Raising an Intuitive Eater

Written by: Sumner Brooks, MPH, RDN, and Amee Severson, MPP-D, RDN


Published on: October 27, 2022


Reviewed by: Denise John, PhD


There’s been a lot of talk about intuitive eating lately, which got us thinking: If we can learn to eat intuitively, when did we learn not to?

No matter how you diverged from your natural eating style, it’s possible to get it back—and support your children in maintaining theirs, say Sumner Brooks, MPH, RDN and Amee Severson, MPP-D, RDN, authors of How to Raise an Intuitive Eater. “We don’t need to teach intuitive eating; children naturally do this. We need to support them in their natural eating behaviors,” Brooks says.

Understanding Intuitive Eating—for Your Kids and for Yourself

There’s often a misunderstanding of what it means to eat intuitively. Many people think that intuitive eating is all about cravings and appetite—just eat what you want when you want. But that approach doesn’t consider the whole picture. A more complete definition is complex. The definition of intuitive eating that we use is from Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole (pioneers of intuitive eating), which encompasses the complexity of the human eating experience and our relationship to food: instinct, thought, and emotion.

Our instincts, which are controlled by our reptilian brain and help us survive, compel us to seek food when we’re hungry. Instincts are the reason restrictive diets don’t work long-term. If you are in a calorie deficit for an extended period, your body goes into survival mode, so you constantly think about food and you are determined to seek it out in order to survive.

We’re human, though, so we can also think and use our logic and reasoning to make our eating decisions. We can ask questions like: What am I doing today? How much energy do I need to do what I need to get done? What can I eat that will help me feel good throughout the day? Logic is a great benefit that helps us eat in a way that fuels us and keeps us feeling as good as we can.

Our unique instincts, thoughts, and emotions make up our personal intuitive eating experience.

What Disrupting the Intuitive Process Looks Like

Parents mean well, but sometimes, without even realizing it, they say things that can deter a child’s intuitive eating process. Some examples are asking, “Are you sure you’re hungry?” or “Are you just thirsty or bored?” before your kid eats something. Or it can sound like, “You don’t really need that.”

These little questions and comments can accumulate and eventually instill distrust in your child’s ability to follow their own instincts. Then they begin to question themselves: Maybe I am just thirsty or bored; maybe I don’t need this, even though it sounds really good right now.

Another thing that we often see is parents comparing eating styles with another child’s or labeling children as “good eaters” and “bad eaters.” This adds to the constant attention and judgment our society has concerning eating and food preferences. It can be overbearing for a child—they know when their parents care a lot about what they’re eating or when there’s not a certain type of food in the house—they notice and feel it all.

Ways Parents Can Help Their Child Eat Intuitively

It’s important to know that we don’t need to teach intuitive eating; children naturally do this. We need to support them in their natural eating behaviors and they will learn to self-correct, if needed. You can compare it to when a child is learning to walk. We don’t try to keep them from falling. To become competent walkers, they must explore, wobble around, and fall and get back up again. But we don’t let them learn to walk in a parking lot or on the street. We keep them surrounded by safe boundaries that allow them to find their way. There’s a balance of exploration and boundaries when it comes to raising an intuitive eater, too.

Tuning in to yourself and your child is essential. It’s ultimately about making mealtime a positive experience that leaves them feeling good and satisfied. Here are some things that can help:

Have a flexible and reliable feeding routine. This helps provide some structure but also a safe space for them to learn how to listen to their body, feed themselves regularly, get enough to feel satisfied, and try new foods. We recommend keeping a pretty loose schedule. For example, plan for the family to eat a snack around this time each day and meals around these other times each day but with enough flexibility that allows for the natural flows of life—unexpected schedule changes, changes in timing of hunger, etc.

Have desirable food options. A child should know that at every single meal and snack, there will be enough food for them and there will be enough food that they want provided for them. For example, you can provide your child with a pound of Brussels sprouts in one meal—that would be more than enough food in terms of volume—but if your child refuses to eat Brussels sprouts, then that really is not enough food for them.

There should be something they want to eat with each meal. We don’t need to force them to eat things they don’t want. If you know they like strawberries, then make sure strawberries are on the table, rather than pressuring them to eat bananas if they are averse to them.

Offer a combination of familiar and new foods. This doesn’t mean every single meal has to include a new vegetable and a new fruit, but generally doing this over the course of a week or a month, whatever is best for your family, is great. Repeating staples and family favorites works, too.

Stop pressuring them to eat. Just stop. If you need to bite your tongue to stop yourself from making a comment, we suggest doing so. We’re (kind of) joking, but we use that example because it’s that crucial. If you feel the urge to say something about their food or eating, pause and notice the discomfort inside yourself. Let it dissipate and allow your child to make the decision—they are more than capable of doing so.

Talk about anything else other than what they’re eating during mealtimes. Let the food be there. If you find yourself wanting to talk about food, you can shift the conversation and instead ask them how they are doing or feeling. It distracts from the food and helps you connect with your child. It’s okay to express enjoyment, pleasure, and satisfaction about what you are eating, of course, but the goal is to place more attention on your child than on the meal.

Model intuitive eating. Parents are often unaware of how our systems and culture influence our eating preferences and patterns, and we unconsciously pass these ideals and behaviors on to our children. When parents relearn and model intuitive eating, it can make a tremendous difference, since our children are very attuned to our actions.

For some parents, this may mean eliminating diets or restrictive eating or doing deep inner-child psychological work (many of our eating patterns are ingrained from a young age). It could also mean making conscious decisions to release control of your child’s eating, trust that your child can self-regulate, and give them the freedom to experiment and learn.

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