What kids can teach us about intuitive eating


Have you ever noticed the way children behave around food? Young kids, even babies, are generally pretty outspoken about telling you when they’re hungry and when they’re not. These habits develop intuitively at a young age, and until they start to learn behavioral cues from their parents, siblings, and the people around them, they’ll generally eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full.
My 16-month-old nephew has just begun talking, and recently when visiting, he gave my family quite a laugh. After finishing dinner each night, he would loudly announce, “all done!” He had eaten quite a bit some nights, and other nights we noticed that he had left a sizable amount of food on his plate. I noticed that the adults made comments about the amount of food he had eaten, like “well, the kids did have a pretty big snack this afternoon,” or “He must’ve been hungry, they’ve been playing all day,” justifying his feelings of when he was “all done!” 
I wondered, why is it difficult for us to acknowledge the feelings of hunger and satisfaction?
My son, now four years old, has recently discovered that he thinks he knows the meaning of the word “starving.”  He will frequently tap on my shoulder to tell me just how “starving” he is, sometimes with a mouthful of food from his last meal. I noticed myself asking him, “Are you really hungry right now, or are you feeling bored?” As a growing boy, sometimes he truly is hungry (though we are working on differentiating that from “starving”) and sometimes he’ll say, “I’m bored, Mommy. Will you play with me?” 
Using the natural cues that children demonstrate can be eye-opening in our weight care and health journeys. Ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” or “I’m not hungry, why do I feel inclined to eat?” Reflecting on the answers can help you make food choices that support your health goals. Listening to our bodies and identifying our feelings of hunger, satisfaction, or emotions can lead to a myriad of observations about our eating habits. 
Taking time to acknowledge the habits we’ve developed over the years that harm our health and weight care journeys can help us create an action plan to reach our goals. Here are a few tips to help hone your intuitive eating skills:
Eat the rainbow—and note what you like.
Kids love color and making food fun, but did you know that this can help adults eat mindfully, too? Choose a variety of colors in your meals and snacks! Get creative by adding lots of veggies of all shapes, colors, and sizes, and place them on a small plate to provide yourself with a visual reminder of portion sizes. It can be helpful for those of us who grew up as members of the “clean plate club.” By eating the rainbow and exploring different food choices, you can discover how each food makes you feel—recognize your hunger cues, appreciate the sights, textures, and tastes of the food that you’re eating, and even make your day a bit brighter!
Follow a rough eating pattern and schedule to prevent mindless eating.
Do you notice that sometimes you find yourself constantly grazing and never fully satisfied? Just as we structure meal times for children, plan an eating schedule that meets your needs. In our house, we have breakfast, lunch, an early afternoon snack, a light pre-dinner snack (if needed), and dinner. My children and my own hunger cues have learned to expect that routine, and it’s amazing how your stomach will remind you if you vary significantly from that. When following a schedule, allow yourself to notice and respond if you’re not feeling hungry from your last eating time—it’s okay to have a lighter meal or skip a snack.
Don’t assign “good” and “bad” labels to foods.
Young children don’t look at a cookie and think this is bad for me. They don’t look at a serving of green beans and think this is good for me. They don’t reach for a pint of ice cream at the end of a long day of playing because “they’ve earned this.” When they’re full, they’ll stop eating—though we know that cookies and ice cream are a little harder to control. When we begin to assign foods as “bad” or “good,” we start a cycle of rewards and punishments, whereas food is just food. It’s nourishing—sometimes more for our bodies, sometimes for our taste buds. Aim for a meal that includes a variety of nutrients without assigning emotional worth to the foods you’re eating, and try not to feel guilt over an occasional dessert or snack.
Trust what your body is telling you.
While we set certain food choice boundaries for children, we generally allow them to decide their hunger level or feeling of being satisfied. But for many adults, we look at what’s left on our plates to determine if we should keep eating. Reconnect with your sense of hunger and satiety. Pay attention to how you feel as you eat and afterward. Are you feeling stuffed or bloated after a meal? Tired? Energetic? You’ll begin to learn your body’s appetite cues and how it responds to various foods. As you get a good grasp on your hunger and satiety cues and your body’s rhythms, begin planning healthy snack and meal options. You’ll be able to improve how well you nourish yourself.
Make and keep boundaries.
While it’s important to avoid labeling “bad” or “good” foods, it’s helpful to understand what foods may be more difficult for you to control and which foods support your health and weight care goals. Think of the purpose of most healthy school lunch programs: They limit sweets like donuts and sugary cereal for breakfast options and try to encourage children to have a vegetable with their midday meal. Setting up similar boundaries and choices can help you make better food decisions. Have options for each meal or snack that provide the building blocks for a well-balanced, whole-foods, minimally processed meal. Being mindful of food choices that are difficult for you to consume mindfully is valuable for your weight care journey. 
Take some time to log your meals, movement, and other dailies in the app to track your progress. It gives you time to reflect, and science shows it supports your success.
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Anderson, J. (2019 March). End Whining with this Simple Snack Hack. Kids Eat in Color.
Dennett, C. (n.d.). Children's Nutrition: Raising Intuitive Eaters. Today's Dietitian.
Kuzemchak, S. (2019 July). How to Raise Intuitive Eaters and Why That's So Important. Parents.