How to raise children who have a long-term healthy relationship with food, based on the Intuitive Eating Principles
In this post you’ll learn about:
- Why it’s NOT your job to get your child to eat
- Intuitive Eating: What is it, and how does it apply to kids?
And, the A-B-C Approach to Teaching your kids how to be Intuitive Eaters:
Feeding children can be challenging on the best of days. Throw in a world-wide pandemic, children at home 24/7, new routines and extra stress, and it can cause a lot of anxiety and frustration. Mealtime power struggles, picky eating, all-day snacking and short-order cooking are all be a reality for most parents right now (including me, the Registered Dietitian). After all, we’re all just trying to survive right now. Our normal is no longer normal, and neither are our eating habits or feeding routines. And that’s ok. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks, it has been the art of forgiving myself and just doing the best I can.
We have been given the task of balancing work, parenting, teaching, cooking, and somehow staying sane through it all. We can’t expect to achieve perfection here, fellow parents. We need to start with simply keeping our kids (and ourselves) healthy, fed and safe through this.
When it comes to feeding your kids, it would make perfect sense that meals and snacks don’t look normal right now, because life is not normal right now. That might mean a different schedule, repeat meals, more frozen or canned foods vs. fresh, and more snacks than usual. That’s ok!
Oh, and please please don’t worry about filling your kids up on immune-boosting foods or supplements right now. A normal, balanced diet with some variety of colourful fruits and veggies (fresh or frozen), some protein, whole grains and healthy fats will suffice. Read more about that here.
Quite honestly, I think what everyone needs (including your kids) right now is LESS pressure, LESS stress and some realistic goals to aim for.
Don’t make it your job to “get your kids to eat”
During such an uncertain, stressful time, it’s normal to feel as though you want to control whatever you can–including what and how your kids eat. If your kids eat well, you’re doing at least ONE of your jobs right. Right?!
It is unrealistic to expect that your kids will eat perfectly balanced and nutritious meals and snacks everyday (in amounts that you deem acceptable). As much as we want to control this, we 100% cannot. But what we CAN control (and what is more important anyways), is building healthy, long-term food relationships for our kids. A big part of this is teaching our kids how to be Intuitive Eaters.
What is Intuitive Eating and how does it apply to kids?
Intuitive Eating an evidenced-based, mind-body health approach, comprised of 10 Principles and was created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It’s a weight-neutral and non-diet approach to eating that helps to create more body awareness, and teaches people to truly listen to and honour their physical hunger cues. What’s really cool is that our kiddos were BORN intuitive eaters. Right from day one, they drank milk purely based on their hunger and fullness. They communicated when they were hungry (with fussing, sucking, rooting etc.) and communicated when they were full (by unlatching, turning their head, stopping to suck etc.). The same was true when they started solid foods! For the most part, until the preschool years, kids eat almost 100% according to their natural hunger and fullness cues.
Where the waters get muddier is when they get a little bit older (around four-years-old) and their eating influence shifts from purely internal to more external. They may start to eat because food is present, their sibling or friend is eating, out of boredom, or because they see something yummy on TV. You can likely see how these external influences continue to impact our eating patterns as we get older… enter: emotional eating, social pressures to eat, mindless eating, etc.
Shift your focus from perfect nutrition, to building your child’s long-term relationship with food:
We all want our kids to have a healthy relationship with food. We want to prevent disordered eating, chronic dieting and unhealthy pre-occupations with food. We want our kids to grow to love a variety of foods and trust their bodies first and foremost to tell them how much to eat. We want our kids to be able to practice gentle nutrition day-to-day but also indulge in not-so-healthy foods occasionally and mindfully without going completely overboard too.
If there’s anything you focus on right now food-wise with your kids, make it about building their healthy long-term relationship with food. Because Intuitive Eating is a complex model and can be a bit overwhelming, I’ve broken it down into three simple steps you can take with your kids while you’re at home with them:
A: Accept that your child might eat more (or less) than you anticipated
Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually NOT your job to get your kid to eat. It IS your job to provide nutritious meals and snacks everyday, at times and in places that you choose. But when it comes to if and how much your kid eats? That’s 100% up to them. Establishing these feeding roles early takes the pressure off of everyone.
As mentioned above, kids are born intuitive eaters – they will finish eating when they’re full and (most of the time) they will eat when they are hungry. When given a set meal and snack structure and schedule (which I talk more about below) where food is offered in a pressure-free way, kids will either eat the food provided (or not), and learn to eat in amounts that are right for their bodies. This is called “self-regulation”. If, as parents, we’re always trying to control if and how much our kids eat (we ALL do this), our kids will learn NOT to trust their bodies, and instead to trust external cues more often.
In order to do this, we really do need to create a pressure-free environment at meals. You serve a balanced meal with at least ONE food that you think your child will accept (I suggest serving family-style meals), and then it’s hands off. Focus on on eating mindfully yourself, and keeping the tone positive. If issues arise (special requests, complaining, getting up and down from the table, etc.) gently remind your kids of the mealtime boundaries, but otherwise, no pressuring, coaxing, bribing, or bartering.
I know… sometimes when we feel defeated and worried (and even desperate), we turn to these strategies in hopes that our kids will eat (eat anything!), but unfortunately, it further perpetuates picky eating tendencies, mealtimes battles and unhealthy eating habits (and we definitely don’t need that added stress right now!).
B: Bond with your child at mealtime, instead of pressuring them to eat
Parents often dread mealtimes because they foresee a struggle from beginning to end. We’re already anxious enough these days, but anticipating a stressful meal with kids can create even more anxiety, and our kids feed off of this (excuse the pun!). In our efforts to control the situation, we may use phrases like
- “It’s dinner time—come to the table and eat!”
- “You’re not getting down from this table until you eat something!”
- “Please try your peas—they are good for you!”
- “Please just eat–at least one bite!”
- “You can’t have dessert unless you have at least 5 bites of your meal” or
- “No you cannot have more bread—you’ve hardly touched your vegetables or meat!”
Although we as parents have the best intentions, and are just trying to do our job, we often enable picky eating and create unneeded power struggles by putting all of the focus on food and getting your child to eat.
Mealtimes don’t have to bring on anxiety and dread if you can master the art of… backing off. Take the pressure off (both yourself and your child) to make mealtimes more peaceful. This can be really (ahem… excruciatingly) hard, especially if you feel that your child isn’t eating well daily. Over time, taking the focus off of the food, and focusing more on positive family time, makes your child feel at ease and gives her space to try new foods on her own and eat according to her physical hunger.
C: Close the kitchen after mealtime
After a meal or snack, it’s important to make sure that your kids know that the kitchen is closed. This is a healthy mealtime boundary that I encourage ALL parents to put into place. What this means is:
- No snacks right after dinner
- No alternate meal served after the family meal was rejected
- No grazing on the food that’s leftover on their plate from dinner
- No glasses of milk because they didn’t eat enough
If I have a hunch that my kids haven’t eaten enough, I remind them that it’s a good idea to make sure their tummies have finished eating because the kitchen will be closed after mealtime. Requests or demands for snacks outside of these times are gently turned down, with a reminder that they had a chance to eat at the last meal or snack, and they chose not to, but there will be another opportunity in a few hours (or the next morning).
At first, if it’s been a bit of a food free-for-all in your house, there will likely be resistance (and whining and crying) but over time, your kids will learn how to self-regulate, and eat enough to feel comfortably full after meals.
Bottom line? Give yourself, and your kids, a break. Shift your focus from trying to get your kids to eat certain foods in certain amounts, to nurturing their long-term relationship with food using the ABC method. This will not only take the pressure of everyone, but it will also have a more positive impact on your kids and their eating habits long term.