How many times have you told your child to take that last bite or to not waste food? This can lead to them hiding food in their napkins or feeding it to the dog just so they can leave the table. These types of words and actions teach children to ignore internal hunger cues, lessening intuitive eating. How can we teach our kids to avoid mindless eating and be more intuitive when they eat?

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach teaching us to listen to our body’s internal messages to better understand what it feels like to be hungry or full and to satisfy our body’s needs. Two registered dietitians created the 10 Principles of intuitive eating to reduce the guilt and restrictive eating practices we learn from an early age. These principles can be taught to our children to stop dieting and body dissatisfaction.

A mindful eater is synonymous with being an intuitive eater. Babies and toddlers are already intuitive eaters — they show us they are full with actions such as turning their head or closing their mouth. Parents and other caregivers can greatly influence a child’s relationship with food by allowing children to trust their hunger cues and eat in a non-judgmental way.

Tips for raising an intuitive eater

  1. Avoid food rules. Parents and caregivers need to avoid telling their child to “take one more bite” when they are full. Children need to trust themselves on how much they should eat to be more aware of their physical and psychological needs. But don’t let children use intuitive eating as a way to manipulate parents by saying that they are full at the meal to only get what they want to eat later. To avoid this, tell children that you’ll save their dinner plate for later so they can eat when they are more hungry.  

  2. Be a good role model. If you are talking negatively about your body and have an unhealthy relationship with food yourself, your child will also view foods as “good” or “bad.” Show your child how to eat without judgement. 

  3. Offer a variety of food often. We can get into the habit of serving our child the same types of foods they like to avoid food battles at the table. Caregivers need to remember it can take multiple exposures to a new food for their child to want to try and accept it.  

  4. Let them choose how much to eat. Our job as a caregiver is to provide meals or snacks for our child with some guidance, but it is their job to choose how much they want to eat. Our appetites can vary throughout the day, and children need to learn how to adjust their portion sizes of food depending on their hunger and growth needs. 

  5. Don’t use food as a reward. We still find ourselves celebrating that our children ate their vegetables at dinner with a dessert later. This can lead to children thinking dessert is the prize and teaches them to use food for coping. 

Learning intuitive eating is a process to be able to trust yourself with food. Together caregivers and children can learn these skills by contacting a local registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in intuitive eating for additional help.

Megan Robinson, MS, RD, CDE, LDN, a registered dietitian at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.