As parents, we often spend a lot of time thinking about our parenting decisions, especially when it comes to food choices. As a parent, I know I’ve worried when one of my children hasn’t eaten enough, or only wants toast for days on end. And, as much as I want to feed them healthy food, I also want to raise them to trust their cues and instincts so that they choose foods that are also pleasurable and satisfying. Why? Because learning to really trust their instincts when it comes to hunger, fullness and satiety is a key life skill that will help to ensure a lifelong healthy relationship with food.
What is Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating is an approach that teaches you how to create a healthy relationship with food. It encourages people to distinguish between physical and emotional feelings and learn to trust their body. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? And simple? (Parents who are interested in learning more can consult the Intuitive Eating website for more information.)
In many ways it IS simple, but as parents we often don’t trust our children’s hunger and fullness cues. Have you ever said…
…you haven’t eaten enough for dessert.
…take 3 more bites please?
…No, you can’t have that until you finish your lunch
All of the above are well-intentioned! We love our kids and just want the best for them. But, bribing and encouraging them to eat foods they don’t like, aren’t satisfying, or eating after stating they are full (even if it’s after 2 bites) may lead to less than an ideal relationship with food and eating. So, what can we do?
Follow Evelyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DOR) from Day 1.
The parent is responsible for what, when, where. The child is responsible for how much and whether.
Following the DOR alleviates any burden you may feel to ensure your child eats! If they are hungry, they will eat. Transitioning to using the DOR can take practice for everyone involved. Talking about expectations can help, but most families find this model makes for more peaceful mealtimes in a short period of time.
Don’t use food for punishment, incentive or reward
Using food as currency is a slippery slope and one that should be limited. Don’t make a child eat their vegetables in order to get dessert. And don’t offer to buy a treat for good behaviour. Not only does this set up the expectation that they will be rewarded for good behaviour, it also sends the wrong message about food potentially leading to emotional eating. We should enjoy our food, but we should be distinguishing between emotional and physical hunger cues.
Trust your child’s ability to self-regulate their appetite
This is hands down THE HARDEST PART of raising an intuitive eater. But, ask yourself this…have you ever had a day when you were hungrier than usual? Or less hungry? Physical hunger changes with activity, illness, sleep, etc. This means that there will be days when your child eat MORE, and days when they eat LESS. Following the DOR, your only job is to provide the what, when and where. Your child can self-regulate if and how much. Believe me – it works.
Emphasize the pleasurable aspects of food
Food should be enjoyable. Who wants to eat things they don’t like? Is it ok to celebrate a birthday with cake? Of course! And what about ice cream on a hot summer day?
We all have favourite “fun foods” that may not check any “healthy boxes” but restricting them only puts them on a pedestal. Emphasize that fun foods are like any other special occasion – once in a while and just enough to feel satisfied.
Be their best role model and get them excited about food
Model intuitive eating at home. What does that mean? Don’t talk about diets, weight or “bad foods”. If you’re struggling with your own diet demons, seek a professional who can help you navigate recovery.
Let your kids see you enjoy food! And yes, I’m even talking about cake. But also any other food you REALLY enjoy. My kids will heartily tell you that salad if my favourite food. And it’s true! But my salads have all the fixings and bring me joy! That being said, they also know I love mint ice cream!
Involve them in meal planning and food prep. And let them serve up their own portions. Serving meals “buffet style” teaches them to match their portion to their hunger – a great skill!
At the end of the day, worry less about what and how much your child eats, and focus more on the how and the why. Teach them that food should be pleasurable and satisfying. Get them excited about food!