6 Tips for Raising an Intuitive Eater

The “new year, new me” mentality makes the month of January prime time for talk of dieting, new workout regimes, and a push towards convincing us that we need to think about optimizing our bodies to start the year off right. Though these messages might seem to be in the spirit of self-improvement, they’re pretty toxic — they over-emphasize the importance of appearance and can lead to negative body image and unhealthy habits around food and exercise. And unfortunately, our kids aren’t immune from these messages, either. 

What would happen if instead of looking for new ways to restrict our diets, we worked towards building a healthy relationship with food instead? One way to think about this is by embracing intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is about listening to what your body is telling you — eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full, and letting your body’s internal cues determine when and how much you eat. When you eat intuitively, you’re able to enjoy foods that satisfy your body and bring you joy, instead of being hyper-focused on restricting what you eat to achieve a certain outcome. Plus, intuitive eating has been shown to improve self-esteem and body image. 

When they’re born, kids naturally eat intuitively — they know when they’re hungry, they sense when they’re full, and they act accordingly. Over time, however, complex messages about food can complicate our relationships with what, how, and when we eat. Luckily, as parents, we can help encourage our children to keep up their habits as intuitive eaters. 

Here are 6 tips to help get you started:

1. Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad.”

It’s a good thing to encourage our kids to have a colorful, healthy diet, but it’s important not to fall into the trap of treating nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables as “good” choices and more indulgent foods with less nutrients, like chips or cookies, as “bad” ones. It’s true that our bodies need nutrients to function and thrive, but it’s better to think about what our food choices can provide for us - how we can fuel our bodies by adding nutrient-rich foods into our diets - than to outlaw foods with less explicit benefits. 

Think of it this way: eating an apple as a snack will surely help your kids get fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. Snacking on a bag of M&Ms instead might give their bodies less nutrients, but it doesn’t mean that they’ve done something “bad'' — or that you’ve done something bad as a parent by letting them have it. Nutrition isn’t an all-or-nothing process, and there’s no such thing as a “perfect” diet! Thinking that way can lead to feelings of guilt or shame around food. Instead, you can help your kids understand that M&Ms are a nice treat to have sometimes, but they might not give you much energy. If they’re feeling sluggish later, they might think about giving their bodies a more nutrient-rich option. 

2. Don’t ban certain foods.

Back to the M&Ms: it’s okay to let your kids have treats. Making these kinds of foods off-limits can just lead to kids over-indulging or binging when they finally do get the chance to have them. You can encourage your kids to find a healthy balance between fueling their bodies and treating themselves!

3. Ditch the clean plate club.

Making sure that your kids finish all of their food at dinner, or preventing them from leaving the table until they’ve cleared their last few bites can actually teach them to ignore their body’s natural cues that tell them when they’re full. In the long run, this can condition them to eat past the point of being satisfied, and lead to unhealthy eating habits down the road.

So what should you do if your toddler refuses to eat their broccoli?

4. Give your kids some decision-making power.

Try to provide your child with as many different healthy options to choose from during meal times, but then allow them to decide how much they want to eat. If you do find your kids pushing away their plate of broccoli, you can encourage them to try a little bit without forcing them to finish. Sometimes, kids might have to try a little of a certain food over time before they learn to like it — that’s normal! But in the meantime, help them try out some different options.

Lay off the broccoli for a while and try serving a different vegetable tomorrow. Invite your kids to try new foods and talk about which ones they like. Encourage them to have an adventurous appetite, but let them have as much agency as possible over the process.

5. Don’t use food as a bribe or reward.

Seemingly harmless words of encouragement like “If you finish your dinner, you’ll get to have ice cream!” can actually have some negative repercussions. For starters, this might encourage your kids to ignore their fullness cues so that they can work towards getting a treat. Plus, withholding treats from our kids unless they do something we want them to first can also lead to the same kind of over-indulgence when they finally are allowed.

6. Discourage distractions.

Eating in front of the TV or with their tablets set up in front of them can make it harder for kids to decode their bodies' signals. If they’re distracted, they might not realize or pay as much attention to noticing when they’re full or want to stop eating. 

For more tips on helping kids develop healthy relationships with food, exercise, and body image, check out maro parents.

Photo by Hillshire Farm on Unsplash.

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