Ask Questions

Resist the urge to tell them how many bites they need to eat. Help them reflect on how their bodies are feeling, leaving all connotations out of it. 

How does your tummy feel? Full/empty? (Use this print out if you feel like they may not be in tune with this.)

What sounds satisfying/good to you right now?

The goal is for them to be able to answer those questions by paying attention to their bodies, and with no internal or external judgment attached.

And guess what…they don’t HAVE to feel hungry to have dessert. When you think about how you consume dessert as an adult, is it just to satisfy hunger? Usually not! It’s meant to be an enjoyable experience.

I’ve answered a lot of FAQs on dessert here.

Neutral food language/how to talk to kids about food

Neutral food language looks like simple, factual education in an age-appropriate manner, or answers that don’t have any hidden connotation. 

When getting into a conversation with my kids about why we might only have 1 cookie at snack time, I might say something like, “some foods do a lot of things in our bodies and some foods just do a few things in our bodies. Cookies do a few things in our bodies. Let’s pair it with some milk for our muscles and bones!”

With most foods, we can also give base-level information about what a food does in our bodies.

For example, if you want to tell your kids why carrots are great you can start by saying, “carrots help us see!”  As their understanding grows, you can add a little more complexity, “carrots and other orange and red foods have something in them that helps with eyesight. Can you think of any other orange or red foods you like?”

And if they get even more curious, ask Google about the other nutrients in carrots, because I’m not expecting you to become a dietitian overnight!

But for curious kids, this knowledge can help them bridge the gap between, “mom says I need to eat these,” and, “I know that this food does lots of good things in my body!” Information is empowering. And it’s great for kids to begin to develop an understanding of how foods can serve their bodies by the use of this educational food language. 

Positive food language

mom and daughter eating ice cream cones

Using positive language toward food doesn’t mean we have to say yes to every request. We don’t have to pretend that ice cream sandwiches are the most nutritious food on the planet. The truth is, you as the parent are in charge of what’s served, and it’s okay to say no. We just don’t want to say a “NO” that carries shame.

We don’t want to suggest that they shouldn’t be wanting what they asked for, or any negative connotation about that food. Positive language might look like saying, “Yum! I love ice cream sandwiches, too! Let’s plan to eat those tomorrow after school.” Or, “Ice cream sandwiches DO sound delicious. Those aren’t on the menu for tonight. Bummer, I know.” 

You can hold a boundary without adding any shame. If you say, “You can only have one ice cream sandwich! That’s too much sugar.” That can give the message that sugar is bad, it’s bad to eat too much sugar, and they’re bad for wanting it. We as adults may know that limiting added sugar is best for their health for a number of reasons. But they are more likely to either feel shame or start to believe that sugar is evil and should be avoided. Neither of those is the outcome we were going for. 

Phewpf, that’s a lot of info!

I just threw a ton of information at you, I know! This is such hard and important work, and I want you to know that wherever you are on the journey, you’re doing a great job. Sometimes the work is on our part as parents to unlearn all the ways that we are all still affected by diet culture and how it shapes our own words and choices. 

But I believe in doing the work because it’s so worth it to pass on to our kids a healthy, ordered relationship to food/their bodies, to show them that we should celebrate what our bodies can do, enjoy food, and use it as a way to connect with each other! 

And please hear me, none of us do this perfectly!! Don’t worry if you don’t use the perfect wording or if you “mess up” sometimes; you are not screwing them up. They will learn by seeing you practice and model this over and over with them, and it’s such a great opportunity to work together to set them up for success and health in the future!

If you could use some more help with food and nutrition, check out my Meal and Snack Survival Guide! It’s packed full of nutritious and easy ideas to simplify your life and make feeding your family a breeze!

meal and snack survival guide

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Kacie Barnes holding an apple
Hi, I’m Kacie!

I’m a mom of two and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. I offer e-guides and e-books (go to my Shop page), workshops, brand partnerships, and nutrition counseling. Check out my blog for nutrition and feeding tips for your little ones.

Disclaimer:

This post may contain affiliate links. I may earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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