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How to raise an intuitive eater

Back to school preparations are underway! While you're checking off items on school supplies lists and shopping for clothes for those growing bodies, you may also be thinking about getting back to packing lunches or talking with your child about the school lunch menu. But for the time being, let's put aside the idea of what your child is eating and consider how they are eating.

Kids are born intuitive eaters; they are self-regulating in terms of how much food they need. In other words, they listen to and trust their hunger and fullness signals! Oftentimes, adults try to influence children to eat less, eat more, choose different foods, and the pushier adults are, the more children will push back.

Support your child's relationship with food

The problem is they are reacting to you and ignoring their inner signals; it becomes all about the power struggle and the food is forgotten! Whether you're a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, teacher or childcare provider, here's how you can support a child's intuitive relationship to food and eating:

  • Children grow in spurts; sometimes they eat as much as an adult and sometimes they pick at their food. If left alone and not nudged, they will get everything they need over time.
  • Children's food preferences will change, sometimes frequently and abruptly. Your child might want only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for weeks and then not touch it for months. If you don't make judgments ("you used to love this food, why aren't you eating it now?") they will likely go back to eating it at some point.
  • Rather than focusing on a single meal or day of eating, look at the whole week. You may notice your child does get a variety of foods and will likely be getting the nutrition they need.
  • Avoid telling children that some foods are "good", and some foods are "bad" or "junk", as that can instill feelings of guilt or shame for eating something that is perceived as having no value. Instead, tell children that "play food" isn't necessarily nutritious for the body, but exists to taste good and be enjoyed.
  • Don't restrict access to play foods. If your child never gets a cookie or another play food in their lunchbox, there's a good chance they'll be trading a food they have for another kid's cookie. Having access to play foods without guilt or shame for eating them will reduce the risk of your child fixating on – and potentially overeating – these foods.
  • Role model for your child by enjoying a variety of foods yourself, both nutritious foods and play foods.

Food is for hunger, satisfaction and nourishment. Supporting a child's intuitive eating cues means cultivating a positive and peaceful relationship with food, setting them up for trusting and respecting their bodies as adults. Whether it's in the home, school lunchroom, restaurant or at an event, your role in raising intuitive eaters is powerful!

It is important to note that while most children can self-regulate their eating, if your child is not growing or has a very limited diet you may benefit from working with a dietitian. If you're looking for guidance in raising intuitive eaters, or changing your own relationship with food, call the Gundersen Nutrition Therapy Department at (608) 775-5673 and ask to meet with an intuitive eating registered dietitian.

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