Written by: Emily Stasko
You may have seen the book or heard about it on social media. It’s gaining traction in popular culture, although it is not to be confused with the latest fad diet: Intuitive Eating. If it’s not a diet, what exactly is it? Intuitive Eating is a mind-body approach to eating created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It involves listening to your body and responding to its messages to meet your physical and psychological needs. Intuitive Eating is not a diet or food plan, but rather a journey to improving your relationship with food and body awareness. There are ten principles of Intuitive Eating, included below and briefly explained by following this link: 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. It is important to keep in mind these are not rules surrounding our eating, but rather general guidelines in the continual process of personal development. As these are not hardened rules, the process will have many ups and downs and will therefore look different for everyone.
- Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality
- Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger
- Principle 3: Make Peace with Food
- Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police
- Principle 5: Respect Your Fullness
- Principle 6: Discover the Satisfaction Factor
- Principle 7: Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
- Principle 8: Respect Your Body
- Principle 9: Exercise- Feel the Difference
- Principle 10: Honor Your Health
Intuitive Eating can be adopted throughout any stage of life. Kids are unique in that they innately have the ability to monitor their hunger and fullness levels and choose foods that are satisfying to them. As they grow older, this can be affected by both the influence of others around us, diet culture, or a set of beliefs that equate thinness with health and happiness and prioritizes weight over physical and mental wellbeing. How can we help to protect and reinforce Intuitive Eating in children? Start by following these general tips:
Share the power of nutrition early on
Teach your kids that food has the power to help them grow big and strong, avoid getting sick, pay attention at school and provide them with energy. There are a few different terms that can be given to these foods: “nutritious foods,” “growing foods,” or “vital foods.” Pick a descriptive word that works best for you.
Talk about foods in non-moralistic terms, rather than “good” food and “bad” food
Assigning foods the “bad” designation can instill feelings of guilt and shame in a child. Instead, tell children that some foods aren’t as packed with nutrients, they exist mainly to taste good. These can be referred to as “play foods.” Refrain from calling them “junk foods,” as this implies that they serve no purpose and could elicit a feeling of shame for eating something with no value. For kids to better understand, give this example. Just like they don’t go to school year-round without weekends or breaks, they also don’t play all year long without going to school. We can’t have learning in school without breaks, just like we can’t have nutritious foods without play foods.
Prepare balanced meals for your kids
Once children are at the age where they can eat all foods, prepare balanced meals including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean and plant-based sources of protein, dairy products, and healthy fats. Explain to them what each food group is and the purpose that each serves on the plate.
Children love to mimic their parents/caregivers
Enjoy and appreciate food together as a family by trying to have a meal together whenever possible. Eat a variety of foods yourself to model a healthy relationship with food.
Don’t be a short-order cook for your children
Make one meal for the whole family, but include multiple side dishes so that each child has something to eat, even if they do not like the main course. Let them know that you will not be making several different dishes for each person. Assure them that you are including foods that you know each family member likes.
Put a variety of foods on the table
Dietitian Ellyn Satter encourages parents/caregivers to determine the what, when, and where of feeding. It’s up to the child to determine whether to eat what is provided and how much to eat. Occasionally, put some play food on the table at the same time as the rest of the dinner. Don’t make any comments about which foods or how much a child should eat. Trust your child’s innate abilities. If you show a vested interest in what or how much your child eats, they may react to you instead of their inner signals. Some days they may only want the play foods, but most days they will eat some of everything that is served. Also, refrain from telling your children to eat a certain amount of the nutritious food prior to eating the play food as this could lead to negative results. The child may start a negotiation process that can lead to tension at the meal. It could lead to children developing the habit of cleaning their plates and oftentimes eating past their fullness level just so they can eat dessert. This results in changes to the way children view dessert, giving it the appearance of a reward for finishing their meal. It is best to avoid rewarding, bribing, and/or attempting to comfort children with food. Food should only be used for its main purposes: hunger, satisfaction, and nourishment. Help your children by letting them know their feelings are valid and that they can comfort themselves in other ways without using food.
While you may already be following a few of these tips, some may seem unfamiliar. It takes time to unlearn behaviors that are common throughout communities and cultures. Strive for progress, not perfection. Start by choosing one tip to focus on and continue to work on until it becomes a habit; then move on and tackle the next one. Remember that similar to how you would practice Intuitive Eating for yourself, implementing these tips with children is a continual process with ups and downs. For more information and guidance on promoting Intuitive Eating during different stages of life, check out the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. If you’re interested in learning more about how to apply Intuitive Eating in your own life, find a dietitian in your area that specializes in Intuitive Eating or those who are Certified Intuitive Eating Counselors by following this link: Trained and Certified by the Original Intuitive Eating Pros.
Tribole, E. & Resch E. (2012). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. 3rd edition. St. Martin’s Griffin.
Please note: there is a newer fourth edition published in 2020.