Teaching Children Intuitive Eating

[subtitle: How the Hell Do You Do It?]


Today, on two separate occasions, I followed the sound of silence to find one of my sons tucked in the corner of a room, frantically unwrapping and eating candy that he had found in the Christmas stash.

I’m still trying to sort out how I felt upon discovering him, hiding from me like he was doing something bad.  I have a swirling mass of needs-to-be-untangled thoughts and feelings about the topics of eating and bodies, and I don’t want to project my own drama onto my sweet, innocent, still-untarnished-by-the-world little children.  And yet, I want to raise them to value themselves and others, to look deeper but also to love the bodies they were born with and to have an easy, natural, untainted relationship with food.

But it is damn hard to know how to teach intuitive eating when it’s not a skill you grew up with or are even now passably proficient in.  I don’t know what mistakes I can make and still have my children turn out okay.  I don’t even know how many mistakes I’m already making.  I don’t know if fostering intuitive eating means letting them eat whatever and whenever and however much they want, or if it’s eating whatever they want at mealtimes only, or if it’s eating whatever they want of what is offered at mealtimes, or any number of options.  I just don’t know.

My boys are bread fanatics–they would subsist solely on baked carbs if we decided to restrict our diet to a single food group.  Because they’ve often loaded up on bread/rolls/naan/focaccia/biscuits/etc. and refused to eat any other dishes at dinner, my husband has instituted the “finish all your food before you have more bread” rule.  I back him because we’re supposed to present a united front and all that.  But inside, I’m conflicted.  The “eat food to get more food” concept just doesn’t quite sit right with me.  To me, it reinforces the concepts of  (1) “special foods”–things like bread and dessert get put on a pedestal; you have to suffer through a plate of “boring food” in order to get to them and (2) overeating/eating when you’re not hungry.  If a kid (or adult) wants a piece of cake but believes he has to join the Clean Plate Club to get it, he’ll plow through the food on his plate until he’s worthy of the prize.  And if he isn’t hungry anymore by the time he’s “earned” the cake?  Too damn bad.  He’s worked for this cake, and he’s going to eat it, hungry or not.

If it’s dinnertime and I’m absolutely craving chocolate cake, I think I’m better off forgoing the dinner and just eating the cake (provided I enjoy it, listen to my hunger signals, etc…all that IE stuff).  Maybe after I finish the cake, I’m full, so cake is all I have that night.  So what?  Worse things have happened.  But as someone who has worked really hard to eradicate the ideas of “good/healthy/guilt-free” foods and “bad/sinful/naughty” foods from her mindset, I feel really uneasy when we start talking about earning this food or deserving that food.

On the other hand, I really want my children to be open to trying new foods, and I don’t think I should have to make them something separate when they don’t like what is being offered.  But I’m having a really hard time trying to fit these two pieces of the puzzle together.  What if I let them eat whatever they want (of what is offered) at dinner as long as they try at least one bite of each dish?  Then I’m exposing them to new foods, but am I screwing up their chances at being intuitive eaters?

Maybe I am projecting.  (very likely) Maybe I’m overthinking this.  (99% chance)

But I hated seeing my son try to hide his candy-eating from me.  Oh, I know it wasn’t due to some deeply rooted body shame and mental anguish over his food choices–he was just hiding because he thought he would get in trouble (I’d already vetoed candy consumption when he asked me earlier).  But at the same time, I don’t want him or his brother to ever feel ashamed or like they have to hide what they’re eating.

I suppose the most impactful thing I can do is model all of these things myself–self esteem, body acceptance, a healthy relationship with food.

At least that’s easy.



Do you overthink your relationship with food?  Do you think it’s laughable that I use the words “relationship” and “food” in the same sentence?  Do you believe that children are the future? (teach them well and let them lead the way)

4 thoughts on “Teaching Children Intuitive Eating

  1. I don’t have kids, so I can honestly say that I have never thought about it before. I know that for me and my siblings, the rules were generally (1) that we couldn’t request special foods at mealtime (i.e. we had to eat whatever was offered, or not eat at all); and (2) we could have as many servings as we wanted of the food on the table, but we had to try at least 1 bite of each dish. There were always exceptions to this, on a kid-by-kid basis, though. Like my youngest brother, Mckay, gets anxious when forced to eat something, so he often gets a pass. Which is fine, because his emotional health trumps trying new foods, you know?

    So I dunno. I don’t think you should be too worried about your son hiding his candy consumption from you; he’d be hiding anything he’d been forbidden to do. And I think most kids (especially boys) are generally intuitive eaters by default. In fact, maybe that term doesn’t even apply to kids who haven’t had issues with food. I guess for them, it’s just called “eating.” No special terms, no real psychology. Just, “I’m hungry and I’m putting this food in my face because this is what’s available to me.” (This is my guess because I also have food issues and I can seriously eat like 2000 calories in one sitting if I just keep eating after I’m full, which is super easy and also delicious. Thank god my metabolism hasn’t slowed down yet.)

    So yeah. Those are my thoughts; not really advice, since I don’t have kids. But maybe something in this will be helpful?

    • Thank you!! You’re totally right. I took this nutrition class in college and in it we talked about how children are remarkably adept at regulating their food intake if left to their own devices (i.e. not forced to eat or forced to stop). Supposedly, even though they may sometimes eat entire meals that consist of only cheese or fruit or whatever, they know how to meet their nutritional needs and everything sort of evens out.

      I guess I forget that sometimes. I suppose that since I’m still not exactly sure where my food issues started, I worry about somehow inadvertently screwing everything up. And I guess that I should probably stop analyzing these things so much and realize that it’s just okay. But your parents seem to have done a pretty damn good job raising you guys so I will always welcome insight into the way they did things. 🙂

  2. Marissa said something that is so true. Kids hide what they are doing when they are afraid of being caught, that they will get in trouble. I still remember sneaking raisins and eating them as a little girl and our parents went to the store and let us stay home alone, but when my mommy and daddy drove up, if the raisins weren’t gone I’d drop them behind the couch! And as a parent you will always worry that you have done something, or many somethings, to screw up your kids, but sometimes we have to step back, breathe, say to ourselves that we have done the best we could at the time, and know that as the kids grow up, it really is their decision on how they want to handle the things we taught them as parents (the good and the not so good).

    • You are so right. I used to research and collect theories and think that if I did everything just right and avoided the mistakes everyone else made, I would turn out some pretty fantastic human beings! But parenting isn’t like following a recipe. That’s not how people work. And they already are fantastic little beings. 🙂

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