How To Raise An Intuitive Eater
“I’ll let my kids eat whatever they want.”
That didn’t come out right.
I had just announced to family members that when I eventually had kids of my own I would let them eat anything they wanted. I didn’t want them to have a bad relationship with food.
My brother-in-law scoffed and started his next sentence in his condescending way - by saying my name first.
“Charlie, you can’t just let your kid eat whatever they want.”
I felt triggered. I had a long history with body image and food issues and even before I knew who my life partner would be, I worried how to ensure I did not pass my own issues on to my future child.
I had already come a long way in my relationship with food thanks to the book Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. It was paramount to setting me on a course that veered away from the diet mentality and obsessive calorie counting. And there was a chapter about raising an Intuitive Eater. It made the path forward so clear and obvious.
But when I tried to explain to my family what I had learned, it came out sounding ludicrous.
Now that I’m married and have a 5-month-old son, it’s time to organize my thoughts.
Here are my biggest takeaways on how to raise an Intuitive Eater.
We Are All Born Intuitive Eaters
Humans innately know that hunger is a natural and “correct” sensation. If a child is hungry he will eat. If he is not hungry he will turn away.
Controlling what the child eats and how much the child eats comes from good intentions. Parents just want their children to be healthy, after all. But this has consequences.
“Instead of listening to and respecting his own physical reactions to the eating experience, the child reacts to the parent’s external message, rather than his own internal knowledge.”
It might be hard to believe that a child would be able to make these decisions for himself. There’s a fear that if we let the child decide, he’ll just want to eat candy all day.
“[Two-year-old] Jimmy’s favorite play food (the authors don’t like the term junk food) is chocolate-covered blueberries. At every meal, his mom puts a bowl of these blueberries on the table, along with all of the other foods she has prepared. Sometimes, all that Jimmy eats are the blueberries. Sometimes, he eats a few of them, and at other times, he eats all of his other food and eats none of the blueberries. Sometimes, he just likes to take the blueberries out of the bowl and then put them back. His mom has no agenda about Jimmy’s eating. Over a week’s time, he eats a well-balanced array of foods, is growing beautifully, and is full of health and energy.”
Instead of getting hung up on a single meal or single day, parents should pay attention to what the child is eating over the span of a week. Some days they’ll eat more or less or healthier than others. Children grow in spurts and their food preferences vary regularly. The authors add:
“Don’t worry if your child only wants peanut butter and jelly for many weeks and then won’t look at it for months afterward. If no issue is made (such as, ‘You’ve always loved this - why aren’t you eating it now?’), the child is quite likely to go back to this food sometime in the future.”
The best way for parents to encourage healthy eating is to eat the way they want their children to eat.
George doesn’t know the difference between broccoli and candy yet, but he does watch me and Sam as we’re eating. I’ve already caught myself eating too fast - something I still struggle with - and had to slow down. He’s paying attention. He notices.
Children Seek Autonomy
Kids don’t like to be told what to do. If a toddler says “No” to eating, he might be trying to show his independence and/or he might just not be hungry. Either way, there’s no need to force it. The authors assure the reader, “Don’t worry, when he’s hungry, he’ll eat!”
I love this, in theory. My husband Sam and I are early to the game, but I imagine this might be difficult to put into practice for two reasons.
One: put an array of food on the table for each meal. How many different types of food are we talking here? I’m not sure how feasible it is to have a plethora of options at every meal for our son.
Two: when he’s hungry he’ll eat. Okay but what if when he’s hungry Sam and I are busy? I’d like to imagine we can drop what we’re doing to fix George something to eat, but I can also relate to parents wanting their children to eat at the time when everyone is in the kitchen having a meal together.
Both are small obstacles. I plan to keep snacks readily available to minimize preparation in a pinch. Check back when George is 2-years-old to see if I’m singing a different tune!
Your Role As The Parent
Besides setting a good example with what and how you eat, it’s important to stay neutral when serving food. “If you’re invested in what or how much your child eats, your child will react to you instead of to his inner signals.”
Kids are perceptive. When food and eating is made into an issue, the body can no longer do what it’s naturally meant to do because the brain takes over.
ABC News journalist Dan Harris had an unhealthy relationship with sugar and desserts (“If you allow me to have that one Oreo I’ll never stop”) so he worried about how to deal with those issues with his son. Thankfully his wife led the charge. Harris explained her view around desserts:
“Just don’t be weird about it. Let him have it. You don’t want to give him dessert for every meal, but if he’s asking for something and it makes sense, let him have it. And as a consequence, our son’s not that crazy about sugar.”
It’s also important to remember that food is for hunger, satisfaction, and nourishment. Food should not be used to bribe, reward, or comfort.
Instead of offering ice cream when a child is sad, “let them know their feelings are real and valued and that there are ways to be comforted without using food.”
It was many years before I learned about emotional eating. And even then I didn’t know how to stop myself from doing it. I want to create space for George to talk about his feelings and recognize when he’s choosing to eat food to feel better emotionally as opposed to when he’s satisfying his hunger.
A United Front
My husband and I agree about most things as it pertains to raising our son. But when it comes to food there have been many heated discussions that sometimes end in tears (my tears; Sam isn’t triggered by conversations around food).
We both want our son to have a healthy relationship with food and his body. It’s just tough to navigate how to get there.
Power couple Sara Blakely and Jesse Itzler have an amazing marriage and agree that food was the hardest thing for them to be flexible about when raising their children because they come from different schools of thought. Itzler has very strong opinions on health and nutrition whereas Blakely eats everything in moderation.
“I didn’t want to focus on food in our family. I didn’t want the children to feel limited or too controlled around food. This was a messy bucket for us but we continue to talk it out and work it out and we’ve really come a long way. ...We had to for the sake of our family unit and the children.”
My husband agrees with my brother-in-law - we can’t just let George eat whatever he wants.
I argue that if we present George with a plethora of options and have no agenda around his eating, he wouldn’t want to eat candy and cookies all day. My husband argues that sugar, especially in processed foods, is designed to be addictive.
We both make valid points. Sugar can be addictive. At the same time, our bodies like to be healthy and feel good. If we know what it’s like to feel good because of the food we put into our bodies, we can trust our intuition to make the choice that is best for us. That means sometimes we want a cookie. Which is totally fine. But cookies every day won’t make our bodies feel great.
Eventually we reach a compromise. Of course I don’t want our son to eat candy and cookies all day. And I agree we can’t let him eat whatever he wants whenever he wants.
So there’s no hard and fast rules when it comes to food. If George asks for a bowl of ice cream we might say yes or we might say no. The answer matters less than the reasons why.
No matter how we handle it, Sam and I agree with Dan Harris’ wife: “Just don’t be weird about it.”
Put all of the foods on the table at once: Yes, including the cookies, along with the chicken and the broccoli and the bread.
Postpone introducing play food to very young children: Play food is food that has no nutritionally redemptive powers. If your child has been oriented to a wide variety of foods when he begins to eat solid foods, the play food will not become overvalued.
Introduce new food with other familiar foods: Don’t put out several new foods at once. This can be overwhelming for the child, and he might refuse everything. It can sometimes take 15 exposures or more for a child to accept a new food. Keep serving it from time to time, without any pressure.
Put a variety of foods on the table: When the children have become aware of play food, occasionally put some on the table, along with all of the nutritious food. Your child’s food choices may change from meal to meal or day to day. In the big picture, he’ll get all the nutrients he needs.
Share the power of nutrition early on: Teach your children that food can have the power to give them energy, make their bones and muscles strong, help them grow, help them avoid getting sick, help them think well at school, and help heal their wounds. Then connect the feedback loop: if your child complains of a stomach ache hours after eating ice cream, help him make that connection.
Talk about food in non-moralistic terms, rather than “Good” or “Bad”: There are some foods that don’t necessarily help the body, but exist, just to taste good. And that’s okay!
Eat family meals together: This provides an opportunity for your child to witness parents or siblings eating nutritious foods, even when your child is not ready to try them. When this is layered upon a neutral atmosphere about what and how much the child is eating, your child will eventually eat balanced meals.
Thanks to the Compound Writing Crew for feedback: Pranav Mutatkar, Kushaan Shah, Lyle McKeany, Kyla Scanlon, Nick deWilde, and Drew Stegmaier.