In this post, you’ll learn how to raise your kids to become intuitive and mindful eaters using intuitive eating principles and the A-B-C approach, from a non-diet dietitian (and mom). There are three simple steps in the A-B-C approach: accept, bond, and close the kitchen. Let’s get started!
In this post you’ll learn about:
- Diet culture and how it affects feeding kids
- What is Intuitive Eating (IE)?
- How does intuitive eating apply to kids?
- What is mindful eating and how does it differ from IE?
- How does the Division of Responsibility relate to IE?
- The ABC approach to teaching kids about Intuitive Eating
- Frequently asked questions about IE
Diet culture and feeding kids
Feeding children can be challenging on the best of days. As parents we are faced with many challenges when it comes to feeding–mealtime power struggles, picky eating, ever-changing likes and dislikes, managing treats and sweets, and rising food costs, just to name a few. Know that you’re certainly not alone if you feel like you’re constantly in the kitchen, and exhausted from trying to cater to everyone in your family. I feel the same way (and I’m a pediatric registered dietitian).
On top of these day-to-day family feeding challenges that we all face, we also have the added pressure of raising healthy humans who grow to have a positive relationship with food. Diet culture can be a huge barrier to this. Let’s face it, we have all–in one way or another–felt the impact of pervasive diet and wellness culture in our lives. Whether it be eating only “healthy foods”, and avoiding “junk foods”, or restricting your food intake (dieting) to shrink your body, the pressure to eat and look a certain way is REAL. And unfortunately, it affects our kids too.
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Luckily, feeding practices have evolved over the last decade or so, to focus less on ‘raising kids who eat a certain amount to look a certain way’ to ‘raising body-accepting kids who have a positive relationship with food’. For registered dietitians like me, this has meant drastic shifts in our practices and teachings, moving away from helping clients achieve an ideal weight and size, towards body attunement and eating according to physical hunger and satisfaction.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating (capital I and E) is a term that Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch coined back in 1995 when they first published the first version of their book Intuitive Eating. The term is used to describe their–now high researched and evidence-based–philosophy around, and method for, getting intimate with our innate relationship with food, when we’ve gotten pulled away from it by external pressures and influences.
It’s important to distinguish between Intuitive Eating (IE), and “eating intuitively” (these terms are easily mixed up and falsely thought of as one in the same). Eating intuitively is just one part of I.E., and describes a way of eating the way we did as newborns (reaching for, or cueing for food when we feel hunger or need comfort, and stopping when we feel full or satisfied).
I.E. is a set of 10 principles for eating and relating to food and body. Tribole and Resch developed this paradigm as a way to guide people who were stuck in negative cycles of dieting and disordered eating, get back to listening to their natural instincts about food, hunger and satisfaction (and ignore external cues and pressure to eat certain foods over others and eat certain amount, in order to achieve a certain physical appearance or health status). Here are the 10 principles for reference:
- Reject the diet mentality
- Honor your hunger
- Make peace with food
- Challenge the food police
- Discover the satisfaction factor
- Feel your fullness
- Cope with your emotions with kindness
- Respect your body
- Feel the difference with movement
- Honor your health with gentle nutrition
The reality is, by the time we reach adulthood, many of us have lost that innate ability to relate with food. There are so many outside forces (pop culture, food labels of “good”, “bad”, “healthy”, “unhealthy”, media, food insecurity, bullying, adults in our life) that have interfered with our ability to eat intuitively. Intuitive Eating is a way to reconnect with our innate wisdom about food after years of those external influences taking over (and likely many weight loss diets and periods of restriction and deprivation).
How does Intuitive Eating apply to kids?
Now that you have some background knowledge about Intuitive Eating, we can dive into how it can help our kids (and why you play an important role in this).
We are all born intuitive eaters–we know this now. Where the waters get muddy is when our kids get a little bit older (around four-years-old) and their eating influences shifts from purely internal to more external. Our kids 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. Another big one: pressure or micromanaging from us–their parents.
We all want our kids to have a positive relationship with food. So, as parents, our work is in helping our children tune into (and to trust) their own bodies. It’s avoiding diet talk and shifting more towards food neutrality. It’s reflecting on our own relationship with food (and possibly doing some work on this), in order to be able to trust our kids to trust themselves. It’s removing any expectations or agendas about food, weight, or size that we might have for our kids.
What is mindful eating for kids, and how does it differ from Intuitive Eating for kids?
If you really want to get technical, I’m including a section here that distinguishes between “mindful eating” and Intuitive Eating, because they are often thought of as the same thing, even though they’re not. I can see how that misunderstanding could happen, given that they are both approaches that non-diet dietitians and clinicians use, and they do compliment one another, as well as overlap in many ways.
By definition (from The Center for Mindful Eating), Mindful Eating is: Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom. Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body. Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment. Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.
Similarities between mindful eating and Intuitive Eating
Here’s where the overlap comes in: Both approaches emphasize awareness of internal cues to help guide decisions around eating. And neither of them suggest or prescribe a specific eating pattern or amount of food to eat. Both practices focus on how a person relates to, and engages with food, their body and the entire eating experience. Both approaches are also considered weight-neutral and weigh-inclusive, which means that both approaches are appropriate for and open to anyone, regardless of body weight, size, or shape.
The differences between mindful eating and Intuitive Eating
Mindful eating is all about being present and non-judgmental in the eating experience, where as Intuitive Eating encompasses a much broader framework that not only focuses on the internal eating experience (being a mindful eater), but ALSO the external eating experience. Intuitive Eating includes things like movement (physical activity) and how it should be included for the sake of feeling good, rejecting the dieting mentality, gentle nutrition (without judgement) , and respecting your body, regardless of size or shape.
When it comes to feeding kids, I believe it’s important to teach them how to be mindful inside of the eating experience, which includes using using all of their senses throughout, and I believe that this is just one part of Intuitive Eating. It’s important to also teach kids to be aware of external factors, reject diet culture and external pressures around food.
How does the Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR) relate to Intuitive Eating (IE)?
This is where, I believe, the Division of Responsibility in Feeding (Ellyn Satter’s approach to feeding) marries really nicely with Intuitive Eating. According to the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, it is our job, as parents, to decide what is served, when it is served and where it is served. Our kids just don’t have the knowledge, experience, or awareness to take these roles on yet. This is the “structure” I was talking about above. Our kids get to decide IF and HOW MUCH they eat within that structure that we’ve created.
Here’s what I mean:
- We choose 4-5 different food items (to ensure nutritional balance) at meals, and 2-3 different food items at snacks.
- We always make sure to include a “considerate food” (one that we know our child will likely accept and eat).
- We space eating opportunities out every 2-3 hours so that our kids have an opportunity to build and recognize physical hunger.
- We provide a safe and distraction-free space (ideally a kitchen table or island) for our kids to eat.
- We allow our kids to explore the foods that we’ve provided, choose which foods to eat, and how much to eat.
Now, because Intuitive Eating is a complex model and can be a bit overwhelming, I’ve broken it down into three simple steps to raise an Intuitive Eater.
Sarah’s ABC Approach to Teaching Kids About Intuitive Eating
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.
When kids are given a set meal and snack structure and schedule, where a variety of foods are offered in a pressure-free way, they 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 (like us saying “have two more bites!”).
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 intuitively 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.
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 them space to try new foods on their own and eat according to 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 are done eating, because the kitchen will be closed after mealtime. Requests or demands for snacks outside of these times are gently turned down, with reassurance that there will be a future eating opportunity soon (in a couple of hours, or perhaps the following morning).
Now, if this is all new to you and a stark contrast from what the feeding dynamic has been in your home, there will likely be a bit of resistance and pushback. Make sure that you communicate clearly to everyone in your home what changes are coming, be patient and compassionate (with both yourself and your kids), and above all, be consistent.
In short, no. You might be saying to yourself “if I let my child ‘eat intuitively’, they’d choose to eat candy all day long. How does that make sense?!”. Fair thought. Here’s where things can get a bit confusing for parents. Teaching your child to eat intuitively is NOT the same as allowing each day to be a “food free-for-all”. Toddlers and kids require structure and boundaries in order to learn. They also don’t understand the importance of nutrition and balance yet, and quite honestly, don’t need to–that’s your role as the feeder. Think of it this way: you as the parent lay the framework and structure down for eating IN ORDER for your child to learn how to eat intuitively within those constructs.
Intuitive eaters have an awareness of internal cues to help guide decisions around eating. They approach food with curiosity, choose foods based on hunger, fullness and satisfaction. Intuitive eaters reject food rules, restrictions or other external factors.
A mindful eating technique could look like eating something slowly and without distraction while engaging your senses. You may take mental notes of any colours, smells, sounds, textures, and flavours you are experiencing.
I’ve been learning about intuitive eating and love the concept but am struggling with the implementation. From reading the book i feel like it says to let your kids eat anything they want so they can learn to self regulate. But I want to be able to still say no if I think they are eating too many sweets. I don’t want to feel like I have to give them free access to sweets, but then am I not letting them be intuitive and putting too much emphasis on sweets- eventually leading to too much focus on them? It’s very confusing to me right now.
Sarah Remmer says
Hey Carli, this is SUCH a great question. Intuitive eating is very confusing at first, I know many can relate! When it comes to sweets and “fun foods”, as adults, it’s our role to provide the what, when and where. So that means, we get to decide what foods to expose our kids to. It’s wonderful that you are exposing your kids to a variety of foods, including sweets. That’s excellent because you are showing them that no foods are restricted or off-limits. That said, when it comes to dessert foods, Ellyn Satter suggests that the only “food rule” we can try is to provide one serving of dessert when it’s served at meal times. They key is that as adults, we need to allow our kids to eat their food in any order…that might mean that kids eat dessert first and then their veggies and so on…that’s okay! I’d love to take this conversation further with you if you have more questions. I’d also like to let you know that my book Food to Grow On addresses all of these questions and more: https://www.sarahremmer.com/food-to-grow-on/. You can contact me here: https://www.sarahremmer.com/contact/ I hope that helps for now!
My oldest is becoming quite picky. If I serve bread with dinner it is quite possible that all she would have is bread if I let her. Then her siblings also stop eating the other food and want more bread if I’d give it to my oldest. What do I do?
Sarah Remmer says
It’s such a tough time for sure. You are not alone in this struggle! If bread is something you serve with dinner, continue to do so, along with the other foods the whole family eats. It’s really tempting to comment on the bread being an issue, but try your best to keep things calm and refrain from pointing things out. Over time, with modeling eating a variety of foods (including familiar ones like bread) your kids will learn to accept new foods. If you’re really struggling with this, please contact me here: https://www.sarahremmer.com/contact/
I am learning alot from your blogs.
I want to implement closing the kitchen.
Sarah Remmer says
That’s amazing, Juliet! Let me know how it goes for you.
Thank you so much for this amazing article. I so appreciate this approach. I am curious if you have thoughts about kids who are anxious eaters-who when they feel anxious, start snacking. I know this is a common thing that I have heard parents talk about during the pandemic. How do we set healthy limits without feeling restrictive?
Thank you so much for your time.
Sarah Remmer says
Hey Erin, thank you so much for reaching out. First, I’m sending you so much compassion right now during this difficult time. In this case, eating out of anxiety is so common during the pandemic. I think the biggest thing would be to not shame or judge the child going through this. Setting boundaries around having specific opportunities to eat and sticking to that. Outside of those times, the “kitchen is closed”. I am hosting a Mealtimes Solved challenge this month. Are you on my emailing list? If not, please subscribe and more information will be coming to your inbox about the launch soon!
Stutee Kapoor says
It’s a very well written post!
I have a 6 year old on the other end of the rope. He loves to eat and especially in the last one year due to covid and an addition of sibling in the house food has become his best friend when he cannot get my time and attention. He can continue eating if not stopped and can again eat when he sees someone else eating. He ignored the thirst signals constantly and is putting too much food on the body. I don’t like to restrict him but I cannot help it but remind him to chew, eat slow and listen to his body but all in vain . Please help
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Stutee, thanks for sharing this. I know you are not alone in this. The pandemic has created a lot of stress for kids. I can’t give you specific advice here, but you are welcome to email me. I would also recommend signing up for my Mealtimes Solved course. We talk about overeating in the course extensively! https://www.sarahremmer.com/shop/mealtimes-solved-2/