Most healthy children naturally have the ability to eat intuitively; that is, to eat when they’re hungry and stop eating once they’re full.
Children who are able to hold on to this ability can benefit tremendously by developing a healthy relationship with food, eating a healthier diet higher in fruits and vegetables, and maintaining a moderate weight as they grow up (
However, as time passes, some children lose touch with these natural signals and start eating as a response to situations, emotions, or learned “rules” rather than physical cues.
In this article, I’ll discuss intuitive eating principles for kids, and how you as a parent or guardian can help your child eat more intuitively.
This evidenced-based, non-diet, weight-neutral approach to eating was created by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (4).
IE helps teach adults and children to listen to and follow their physical hunger and satiety (fullness) cues as opposed to emotional or external triggers when determining when, what, and how much to eat (
Children are usually born with the natural ability to eat intuitively. As babies, they drink milk when they’re hungry and stop drinking it when they’re full. The same can be generally said about their first solid foods.
However, as they age, children are exposed to increasing amounts of external eating influences.
Because of this, as they become older, you may see children start eating out of boredom, because a parent, sibling, or friend is eating, simply because food is present, or because they have learned “rules” about when and what to eat.
Around preschool age, children may start expressing “hunger” for a specific food they consider especially tasty when externally triggered — like a sundae when passing the ice cream parlor or a lollipop when passing the candy store.
Applying principles of IE with kids will help them maintain their natural ability to eat when hungry and stop when full.
It can also help prevent external influences from affecting their eating patterns as they get older, possibly reducing the likelihood of emotional eating, mindless eating, overeating, or disordered eating (
Trying to “do it right” when it comes to nutrition may feel tempting, but it can backfire.
If you — or children in your care — are preoccupied with food or your weight, feel guilt surrounding food choices, or routinely engage in restrictive diets, consider reaching out for support. These behaviors may indicate a disordered relationship with food or an eating disorder.
Disordered eating and eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender identity, race, age, body size, socioeconomic status, or other identities.
They can be caused by any combination of biological, social, cultural, and environmental factors — not just by exposure to diet culture.
Feel empowered to talk with a qualified healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, if you’re struggling. Pediatric dietitians work specifically with kids and can help your child if they need support.
You can also chat, call, or text anonymously with trained volunteers at the National Eating Disorders Association helpline for free or explore the organization’s free and low cost resources.
Children are born with the ability to eat intuitively. However, they can lose touch with it as they age. Helping kids continue to eat intuitively can lead to healthy eating habits as they get older and may decrease the risk of eating disorders.
There are three main practical things you can do as a parent to encourage your child to eat intuitively.
1. Forfeit control over how much your child eats
Start by getting used to the idea that it is not your responsibility to force your child to eat.
According to dietitian Ellyn Satter’s well-respected principle of division of responsibility in feeding, parents and children each have a separate set of responsibilities during mealtimes (7).
Sticking to each person’s individual responsibilities can help reduce mealtime stress and frustration. It also encourages your child to maintain their natural intuitive eating ability.
Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding states that, as a parent, you should become responsible for:
- What you offer your child to eat: The bulk of their diet should consist of a variety of nutrient-rich, minimally-processed meals and snacks.
- When you offer your child to eat: Offer food at regular times, spread evenly throughout the day.
- Where your child eats: It’s best that they eat while sitting at the table without any external distractions, such as the television or toys.
On the other hand, your child should become responsible for:
- Whether they’ll eat: Your child should decide for themselves if they are feeling physically hungry enough to eat at that moment.
- How much they’ll eat: The amount they eat will be governed by their own internal hunger and satiety signals rather than external cues, such as how much food is leftover on their plate.
Your child is the best-suited to know whether they feel hungry and what amount of food they need to eat to satisfy that hunger.
Trusting your child to decide how much to eat and when to stop eating, rather than trying to get them to eat the amount you think they should eat, will help promote and strengthen their ability to eat intuitively.
2. Keep mealtimes pleasant
When providing your child with a meal or snack, make sure to do so in a calm environment that’s free of distractions.
Most meals should be served while your child is sitting down, ideally at the table. In order to best stimulate intuitive eating, make sure to remove any toys from the table and turn off the television or tablet.
Try timing your meals and snacks so that you eat at the same time as your child, if possible. This strategy can help model the eating behaviors that you’d like your child to develop, including IE.
If you find yourself regularly getting into power struggles with your child around mealtimes, try shifting the focus from food toward pleasant conversation instead.
For instance, ask your child about their favorite part of their day or the activity they’d like to do after the meal.
Doing so can help curb the reflex to negotiate, coerce, or cajole your child into trying a new food or telling them to take a few more bites before they can have dessert.
Taking away the pressure a child feels around the food they’re eating — or refusing to eat — can, over time, help that child be more open to trying new foods.
3. Enforce your boundaries
While it’s important to empower your child to take responsibility for whether they’ll eat and how much they’ll eat, it’s equally important for you to be firm regarding your own responsibilities.
As the parent, you are the one who should decide what meals and snacks to offer your child. You should definitely encourage your child to make suggestions.
However, especially with young children, you should always have the final say as to ensure that meals and snacks remain nutritious and well-balanced.
In addition, it’s important that you make it clear to your child that once you have settled on a meal or snack, you will not be providing an alternate option if they ultimately decide not to eat what you have prepared for them.
Once a meal or snack time has gone by, try storing the food away until the next eating moment.
That will prevent your child from mindlessly grazing on foods throughout the day, which can cause them to lose touch with their hunger and satiety signals.
In order to help your child eat intuitively, forfeit control over exactly what and how much they eat. Instead, focus your control on what foods to offer your child, as well as when and where to offer them.
Here are a few ideas you can use, as a busy parent or guardian, to help your child eat more intuitively.
- Include foods they like: Make sure that each meal or snack you offer your child includes at least one to two foods you know that they like. This can reduce the risk of pressuring your child to eat for fear of them not eating enough.
- Serve family-style meals with toppings on the side: This allows your child to personalize the content and amount on their plates.
- Request input from your kids: Ask your child to pick out a new recipe to help you make or a new fruit at the supermarket to try out. This is a low-pressure way to spike their interest in the foods they eat.
- Model IE behaviors: Your child learns a lot by watching you. Model IE behaviors by sitting down with them to enjoy your food in a guilt- and stress-free manner.
- Be open-minded about your child’s preferences: We all have foods we enjoy eating and others we don’t particularly enjoy — your child included. Accept that they won’t always like everything you offer them or that their tastes may change over time.
- Have set meal and snack times: A good rule of thumb is to plan for your child to have an eating moment at 2–3-hour intervals throughout the day.
- Avoid using food as a reward: Try to avoid using food to reward your child for certain behaviors. This puts certain foods on a pedestal and can teach your child to desire them for reasons other than hunger.
- Ask your child questions: When your child tastes a new food, try asking them questions about its texture or flavor, rather than only whether they liked it or not. This can help your child be more mindful while eating.
- Let your child leave the table early: If your child is no longer hungry, allow them to leave the table. However, make it clear that once you’re all finished eating, they’ll have to wait until the next meal or snack to eat again.
And remember that flexibility is important. Food is a part of culture and community, and busy schedules can interfere with even the most thorough plans.
There may be times when you won’t be able to sit at the table, can’t have a snack at the same time as your child, or will enjoy a meal or snack for an external reason.
For example, it’s OK for kids — and you — to eat popcorn at the movie theater, share sweets with friends, or reach for extra dessert at a holiday gathering.
Expressing anxiety or discomfort over non-structured eating like this can teach your child to view food through a rigid lens or with strict rules, which can promote disordered eating later in life (
The ideas above can help you, as a busy adult, help your child practice eating more intuitively. Remember to be flexible and gentle with them — and yourself.
Most children are naturally born with the ability to eat intuitively. However, as they age, they are increasingly susceptible to letting external factors influence when, what, and how much they eat.
As a parent, you can help your child maintain their natural ability to eat when they’re hungry and stop eating when they’re full.
A great way to do this is by empowering your child to exercise their own responsibilities when it comes to feeding, while restraining yourself to exclusively exercising your own.
Just one thing
Try this today: If your child doesn’t eat much of a certain meal, try saying something like “I see you weren’t very hungry” rather than “I see you didn’t like that meal.” Statements like these help signal to your child that the amount of food they eat should be governed by their level of hunger rather than their level of liking for a particular food.