My husband and I were sitting in a fast-food restaurant with our four kids, a pit stop on the way to the beach with our family. The mom in the booth behind us starting bribing her child to eat. “If you don’t finish your chicken nuggets and fries,” she warned, “You will not be getting any ice cream.” My husband and I looked at each other and chuckled. (No judgment; after all, we were right there giving our kids crap food, too.) Basically, she wanted her kid to clean his sodium-laden plate, essentially telling him, “You can’t get crap food until you eat the crap food you already have.”
All humorous irony aside, feeding kids is no joke. It starts when they’re infants and we give them their first solids. The faces babies make, and their spitting, can be comical and downright infuriating, especially for new parents. Then our kids hit the throwing-food-off-the-high-chair stage, and then the toddler stage where they will only eat three foods. Then there are the children who are lifelong picky eaters, while some will eat anything and everything. Trying to get our kids to eat healthy is quite the task. But instead of forcing, bribing, and manipulating, we need to get back to basics and let our kids be intuitive eaters.
What’s an intuitive eater? Well, the word intuitive means “possessing or given to intuition or insight.” When a child possesses insight, they are able to eat in a more healthy manner — recognizing when they’re hungry, and recognizing when that hunger is satisfied, able to quit eating before they’re overly full. I know, it sounds so simple, but we know that nothing about parenting is that easy.
If we’re going to teach our kids to listen and understand what their bodies and brains are telling them when it comes to food, we’re going to have to start with ourselves and our own habits. Do we talk about “fat” and “skinny,” do we obsess over carbs or exercise regimes, do we skip meals or justify having “earned” our dessert, do we constantly weigh ourselves? Until we deal with our own food insecurities and toxic body beliefs, we can’t really teach our kids. I know that’s not what you (or I) want to hear.
I decided early on in my parenting that I wouldn’t use the words “fat” or “thin.” If a grown person wants to endearingly label their body, that’s their choice. Instead, I felt much more comfortable using the words “healthy” and “unhealthy” when it came to food choices and movement. We have a “we don’t talk about people’s bodies” rule in our house. We’ve talked about how all people have different body types and abilities (including athletic ability). We honor those by not dissing someone else.
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Now, this has totally backfired on me before. When my oldest was four, she pointed at a man smoking a cigarette outside a restaurant. Then she loudly said, “That man is smoking! Smoking is not a healthy choice!” I was mortified, of course. We then had a follow up talk that adults can make the decisions they want, even if they are unhealthy, and it’s not our business to point those out. If my kids want to tell me something they’ve noticed, I ask them to do it when we’re in the car together instead of proclaiming an observation right in front of someone. I’m not trying to kill their curiosity, but I certainly don’t want them to be rude.
To help our kids become intuitive eaters, we first have to recognize our own issues and work on those. We also need to get our kids involved in the process. Food isn’t just about sitting down and shoving food in—or, if your kiddo is picky, pushing the food around on their plate or playing with it. When kids help grocery shop, prepare meals, and clean up, they learn about the process and can appreciate it more.
We also need to let the old school rule of clean-your-plate go — and drop the dessert threats. This “If you don’t eat your peas, you’re not getting a cookie” business is exhausting, and it doesn’t teach our kids to listen to their bodies and brains. Both of these rules only educate kids to ignore their natural signals of hunger and fullness, and their food preferences, including taste and texture.
By pushing our kids to appease us with the amount and type of foods they eat, we could also be missing something important. Some children are sensory-avoiders or seeker or have food allergies or sensitivities. If a child is experiencing symptoms before, during, or after eating that they’re trying to convey to you, but you shut them down with demands because you think they’re being picky, you could be teaching them to not only ignore their intuition, but physical symptoms.
There’s no magical way to help your kids be intuitive eaters, but there are some tidbits that can help. We always serve our kids’ veggies (or whatever is the most nutrient-dense food) first, so they can’t tell us later that they’re too full to eat it. We also give them reasonable portion sizes and don’t demand they clean their plates. If they want more food, they’re welcome to it. There’s no shame in wanting more, or less. We also don’t force our kids to eat foods they hate. Yes, this means we usually prep two vegetables for dinner, but we’d rather them eat veggies they like than none at all.
We have a one dessert a day rule. This means they can have a dessert of their choosing after lunch or dinner every day. There’s no using food as a reward or punishment, outside of the motivation of an occasional post-doctor’s-appointment sucker. We also don’t watch television or play any electronics while we’re eating meals. It’s distracting and encourages mindless eating. If our kids are hungry between meals and snacks, probably because they weren’t being intuitive at the time the food was served, we have a fruit bowl they can grab from at any time. We consume a lot of apples in our house!
By asking our kids how they feel and then listening and acknowledging their responses, we are helping them be aware of what they’re eating (and not eating). We also then focus far less on plate-cleaning and far more on the normalcy of their appetite changes based on their growth and mood. Eating becomes more joyful and less of a chore.
There are going to be culinary and body image ups and downs when it comes to our kids. But by encouraging intuitive eating, we’re setting them up with a healthy relationship with food for life — and that’s much more beneficial in the long run than a clean plate ever could be.