While I teach others and self-practice the ways of intuitive eating, to encourage it in children is entirely different. As babies, we innately know when we’re hungry, when we’re satisfied and when to finish our meal. As we get older and learn more from the world about food (and diets, ugh), we are drawn away from that natural internal behaviour to following rules from our external influencers (a lot of which are focused on restriction, ugh again). Even at a young age, children start to get some less than ideal beliefs around food that make it hard for them to navigate through the eating experience. Here are my top 3 tips for keeping your kids on the road to a more balanced approach to their eating:
Move away from the labelling of food as “junk”
My daughter said to me the other day, when we were having some chocolate for dessert “Mommy, that’s junk food, right?”. The thought of my 4 year old already looking at her dessert as bad, made my heart sink a little. I said “Well, I don’t like to call those foods junk, because to me it means they belong in the garbage”. She gave me a giggle and a little “hmm” and continued on with enjoying her chocolate.
As intuitive eating adults, we might look at desserts/treats as being supportive or non-supportive choices and that could change from one moment to the next. For example, we may really want that piece of decadent chocolate cake sitting on the counter, but know it will not help us complete that 5k run we’re doing in the next hour. In that case and at that moment, the choice to eat the cake would probably be non-supportive. However, if we waited until after our run and chose to finish the cake with a glass of protein rich milk, then the choice would probably be a supportive one.
Calling these foods what they actually are – desserts or treats – is a more positive reference for all. These terms reduce the negativity or guilt typically associated with consuming them. While looking at these foods in the context that they’re eaten (supportive versus non-supportive) still sets some parameters that they are foods best enjoyed in moderation.
Playing with your food
Allow your kids to leave room for dessert and explore ALL foods around them. That doesn’t mean you tell them “No dessert until you finish all your dinner!”. Instead, educate them on the importance of getting some foods from the main food groups but to also listen to their bodies. Make it fun by using all those plastic/wooden foods from their play kitchen and having them plate it and serve it to you. Or, make a placemat with pictures, stickers or painting of what a dinner plate should have on it (with proportions). Make sure that place setting includes a spot for dessert on the flip side 😉
Having regular discussions around how they feel physically after certain foods, in a very relaxed tone, is another way for them to recognize how they react to certain foods. Asking questions like: What does that food taste like? What do you like/not like about that food? What foods give you more energy to play? Over time, they will become more attuned to what works for them and will know not only how to save room for dessert but to pick the foods that make their bodies work for them.
Get them involved
I’ve recently introduced the idea of involvement in the meal planning and preparation process with my 3 and 4 year old. Sometimes it’s successful, other times…not so much…
I was surprised to find, that when my kids made our version of a vinagrette-based Caesar salad with me, they ended up having 3 helpings of it (including the lettuce!!). Prior to that they would always move the lettuce aside and eat the croutons and bacon bits. This change in their love for salads has worked on 4 separate occasions and with 2 different salads!
But when I then had them making their own cold spring rolls, my plan did not go so well and they ended up nearly throwing it across the dining table. You win some, you lose some, right?!
It’s a work in progress and I still struggle to find the right words and methods to teach my kids to relax and be more mindful of their eating choices; while still suggesting to them some basic nutritional guidelines. But it’s not meant to be perfect and I’m ok with that. That’s the beauty of intuitive eating and of life – nothing is meant to be perfect.
If you want to learn more about how to make the eating experience more balanced within your family, Ellyn Satter’s book Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, might be a good start.
May your next meal be full of abundance in food, patience, love and laughter!
Heather Elston says
Love the idea of food as supportive/non-supportive. Using context rather than an arbitrary label is something I can put in practice…and, I am definitely going to use Michelle’s ideas when my grandchildren start arriving!
What a great post – very useful info!
I concur, awesome ideas.
I agree with your approach and really love to watch your little ones make their own choices.