10 Ways To Nurture Your Child’s Inner Intuitive Eater

by Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

Last Updated: March 22, 2021

We are born as Intuitive Eaters – meaning we have the natural ability to know what to eat when to eat, and how much to eat for our body to feel and function its best.

These innate abilities can be enhanced or impaired through parental, environmental, and societal influences. When we learn about nutrition, we are often taught what to eat, but very little focus is given to how to eat, or how to feed our child(ren), which is potentially more important.

Parenting with a style that nurtures eating by harnessing the child’s inner Intuitive Eater encourages our children to have a healthy, sustainable, and enjoyable relationship with food and body. Mainstream child feeding recommendations and pediatricians are starting to focus more on this thanks to evidenced-based approaches called Intuitive Eating (IE) and the Division of Responsibility.

While we highly recommend reading books by Ellyn Satter or Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch to learn more, we know parents probably don’t have time for that! So, we’ve condensed their recommendations into 10 key steps on how to feed children to raise Intuitive Eaters:
  1. Practice the division of responsibility.
    This gold standard for feeding children specifies that it’s the parent’s job to determine what, when, and where the child will eat. It’s the child’s job to determine how much and whether to eat what is provided. To work well, parents should provide sit-down family meals most of the time, provide regularly spaced meal and snack times, and consider the below tips.
  2. Less talk, more role modeling.
    Kids learn by watching and are often stubborn when pressured or told what to do. Be a role model for eating when hungry by stopping when full and enjoying various foods without verbalizing judgments or pressure about food.
  3. Avoid being a short-order cook!
    Serve everyone in the family the same food. Serve enough balanced side dishes to choose from if your child doesn’t wish to eat the main dish.
  4. Let your child self-regulate.
    Avoid restricting amounts of foods, including treat foods. Food restriction in any form will backfire with serious consequences. If we allow them, children will naturally flux how much food they eat according to their growth and activity to meet their needs without interference. Some days they need less or more food. Respect your child’s wishes if she does not want to eat at all or if she wants to eat a lot of one thing or only a little bit. Over a 1-2 week period, you will usually see your child balance out their intake.
  5. Honor your child’s autonomy.
    Allow your children to feed and serve themselves as soon as age-appropriate. Don’t force them to “clean the plate” or try a certain food. Avoid commenting or pressuring. When possible, involve children in the grocery and meal preparation.
  6. Try, and try again, at least 20 times!
    Introduce new foods but remember it can take over twenty exposures before a child may try it. Serve new foods with familiar foods, let her see you and others eating it, and allow them to play with it. Hold your tongue - try not to comment or pressure them to eat it!
  7. Make food neutral and fun, not moral.
    Allow all foods. Avoid talking about food in “good/bad” terms as this can instill guilt or fixation on foods not “allowed.”
  8. Use non-food rewards.
    Try not to bribe, reward or comfort with food so children can learn other sources of comfort.
  9. Occasionally serve treat foods alongside the meal.
    Serve mostly nutrient-dense foods, balanced meals, and snacks, but intermix treat foods alongside the nutrient-dense option from time to time. Avoid commenting on what or how much your child should eat or which foods they should eat first.
  10. Discuss the benefits of nutrition in a non-judgmental way.
    Nutritious foods help us play, sleep, think clearly, and feel good. While treat foods offer little nutrition, they taste good and bring joy to our lives, which is still important.

The key concept in these steps is “trust.” Trust your child’s abilities. No matter their size, children truly know how much to eat to meet their needs. They need autonomy and guidance from parents, not pressure, to foster this development.

Approaching eating as an intuitive process is a lot easier and more enjoyable than the forceful approaches with food that many of us grew up with! For more personalized advice about your nutrition or your family nutrition dynamics, book a Telenutrition appointment with any of our talented Kroger Health Dietitians who are well seasoned in juggling life and food challenges.

References:
  1. Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, 4th Edition. New York: St. Martin's Essentials.
  2. Satter, E. (2000). Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense. Boulder: Bull Publishing.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.


Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

A mom of 2 little kiddos and over 15 years experience in nutrition, Katy enjoys helping her patients squeeze good nutrition and activity into an already “full” life and find their own balance with nutrition and health while still enjoying food to the fullest. She is an expert in weight management, mindful eating, digestive health, anti-inflammatory nutrition, culinary nutrition, cooking/baking, and any other topic related to food! Outside of work, you’ll find her traveling, walking, jogging, beer tasting, and eating gelato.