The idea that we need guidance on raising intuitive eaters seems futile.
After all, each one of us is born with innate wisdom on nourishing our bodies. It is apparent when an infant is hungry because they cry.
As they develop into toddlers, the complexity of feeding progresses with them. This is evidenced by a toddler refusing food for days at a time, sometimes to the point where you become concerned.
Then, they seem to never stop eating. A toddler knows when his or her growing body needs extra food. Unfortunately, external influences greatly impact a child’s instinctive feeding patterns. Food insecurity, limited exposure to a variety of food, media, chaotic schedules, friends, grandparents, and parents all impact the inborn intuitive eater.
A parent should exemplify the qualities of an intuitive eater if they want their child to have positive food associations.
Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch said it best in their book "Intuitive Eating": "Remember that you don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It is what you eat consistently over time that matters — progress, not perfection is what counts."
All parents mean well; however, many parents struggle with trusting their child and allowing them to gain their own relationship with food. Additionally, our culture has attached moral component to diet. Parents want to properly nourish their child and they feel pressured to make sure they are well fed. With all the mixed nutrition information available, the proper way to do so can be confusing and stressful.
Parents can raise an intuitive eater through these four values:
1. Be an example
Most parents are in support of avoiding restrictive eating. However, even with the very best of intentions regarding a positive relationship with food, parents may outwardly demonstrate negative behaviors with food.
When a parent constantly omits eating dessert while the rest of the family partakes, a child will pick up on that. Parents must demonstrate a love and appreciation for both nourishing foods and play foods.
Children can also feel pressure from parents to eat more healthy foods. One study published in the journal Appetite in 2000 showed that young girls who perceive parental pressure about food selection rebel against their internal hunger and fullness signals. These girls were more likely to restrict certain foods, eat emotionally and hastily eat.
2. Trust your child
Children are natural self-regulators when it comes to the amount of food they require to grow. All children come in a variety of shapes and sizes with a range of appetites.
Trust your child when it comes to the amount of food they eat. If you feel that your child eats more than they need, don’t restrict them.
Research from Pennsylvania State University in 2003 showed that parents who used restrictive feeding practices created a larger problem. A restricted child is more likely to eat when they aren’t hungry and gain more weight.
3. Support the good
Praise and encourage your child to develop autonomy — they crave it. Allow them to serve themselves when they are ready the amount they want to eat. Involve them in shopping, prepping meals and cleaning up. Allow them to select fun foods to have at home.
When serving food, be neutral. Food is not good or bad for them. Don’t force them to eat or bribe them with dessert if they eat a certain amount. Let them oversee the needs their body. This type of support around the eating experience will leave your child feeling empowered and in-charge of their body.
4. Offer a variety
Registered dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in feeding is a useful guide in identifying your role. Parent’s only have one job — to provide the food. It is up to the child to eat and how much.
This varies daily depending on his or her needs. Offer a variety of foods at reliable meal and snack times. Expose your child to new foods without pressuring them to eat it. Encourage, but never pressure.
At dinnertime, promote a positive experience. When a variety of foods are offered there is a good chance your child will find something they like to eat. Dinner time should be for connection and conversation, not a battle of force-feeding.
The children of today seem to experience more anxiety, pressure, and negative life experiences than ever before. They deserve a relationship with food that is positive and effortless, not stressful. When the entire family adopts the principles of intuitive eating as outlined in the book, you will find that food is not only nourishing but also pleasurable. There will be less stress around meal time allowing for joy in the eating experience, the way it is meant to be.