General Nutrition

Intuitive eating for kids: Building healthy relationships with food

November 14, 2023

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Medically reviewed by Suzanna Thoe, RD

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Key Points

  • Intuitive eating is the anti-diet or no-dieting approach to food
  • It teaches children to tap into their natural hunger cues and avoid restrictive diets
  • Parents can set a positive example, encourage mindful eating, and avoid shaming kids about their bodies
  • A Registered Dietitian can help your kids learn intuitive eating principles.

In a world obsessed with diets, disordered eating, and unrealistic body standards, kids can benefit from learning how to eat well without guilt, shame, and anxiety. As parents, caregivers, and educators, we play a crucial role in shaping our children's attitudes toward food and eating.

Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach that encourages children to listen to their bodies and trust their hunger and fullness cues. It teaches kids to make food choices that nourish their bodies and souls.

The basics of intuitive eating

Contrary to a common myth—intuitive eating is not an eat-all-you-want-whenever-you-want philosophy. ‘Intuitive Eating,’ coined by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, empowers people to listen to the body's natural hunger and fullness cues and reject strict diet and food rules.

Tribole and Resch advocated for honoring individual preferences and promoting a balanced, non-judgmental relationship with food to support overall well-being.

Children are born with a natural gift for intuitive eating, instinctively knowing when they are hungry and when they are full. However, as they grow, societal norms, well-intentioned parenting practices, and external influences often overshadow these innate abilities. This leads to a disconnect from their intuitive cues.

As parents, how can we help kids embrace their natural intuitive eating wisdom?

Suzanna Thoe, RD, an experienced Registered Dietitian says, “Nurturing the intuitive eating abilities of children lays the foundation for a lifetime of healthy relationships with food. We empower them to develop a profound understanding of their bodies' needs, which helps them achieve a balanced, joyful approach to eating. This non-diet, weight-neutral approach supports their growth and well-being in every way.”

A key aspect of this method is to teach children that they don't need to conform to restrictive diets or unrealistic body ideals. The goal is to encourage them to celebrate their unique bodies and appreciate their inherent worth.

Helping kids recognize their body's signals for hunger and fullness is another important step. Intuitive eating supports them as they learn to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are completely satisfied.

Also, it is important to avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad." Teach children that all foods can fit into a balanced diet and that enjoying treats in moderation is perfectly normal. Food is also sometimes a way to cope with emotions.

Through intuitive eating principles, kids learn to express their emotions and find healthier ways to cope with stress, boredom, or sadness. Talking with a trusted adult, engaging in physical activity, or practicing mindfulness exercises are some potential ways to help your kids cope with stress.

Lastly, children can understand the pleasure and satisfaction of eating a variety of foods and savor the sensory satisfaction of eating.

Fay can help you get started with intuitive eating. Connect with a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by insurance.

Benefits of intuitive eating for kids

Intuitive eating can yield numerous benefits for kids. By embracing their bodies and understanding that self-worth is not tied to appearance, children develop a positive body image and higher self-esteem.

Intuitive eating helps children develop a healthy attitude towards food, and reduce the risk of binge eating disorder, emotional eating, or other disordered eating practices.

Restrictive diets can be harmful to children's physical and emotional development. Intuitive eating, on the other hand, promotes balanced nutrition and supports growth and development.

Tips to promote intuitive eating in children

To encourage intuitive eating habits in children, Thoe, RD suggests the following strategies:

Set a positive example as a parent or caregiver

Children often model their behavior after adults. Demonstrate a healthy relationship with food by practicing intuitive eating yourself.

Create a nurturing food environment at home

Offer a variety of wholesome foods and allow children to make choices based on their preferences. Avoid using food as a reward or punishment.

Encourage mindful eating practices

Teach kids to eat slowly and pay attention to the taste, texture, and aroma of their meals. Mindful eating enhances their connection with food and helps prevent overeating.

Involve children in meal planning and preparation

Engage kids in selecting recipes, grocery shopping, and cooking. This involvement can pique their interest in food and nutrition.

Avoid food restriction and guilt

Instead of imposing strict rules, encourage a balanced approach to eating. Allow treats occasionally and avoid shaming children for their food choices.

Teach children to trust their bodies

Encourage kids to listen to their hunger and fullness cues and reassure them that their bodies know what they need.

Overcoming challenges in intuitive eating for children

Introducing intuitive eating to children may encounter some obstacles, but with patience and perseverance, these challenges can be overcome.

When addressing picky eating behaviors, understand that children may be selective with their food choices, and this is normal. Keep offering a variety of nutritious foods without forcing them to eat.

External influences like media, peers, and societal norms can influence children's eating behaviors. Emphasize the importance of individuality and self-acceptance, reinforcing the values of intuitive eating.

Handling well-intentioned but misguided comments from others is another key aspect. Educate friends and family members about the benefits of intuitive eating and explain your family's approach to fostering a healthy relationship with food.

Promoting intuitive eating for children is an investment in their long-term health and well-being. By encouraging kids to trust their bodies and make mindful food choices, we can set them on a path toward a healthy relationship with food that will benefit them throughout their lives.

If you would like to consider intuitive eating for your kids, Fay can help you meet with a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by your insurance.


The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


Sources

Fay Nutrition has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

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Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network and has a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

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Suzanna Thoe, RD

Medically Reviewed by Suzanna Thoe, RD

Suzanna is a Board Certified and Licensed Registered Dietitian. She completed her Bachelor of Science degree at Purdue University and completed her clinical internship and Masters of Business Administration at Dominican University. Suzanna has been a RD for almost 4 years and helps her clients understand the ‘why’ behind science-backed action items to move them towards their goals. 

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