We are all born intuitive eaters- but life knocks it out of us. Parents and teachers tell us we shouldn't listen to our bodies, but to them to tell use how much, what and when to eat, strict lunchtimes at school and work teach us it is only acceptable to eat at certain times, and in general, we are told that we can't be trusted to decide how to eat ourselves!
BUT that is all wrong- we have the answers inside ourselves, and we should be encouraging our children to understand this ability in themselves more, not undermining it.
Allowing your child to eat intuitively can be scary, but remember that you will always be the parent and you intervene at any point you feel it is necessary.
Intuitive eating for children is essentially as it is for adults, the focus is on how you feel and how food makes you feel. You eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full and choose foods you enjoy often.
There are however a few notes for implementing intuitive eating with children.
**This information is not intended to make any parent feel guilty- how ever you choose to feed your children is a-OK. I am not here to judge that, just to provide information on an alternative approach that can help. **
What you need to know and remember:
All foods fit into a balanced diet and lifestyle-
Variety in food=variety in nutrition. Children understand this concept- say to them that different foods give us different amounts of energy and give us different vitamins and minerals to help our bodies. We need to have a mixture of foods so that we get lots of nutrients and energy. That's the truth anyway!
Avoid using binary food language-
This means avoiding calling foods good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Why? Because all foods fit (so none are good/bad, they are just food), and because this language creates a moral association with food which does not exist.
Using the words good and bad is limiting too- food usually isn't just good or bad. What does it taste like? What does it look like? How does it smell? How enjoyable was it? There are hundreds of words to use- don't limit yourself or your children to just good or bad! Work on developing food language and having discussions about food, rather than just stating whether a food or meal is healthy/unhealthy.
Avoid banning foods or creating rigid food rules-
When we ban or restrict a food, whether imposed on ourselves or on our children, it usually doesn't go down too well!
When we restrict, we crave. Children feel this too. They know they are missing out on something, and when they get the chance to eat that banned food they are more likely to eat far too much and to eat in secret (because they don't want to let you down).
I know it seems that it is easier just to keep them away from certain foods, but there will be exposure eventually when you are not around- E.G. at a friend's house, Granny's house, school or a party. And because they know you won't allow them to eat it at home or when they are with you, they are very likely to over-eat to compensate- after all they don't know when they will get to eat it again!
Get them more involved in food-
Children like to have some independence, so get them involved in what they eat.
Ask them what they would like to eat- they don't have to choose everything, but if you're having fish for dinner, ask them if they would like potatoes or rice, or peas or sweetcorn. It is a minor issue for you which they choose, but it gives them some responsibility and involvement.
Get them in the kitchen- there is lots a child can help with, peeling, chopping, mixing, washing. Let them help and they will- also it is great to get them used to cooking as they grow up!
Have foods available and let them choose- don't hide everything "nice" away. Have a variety of foods around and be sure they know where to find them. This makes them feel more secure and certain they can eat when they want.
Trust that they know, and can tell you, when they are hungry and full-
As I said, we are born intuitive eaters- infants know when they are hungry and full, hence the cry every few hours for milk!
You have to trust that they can feel their own hunger (after all, you cannot feel it for them!), and instead of worrying about that, focus on creating an environment that allows them to follow their cues of hunger and fullness. If they go to you when they are hungry, will you allow them to eat? If they feel full, will you allow them to leave food on their plate? You can use the hunger and fullness scale to help them and you figure out hunger and fullness cues- find my copy here.
Habits can be difficult to break, and so often I see clients imposing the same food rules that their parents imposed on them as children. It isn't easy to break the cycle and take an alternative route, but it is worth it.
Intuitive eaters are less likely to diet, have less preoccupation with food, have a lower risk of eating disorders, have a more positive relationship with food and their body, and importantly, understand and trust their body!
If the concept of intuitive eating for children seems wild, please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will happily answer.
Lots of love,
Little O x