How To Teach Your Kids Intuitive Eating
One of the most important relationships caregivers foster in children is their relationship with food. Helping kids develop a long-lasting positive relationship with their body and food can lead to long-lasting positive self-worth. And as we know from the almond mom trend on TikTok, giving off negative messages or setting negative examples about food and nutrition can have negative effects.
One popular, anti-diet philosophy that's all about positive messaging is intuitive eating. In this type of eating, you trust your body's judgment and hunger cues to "tell" you what, when, and how much to eat. And these days, more parents are interested in raising intuitive eaters, as a way of pushing back on the type of diet culture that permeates so much of the messaging we get about food and nutrition.
But how to raise intuitive eaters can be a little confusing, or even intimidating. After all, it's also a parent's job to also ensure that little ones are getting adequate nutrition and meeting growth milestones. So when considering intuitive eating, a common concern that comes up is whether you can really trust your kid to not eat only cookies or chips.
But as daunting as it seems, raising intuitive eaters is worth it. "Creating a curiosity-based approach to eating, instead of shame-based one, creates a platform for healthy eating that will extend into adulthood," says Jessika Brown, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD-S, a registered dietitian, health industry expert, and creator of the Fuel Her Awesome podcast.
And starting to explore intuitive eating can be as simple as having a few catch phrases in your back pocket. Here are three to get you going.
"Tummy Hunger" vs. "Mouth Hunger"
"Intuitive eating is often misunderstood as 'eat whatever you want, when you want," Brown tells POPSUGAR. "As a parent, this interpretation of intuitive eating would sound like a terrible idea. But intuitive eating isn't about eating any and all food. Rather, it's about allowing our body to be the interpreter of what feels good and trusting our body to manage the imperfections in your eating patterns," she says. Giving kids non-judgmental language around their body's experience of food is key in helping them develop a positive relationship with their body and with eating.
To help kids understand those eating patterns, parents and caregivers can use the phrases "mouth hunger" and "tummy hunger" to help kids explore the different ways in which our bodies experience food without using external cues and negative messaging. Discussing "mouth hunger," the sensation of craving something based on taste and sensation alone, versus "tummy hunger," eating something based on a deep sense of feeling satiated and satisfied, can help children start to tune in to their internal experience of food.
For instance, asking kids to explore what their mouth is hungry for allows them to recognize that a part of their body is enjoying something about the food. Mouth hunger is about the immediately satisfying experience of eating and all the sensations that go along with it: crunchy, chewy, sweet — the mouth likes it all! In fact, it can even help to explain to kids that "mouth hunger" is a little bossy and sometimes it doesn't listen to "tummy hunger."
Engaging kids in a discussion of which foods satisfy their "tummy hunger" can help empower kids to talk about foods which help build muscles, promote growth, and deeply satisfy them. "Tummy hunger" is recognizing which foods make your body feel uniquely healthy and satiated.
It's not only powerful to help kids recognize what their "tummy hunger" actually wants and needs, but it's also a great place to talk about diversity and differences in bodies. For example, some bodies feel great eating a lot of dairy. Other bodies don't. Each body is different, each tummy is different, it's your child's job to learn about what their "tummy hunger" craves and respect that information.
"Best Self Foods"
Brown is the first to tell you that restricting or labeling a food as "forbidden" increases the likelihood that you'll binge on it. This is true for adults, but especially kids. Using the phrase "best self foods" instead of "good" or "bad food" allows families to explore how healthy foods can enhance life and longevity, without promoting many of the classist and sexist ways in which food myths permeate our culture.
Avoiding labeling a food as bad, or even as "junk food" can help parents and caregivers discuss wise food choices in a way that empowers kids. In this scenario, junk food isn't a negative thing that we need to be rid of. (Thank goodness!) It's simply something that's fun, but doesn't necessarily promote our best self.
Describing foods as "best self foods" also takes the perfectionism out of food. We don't have to always be eating kale and owning up to our best — it's OK to occasionally opt out of our absolute best and be more relaxed. However, it's important to recognize that as great as those moments feel, they will not help us become our best self.
Using this phrase puts treats in their place, without using the negative cultural connotations that can come up. Most importantly. it gives children permission to fully enjoy treats when the opportunity presents itself, and promotes positive language around healthy food, forming a long lasting sense of empowerment in kids.
"That's not for me today"
One of the trickiest things that intuitive eating promotes is the ability for kids to say what they are willing to eat and what they aren't. Giving kids the freedom to decide what they want to eat and what they don't at the dinner table promotes a feeling of trust between parents and kids at mealtimes. However, it can be difficult for parents who grew up having to clear their plates or take three bites to allow their kids to opt out of trying a new food. But ultimately, even requiring a "no thank you bite" can make it increasingly difficult to talk about food without judgement.
Consider having a rule at your table instead that kids are allowed to not eat something, but they're also not allowed to claim they do or don't like something until they try it. When your kid (or you) doesn't feel like eating something on their plate, they can reach for the phrase, "It's not for me today." This rule puts your child in charge of what they eat, but also eliminates the "ewwwww yuck!" comments which can ruin dinnertime for the grownups at the table.
In the end, allowing kids to say "that's not for me today" — which is different than "I don't like this" — gives them the power to potentially try the food in the future. It's not a hard no, which allows kids the space to explore their changing and dynamic relationship with food.
You can respond to an "it's not for me" comment with, "Maybe next time you will like it," allowing for your child's tastes to grow as they do. Giving your kid authority over their experiences creates positive body image, but also leaves the door open for the food to be enjoyed in the future.
Using these three phrases as a jumping off point for exploring your child's relationship with intuitive eating takes away judgement, promotes self-exploration, and allows kids to recognize the power of their own bodies. Perhaps the most empowering and enjoyable part of teaching intuitive eating is that it recognizes and embraces imperfections.
Reaching for these statements may feel challenging, especially if you didn't grow up in a home that promoted positive food relationships. But the good news is that embracing intuitive eating means embracing imperfections — giving you time to grow, too.