My son eating his sugary french toast at KiKi’s

Intuitive Eating is a lifelong journey that does not have to begin when you have already been suffering from the yo-yo dieting cycle for 30 years.  It is something that can be taught and encouraged from an early age.  Our relationship with food begins from day one.  Our parents or caregivers are the ones who have complete control over our food choices and the attitudes we develop around food.  This can be good or bad.  Just like any habit, food rules and restriction can begin at a very early age and can create unhealthy relationships with food that will last a lifetime.  For instance, according to the Keep It Real Campaign approximately 80% of 10 year old girls have already dieted once in their lives.  This is alarming to say the least.  

In addition, it has been reported that 40% of parents encourage their children to diet, and that parents engage in weight talk with children as young as two years old.  In the end it has been shown that when parents apply excessive overt restriction on foods that are allowed it can inhibit a child’s natural ability to self regulate their appetite.  These statistics and much more on the topic can be found in the book Just Eat It by Laura Thomas, Phd.  

Picture this, your 3 year old is in his high chair and you have laid out several different food options:  chicken, peas, avocado, and sweet potatoes.  He picks at the food and enjoys it for as long as he wants to and freely chooses what he is in the mood for.  Eventually he gets full and starts throwing the food on the ground and feeding it to the family dog.  This is a prime example of what intuitive eating is and how we are born with the natural ability to know our limits when it comes to eating.  Unfortunately, parents, not intentionally, society, and diet culture slowly creep in and create insecurity and, as a result, confidence in food choices, hunger, and satiety plummet.

In my blog about restriction and food freedom I explained and outlined the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating.  These principles apply to children as well and can be integrated into your food experiences early on.  We try our best as parents and sometimes due to how we were raised we impose our food issues upon our kids at an early age without even realizing it.  Do any of these statements sound familiar?

“When you finish your dinner you can have your dessert but you must clean your plate first.”

“If you don’t eat you won’t grow.”

“You can’t have that because it is bad for you.”

I am not saying I have not said these things to my children.  I totally have.  But, there is a way to encourage our children to become confident in their eating and food choices without being too pushy.  As of late, I have been encouraging our younger boys to stop when they are full and have tried to not force them to finish all of their food.  Baby steps.  “What about health you ask?  I am not going to let my children just sit around eating cookies all day!”  I get it.  I am not going to do that either.  Here are a few tips to encourage intuitive eating in your child while at the same time promoting healthy food choices as a priority.  

Raising an Intuitive Eater

  1. Include lots of options from day one – always provide ample vegetable choices, protein sources, carbohydrates, and good fats in every meal.  Even if they choose not to eat something rotate it back in every few weeks to keep giving them the option.  Don’t get stuck serving children the same thing over and over.  Variety will encourage trying new things.
  2. Include your child in food choices – take them to the grocery store with you.  Ask them if you should get broccoli or green beans.  Let them own the choices and they are more likely to eat what you serve.  
  3. Include your child in preparing food – if they feel like they have ownership in the process they are more likely to learn to enjoy preparing healthful meals and enjoying and appreciating the hard work that goes into cooking.  
  4. Avoid all or nothing language – try not to say that foods are good or bad.  Ask your child how certain foods make them feel.  For instance, if they overindulge in their cookies gently ask them how they feel and nudge them to understand that sometimes when we eat too many foods that are not as nutrient filled we won’t feel very good physically.  Let them figure it out on their own.  
  5. Encourage exercise but not as a form of punishment for what we eat – plan active days with the kids.  Swimming, walking, biking, etc.  Let them learn for themselves how good it feels to get out and move our bodies.  Also, make sure they see you making movement and exercise a priority in your life.  Monkey see, monkey do!
  6. Avoid forcing them to clean their plates – let them graze if they want to.  Sometimes that is all we want to do so why force them to eat it all?  You can set boundaries and say that if you are hungry again in the next hour the food will still be here for you to finish if you want.  My 7 year old wants to go right to dessert most nights and I encourage him to sit with his fullness first and see if he still wants the snack in 30 minutes.  It is a thin line to walk but being gentle about it is key.
  7. Avoid talking about your body in a negative light in front of your children – they learn dialogue from you so be careful with this one.  Even complimenting them on their bodies sends the message that their value is in how they look. 

In a nutshell, don’t beat yourself up for anything you have done as a parent.  It is never too late to start practicing these tips.  Parenting is a tough job, but if you integrate these small things into your conversation around food with your children not only will they have the foundation to grow up confident in their ability to feed and nourish themselves, but it will also help you as well.