Intuitive Eating and Kids

Was just reading the comments on Kate’s post on Intuitive Eating over at Shapely Prose, and Emerald’s comment struck a chord with me:

One of the things I find refreshing about the intuitive eating concept is that it acknowledges that you can be hungry for a particular food, rather than just generally ‘hungry’. It’s an old parental trick, I’m told by people I’ve known with kids – if you say you want a cookieand you’re not satisfied when Mom offers you an apple, you can’t really be hungry. Implication being, if you were really hungry you’d eat anything regardless of whether you like it or not.

I’ve been able to apply intuitive eating for myself for quite a number of years (although I didn’t call it quite that until recently). I try to listen to what my body wants. Chocolate at 10.30a? Go for it. Salad for lunch? done, But Emerald’s observations on parental tricks brought another aspect of intuitive eating to mind: kids and food.


I don’t have kids (yet – infertility issues) but I do have an parenting philosophy when it comes to kids and food – which is don’t force them, present choices for them, let them choose what’s on their plate and whether they eat it, and definitely don’t keep them at the table until they’ve choked down ALL the cauliflower (shudder) etc. Yes, this is untested in my childless reality, but surely it’s a good goal to let your kids learn to eat intuitively from day one?

Nevertheless, Emerald’s comment made me realise that somewhere, deeply embedded in my psyche, is the message that ‘responsible adults’ don’t allow children to snack, or if they do it has to be ‘a healthy choice’. Even if those ‘responsible adults’ practice intuitive eating themselves. So why the double standard in my head?

Surely if we want children to eat intuitively, we need to encourage that at all times, not just at meal times – right? Otherwise little Sarah will never learn to trust her own body and its hungers. What if she learns ‘cookies are bad, therefore I am bad for wanting cookies’ because we frequently deflect her with the apple? Which, as Emerald notes, she is supposed to eat if she really is hungry, because you will eat anything if you are really hungry.

So what do those of you who are parents do to navigate this issue in real life? Do you also come thumping into your own ingrained ‘responsible adult’ who regulates your kid’s food? or are you able to allow your kids real choice with foods? Is there a happy (or desirable) medium? How well does intuitive eating work for your kids?

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19 Responses to “Intuitive Eating and Kids”


  1. 1 Marste Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Well, I have no kids either, but I remember watching a friend of mine deal with her 4-year-old niece one day. The niece (who was not at all fat, but was definitely solid, if that makes sense) was on a semi-diet, according to her parents. My friend, who had a long history of eating disorders (which she was in recovery from) was babysitting M, and I was in the house with them. I watched M go to my friend and ask for chips. S (my friend) obligingly got them down and let M have them, and M proceeded to shovel them down her throat as fast as she could. S sat there with M, saying, “It’s ok, M, you don’t have to eat so fast. They’ll be here as long as you want them. You can enjoy them, you know.” After a little while, M was done, and S put the bag away.

    Now here’s what I thought was so interesting: about half an hour later, M came back in and said to S, “I want more chips.” S responded, “Ok, are you still hungry? You can have more chips if you want them.” M regarded her silently for a few seconds, then asked, “Whenever I want?” “Sure,” S responded, “I’ll let you have them whenever you want.” There was an even longer pause while M digested (ha!) that fact. Then she looked at S and said, “Can I have an apple now instead?”

    I almost fell out of my chair. It changed the way I thought about food and kids, and the two things together. I can only hope that if/when I have kids I remember that.

  2. 2 peggynature Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 12:37 pm

    I don’t have children, but my knee-jerk reaction to anyone with questions about how to raise a non-neurotic child is to refer them to Ellyn Satter, who is basically my nutrition hero.

    She recommends feeding children regular meals and snacks, so they can depend on structure in getting fed. Adults choose what to cook and serve, and children decide what and how much of what’s on the table to eat. She encourages serving dessert along with the meal, as though it is just another side-dish, and letting children use as much salad dressing, butter, etc., as they want.

    Underlying this philosophy is the idea that children basically already know how to feed themselves, but as with everything, they require a bit of structure and guidance to grow with it and become adults without food neuroses. Her book How to Get Your Kid to Eat… deals with all these issues.

    But you probably already knew all that — I just want to make sure everyone involved in fat acceptance knows about her, as she was probably one of the very first nutrition professionals to advocate and practice a HAES approach, and her theories inform almost everything that’s come down the pike in regard to “intuitive eating.”

  3. 3 La di Da Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 12:38 pm

    I’d explicitly add “Don’t use food as a reward or punishment”. Sending kids to bed without dinner because they were naughty, no dessert because they pulled their brother’s hair, rewarding a positive outcome with a treat food, etc. I don’t have kids either, but I’ve been one in the midst of wacky eating issues and I really think that all moral and behavioural values should be removed from food. My mum used to do things like “Whoever eats all their peas and beans first gets ice cream” with me and my brother, which implies that peas and beans are a chore to eat, that ice cream is only after you’ve suffered through vegetables, that it’s good to force food down your throat (hello bingeing), and that you get “naughty” food like ice cream as a reward. Which is screwy.

    The fine line with food as reward is the near world-wide use of feasting or special meals for celebrations and holidays, although I guess that’s really about a particular day or event rather than an action you performed. For example, there’s a difference between saying “For your your birthday, you get the sole say in which restaurant we go to” and “If you get good marks on your exam, you can go to McDonald’s.” – with the birthday, everyone gets one once a year, it’s pretty value-neutral. The other is dependent on the child’s performance.

  4. 4 Christine Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 12:45 pm

    My (naturally thin) older sister tried that crap with me as a kid – trying to substitute what I wanted with what she thought I should have, scolding me with, “then you must not really be hungry, because if you were really hungry you’d eat whatever was offered.” I knew it was bullshit even then, because I knew she’d let herself starve to death in front of a plate of liver, coconut or raisins (her personal dreaded foods). Anyway, we’re all cool now. She’s apologized to me many times for trying to boss me and admits she should have just stayed the hell out of it because it was none of her business.

    As for kids and intuitive eating, I admit I struggle with that with my own 10 year old daughter. Her food issues are much the same as mine were and are – mindless eating and eating out of boredom. I never declare any food off limits, and I do generally let her body dictate what she wants to eat. Case in point, when she was recently sick I asked her what she wanted to eat from the grocery store – I’d literally buy her anything she wanted. She asked for mangoes and broccoli. (Which makes me want to yell, “Take that, all you so-called childhood obesity experts! The little fat girl could have ANYTHING SHE WANTED and she asked for fruits and veggies!”) However, I’ve also seen her grab a stack of cookies without thinking about it. That’s when I gently suggest that she start with two, with a glass of milk, and then decide if she really wants more. Generally, she doesn’t – but she wouldn’t have found that out if I hadn’t stepped in and stopped her before she ate 7 of them. So it’s a fine line…(and sorry this was so long).

  5. 5 mrsmillur Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 1:10 pm

    My daughter just turned two.

    And I have very different ideas about feeding her than her aunt and grandmother do.

    My job: to make a variety of nutritious and delicious foods available to her.
    Her job: to decide which, and how much, of the available foods she will eat at any given time.

    Sometimes she asks for apples. Sometimes she asks for cookies. She’s usually hungrier in the morning and mid-day than the evening. Sometimes she leaves most of what I offer, sometimes she cleans her plate and asks for more.

    We were at my sister’s and she asked for juice. she was told, “one more bite of pasta, and then you can have some juice”. She looked at my sis like she was utterly mad. At 20mos. “Crazy lady, I’m not hungry for pasta, I’m thirsty for juice”- it was in her eyes.

    Intuitive eating? She isn’t learning it from me, she’s teaching.

  6. 6 Liz Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 1:20 pm

    I let my son have cookies and stuff like that, but not right before a meal. If we’re about to eat, I ask him to eat some dinner first, and then he can have dessert. Our rule is you have to eat at least one bite of everything on your plate to “try” it. If you don’t like it after ONE bite, you don’t have to eat the rest. But you definitely have try it. “How do you know you don’t like it if you don’t try it?”

    As a result, MM asks for brussels sprouts and asparagus, and salmon sushi and shrimp, as well as cake and cookies.

  7. 7 AnnieMcPhee Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 1:40 pm

    I have two grown kids. When they were toddlers, I wondered what in hell they were living on – I was happy if I could get them to eat at all. (Chocolate milk, mostly.) Part of it was trying to slow them down from their activities to bother taking the time to eat. We didn’t have money, so meals were mostly “This is what we’re having for dinner; if you don’t want that you can have X but that’s all else we’ve got.” Lunch was more like “Well, we have X and Y, take your pick.” Choices are good. At mealtime, though I really can’t see letting them fill up on cookies or cake, even if they feel like it – they can have that after the meal, IMO. Or maybe alongside it so long as they eat the real food too.

    To a great degree I think this Ellyn Satter plan is pretty darn good, and might give you a great guideline (just do keep in mind that when it comes to parenting, the BEST laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, ok? Trust me.) : http://www.ellynsatter.com/$spindb.query.memo.kelcyview.42.39
    http://www.ellynsatter.com/

    Thanks to Harriet at Feed Me! for linking to the Satter site :)

  8. 8 Bri Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 4:20 pm

    This one brings up issues in our house because my husband is from the “eat everything on your plate” school of thought, whereas I am of the “this is what there is,whether you eat it or not is up to you but there isn’t going to be anything else cooked” school of thought. I don’t use food as punishment or reward but my husband tends to, something that bothers me. I refer to my husband as The Fruit Nazi as he is constantly on our son’s case about eating the fruit in his school lunch box, which is generally 3 pieces a day. School doesn’t allow “junk” to be sent along so that helps. Son would eat McDonalds (or KFC or lollies or ice creams) whenever he could if he was allowed to. He isn’t allowed to because it isn’t good for him, it costs too much and he can’t always have what he wants. That isn’t to say he never gets that sort of thing, just not on a regular basis. Food was a battle with son when he was younger as he didn’t like to chew things and he was very sensitive to the texture of different things. Now he just doesn’t like tomatoes or mushrooms but if they are in something we cook, he has to eat them. It is really hard navigating this stuff when the parents have different ideas about it…

  9. 9 jamboree Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 5:56 pm

    Ensuring my children eat well is something that I worry about a lot. My son is a picky eater, and that has caused a fair bit of stress at mealtimes. I try to remind myself that young children tend to eat a balanced diet over the course of a week, rather than the course of a day.

    I don’t have a lot of junkfood in the house; this is mostly due to my own food issues. If there is a stash of chocolate in the house, I tend to gorge on it until it’s gone. It’s something I’m working on. Last week, at a party, I gave my kids permission to eat as much party food as they wanted — cakes, crisps, sweets, whatever. My daughter could barely believe it. She kept asking me over and over again, “Can I eat this? What about this? And this, too??!”

    I have to admit that I was very uncomfortable with the amount of junk food she was eating, but the world didn’t grind to a halt. She didn’t pass out from a sugar rush. She was fine.

    I still have issues to work out, though.

  10. 10 bcr88 Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 8:48 pm

    i agree

  11. 11 JoGeek Tuesday, 12 February 2008 at 11:54 pm

    I’ve been watching my brother and his wife raise their two-year old, and have been really impressed. They try to introduce a “new food” once a week (and one at a time to check for allergens). He knows that if he’s hungry, he can ask for “bites,” and he’ll get them so he doesn’t get to the cranky-starving stage. He loves (and asks for) a wide variety of foods (cheese, fruit, veggies, toast) and isn’t told that anything’s a “bad” food. If he wants a treat, they’ll give him a small piece of chocolate or a cookie, and he’s satisfied without asking for more. They try to keep a lot of fresh foods in the house, but also use freeze-dried fruits as a quick-snack. It’s basically like watching Intuitive Eating in action, and he’s always known how to do it. That says to me that IE’s not something we learn to do, it’s something we’re trained out of at an early age (even as an infant on “feeding schedules”) and have to be reminded of.

  12. 12 April Wednesday, 13 February 2008 at 12:05 am

    Well the whole idea of raising (and feeding) kids in this crazy world is just one of the many terrifying things that haunt my mind when I contemplate bringing a small life into this world.

    That said though I know that, as some others have said, I will not be using food as punishments/rewards. I will also NOT force a child to sit in front of a heaped plate of food (that they have already tasted and KNOW they don’t like, especially) and tell them they must sit there until it is all gone since “There are starving children in Africa who would die/kill to have this food.” I still can’t look at/smell beef stew from this wonderful practice…and yep; still hate it. The worst part about that policy is that more than likely the kid (or me growing up) didn’t get to CHOOSE how much was on the plate!

    So my big goal for children will be to offer choices as much as possible, remind them that nothing will go away forever (so you don’t have to eat all of whatever item NOW in case it might disappear), and encourage letting them tell ME when they are full. Seems like a lofty goal…maybe I should keep working on doing the same myself first :)

  13. 13 Fatadelic Wednesday, 13 February 2008 at 12:24 am

    Marste said

    “Ok, are you still hungry? You can have more chips if you want them.” M regarded her silently for a few seconds, then asked, “Whenever I want?” “Sure,” S responded, “I’ll let you have them whenever you want.” There was an even longer pause while M digested (ha!) that fact. Then she looked at S and said, “Can I have an apple now instead?”

    Ha. Straight from the text book.

    Peggynature said:

    I don’t have children, but my knee-jerk reaction to anyone with questions about how to raise a non-neurotic child is to refer them to Ellyn Satter, who is basically my nutrition hero.

    I agree Satter makes a lot of commonsense. More than most people on the topic, and certainly her recommendations for ‘obese’ children are sensible, if revolutionary (let them decide how much and what they eat). But she still advocates setting times for meals and snacks with no eating outside of those regulated times. Structure can be good, certainly, but is there any harm in non-structured snacks? Let’s say Sarah doesn’t feel like a snack at 3 but is simply ravenous at 4? My mum would have said ‘tough, you’ll spoil your dinner’. But is that necessarily a good thing?

    La di Da said:

    I’d explicitly add “Don’t use food as a reward or punishment”.

    I’d agree with that. The whole ‘no dessert until you eat your brussell sprouts’ thing is awful, and (as you say) sets kid up with the good foods/bad foods paradigm. I’d also add avoid using food as bribery, ie. ‘if you are good while mummy shops, you can have an icecream’.

    Christine:

    “Take that, all you so-called childhood obesity experts! The little fat girl could have ANYTHING SHE WANTED and she asked for fruits and veggies!”

    LOL. Perfect. But your story with the cookies touches on what I was getting at with the post. If I (or another adult) wanted 7 cookies, I’d probably say go for it, because maybe you need carbs that night or maybe your body is just readjusting after years of dieting or restricted eating, and 7 cookies might be what is needed right at that point. Of course, that’s based on the assumption that the person doesn’t have an ED and is able to stop eating when they reach fullness (perhaps after 2 cookies, perhaps not) rather than keep binging to the point of no return. For a kid, though? I wouldn’t deny the cookies, but I think I’d add a glass of milk or offer some other choices as well.

    mrsmillur:

    Intuitive eating? She isn’t learning it from me, she’s teaching.

    I guess that’s the key, isn’t it? Kids eat intuitively by… well… intuition.

    Liz:

    Our rule is you have to eat at least one bite of everything on your plate to “try” it.

    That makes sense. Kids need to taste something 10 or 20 times before they know for sure whether they like it or not, isn’t that right? My eldest stepsister didn’t do that with her son, and he ended up eating practically nothing but chicken nuggets and chips for his first 18 years. Sure he ate, but he would not try anything else and she was cooking separate meals for him. When her daughter arrived, she’d learnt from her mistakes and made sure she at least tried things.

    AnnieMcPhee

    Choices are good. At mealtime, though I really can’t see letting them fill up on cookies or cake, even if they feel like it – they can have that after the meal, IMO.

    That makes sense, too. Ellen Satter suggests putting the dessert out with the dinner and letting the kids decide when and what, even if it means not one scrap of dinner is consumed except dessert. Personally, that seems a little extreme. Cake is not dinner.

    Bri:

    This one brings up issues in our house because my husband is from the “eat everything on your plate” school of thought, whereas I am of the “this is what there is,whether you eat it or not is up to you but there isn’t going to be anything else cooked” school of thought.

    I tend to your way of thinking. My step-dad was of the ‘everything on your plate’ school, and it just caused DRAMA at the dinner table. It wasn’t pleasant for anyone, not to mention that my siblings and I have never learnt to like what we were forced to eat (cauliflower, ick).

    Jamboree:

    I have to admit that I was very uncomfortable with the amount of junk food she was eating, but the world didn’t grind to a halt. She didn’t pass out from a sugar rush. She was fine.

    I still have issues to work out, though.

    Yeah. That’s got to be hard. It’s difficult enough navigating our own food issues, without the added worry of raising your children with a healthy relationship to food.

  14. 14 sarah Wednesday, 13 February 2008 at 1:06 am

    My daughter is 8. I let her snack. I always give her options. The only thing I do is if she eats a sweat or junk food and is still hungry then she has to eat something more feeling like a sandwich or an apple. She’s pretty good about it. At meals I don’t make her eat everything on her plate and if it is something she doesn’t like she has to take two bites and then I’ll let her go(somethimes she finds out she exactually likes it and will finish it).

  15. 15 hotsauce Wednesday, 13 February 2008 at 1:22 am

    this is something think about a lot when i think about having kids in a few years, because i was raised in a tense house when it came to food and dieting. i would say that one big thing that wasn’t mentioned here (forgive me if it was and i missed it) is that it’s important to model IE yourself, even if you have to fake it sometimes, and *never* give off the impression that you’re being naughty for choosing a particular food. my mom was one of those moms who would say, hey! let’s have apple pie for dinner! and act like she was the ultimate in antiestablishment forces. but she was also where i first heard the phrase “a minute on your lips, forever on your hips.” talk about mixed messages. and she wasn’t even the whacked one — that position was saved for my dad, who would literally pick carrots out of a soup because they were a high GI carb (i witnessed that horrific display when i was an adult, though). but anyway, my point is, you can offer your kids every food under the sun and allow them to choose, but if he or she overhears you uttering some diet talk, well … i’m definitely not saying all other efforts are for naught, but kids do emulate adult behavior so i think it’s clearly necessary for mom & dad to walk the walk, too.

    on another note, i will also plea for parents out there to not make claims that fish tastes like ice cream. i kid you not, this line was once used on my brother and me. oh, and cauliflower tastes like chips. gahhhhhh.

  16. 16 mrsmillur Wednesday, 13 February 2008 at 2:10 am

    Cauliflower does not taste like chips.
    Cauliflower tastes like, well, cauliflower.

    Which is lovely, in its cauliflower way.

    It seems like claiming ‘fish tastes like ice cream’ is a way to guarantee disappointment in the fishness of fish, and ensuring that a kid will never learn to enjoy fish for its own flavour.

  17. 17 Orodemniades Wednesday, 13 February 2008 at 3:43 am

    I hope I can support the Chieftan in intuitive eating. I was a kid who ate whatever was on the plate because, y’know, that’s all there was, while Mr Oro had weird tastes and survived on mac n cheese or jelly sandwiches for months at a time, to his mother’s despair. I intend to offer the Chieftan food without boundaries, but with one rule – you can have dessert, but you have to eat a little dinner first! Cuz I’m cranky enough on my own, if y’know what i mean…

  18. 18 Caasana Wednesday, 13 February 2008 at 5:23 am

    So I’m a little embarassed to admit this, but I’m telling it to support the wonderful parents here who are following IE.

    I’m 20, I still live at home and while I’m not a binge eater, I do partake in mini-binges where I basically eat nothing but sugar for an entire meal out of spite and I will horde and hide food from my parents.

    My parents are the epitome of “the food police” in part because my mother was diagnosed with diabetes when I was real young and is deathly afraid that me and my brother will get it. Thus starting the diet mentality that even though I’ve always intuitively known was a bad relationship with food and that I always knew fat itself wouldn’t kill me and that I’m happy just the way I am, those words and thoughts continue to plague me, sometimes literally.

    So when I was younger, I’d go to grab a few cookies after dinner, Mom’s voice starts in “What are you getting?” “Oreos.” “How many?” “4” “You don’t need that many! Put them back!”

    As I got older and was allowed to keep money for myself, I began buying junk food and hording it in my room so I could have what I wanted and never be questioned. At 20 years old, I still do it and not because I really want it, but because my parents honestly believe they aren’t any different than any other parents, they’re protecting me, they’re just looking out for my well-being. I can’t stand having to answer to them for every move I make so eating an entire pan of brownies for lunch while they’re at work is just the ticket. They never allowed me choice or freedom to do what I felt was right. All I’ve ever heard was “You don’t need that. You don’t need that much. Put that back. If you’re hungry, have a glass of water.”

    I know what’s right for myself, I always have, and with my parents constantly hounding me about everything I do, it became all about rebellion and doing things in spite. I’m learning that harming myself isn’t a good way to “get back” at them for it, but it doesn’t change the past. Reading about all of the positive things you guys are doing for your kids has restored a bit of my faith in humanity and even though it’s hard, remember you’re doing something really great for your kids – listening to them and allowing them to listen to themselves.

  19. 19 livingrainbowcolor Friday, 15 February 2008 at 12:25 pm

    My daughter is almost 17, and I was anxious during her early years that I would pass my eating disorder on to her. I didn’t – she is unbelievably intuitive in her eating. Grin – it makes her father a little grumpy sometimes when she won’t clean her plate, but I defend it and he understands.
    What we did when she was a baby was NOT have sweets and junk food a part of her diet. We did offer her a taste of everything else we ate, though. On her first birthday, she had her first taste of ice cream, and did not like it.
    When she was 3, we were at a party and I gave her a plate of cucumber and brownies. She chose the cucumber, and never touched the brownie. Since that time, she has learned to love brownies, and Oreos, and many other junk foods, but in reasonable amounts. She is also a very normal weight, and never struggled with binging or restricting.
    It IS possible.


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