Intuitive Eating With Kids

Written by Elizabeth Uliana, MUSC Dietetic Intern; Reviewed by Emily Gargis MS RD LD

Imagine if your children could grow up with a healthy relationship with food, a positive view of their bodies, and limited influences from diet culture. Guess what? This is possible.

Society is constantly bombarding us with false ideas of beauty and how to treat our bodies through food and movement. Believe it or not, humans are born intuitive eaters. Infants know when they need to eat, what they want to eat, and how much to eat to be physically and emotionally satisfied until their next meal. By fostering these innate tendencies, parents and caregivers can encourage kids to grow in a positive relationship with their bodies.

Show all foods as equal. We all know what goes on in a child’s brain when we tell them not to do something – they desperately want to do it. Showing your children that all foods fit into a balanced diet can avoid hyperfocus on foods that would otherwise be off-limits. For example, if you choose to serve a sweet food after a meal, try serving this food at the same time as the main meal instead. Remember that you do not have to offer your child all foods, as much as they want, all the time. Practice division of responsibility. You decide what to offer and the child decides how much. There are many resources on this topic available online.

Call foods by name. Using terms like “cheat meal”, “treat”, “guilty pleasure”, and “junk food” invoke a sense of guilt or a need to earn certain foods. Avoid these terms and call food by name. An apple is an apple. A cookie is a cookie. A sandwich is a sandwich. Simple as that.

Leave the clean plate club. Making a child finish what is on their plate can teach them to ignore their hunger cues and instead let extrinsic factors dictate how much they should eat. Instead, allow your child to decide when they are satisfied. If you worry about wasting food, consider saving the remaining food on their plate for the next meal or snack.

Practice positive body talk. Kids pick up on the slightest comments. Practice learning to appreciate your own body, and make comments about how it helps you live a great life. Your arms let you hug your child, your legs let you get places, and your face lets you smile and laugh. Ask your child what their body lets them do. Focus on function rather than appearance.

Enjoy rewards and experiences that are unrelated to food. Who doesn’t love an exciting reward or experience? When planning these for your kids, avoid centering them around food. Food is meant to be enjoyed, but its absence should never be used as a punishment or its presence as a reward. This situation teaches children that certain foods must be earned. Instead, choose non-food rewards and experiences that bring your family joy.

Let’s face it – raising an intuitive eater is hard. It may take weeks or months before seeing a change in your child’s mindset, and sometimes the hardest part is shifting the mindset of the parent or caregiver. But trying even one of these tips can reduce the hold of diet culture on the coming generations. Maybe a world of intuitive eaters truly is possible.