Here’s the third and final post in my intuitive eating for family series. Below are important reminders that will help you to raise a child that has a healthy relationship with food. This will lead to confident eating, prevent overeating, and reduce the likelihood of disordered eating.

Know that your child can self regulate. This is so hard but so important to get comfortable with in order to make intuitive eating work for your family. In general, children know how much food they need to consume and are able to balance their macronutrients on their own, if introduced to a variety of foods and provided with access to balanced meals. Anytime I’m reviewing a food journal with a client, I like to look at a period of at least 72 hours. One meal will never make or break our nutritional status, so it’s important to have a balance that occurs over time. On that same token, when beginning to implement intuitive eating, you cannot watch your toddler eat only sugary cereal for breakfast on a particular day and determine that she can’t be trusted to self-regulate. Your child will develop her own individual taste preferences and may go through phases where she’s particularly interested in particular foods and then stop wanting them. As long as you don’t make a big fuss and continue to provide a variety of nutritious foods, she’ll know that you trust her to make food decisions and grow into a confident eater. In addition to trusting your child to regulate what she eats, trust her her to regulate how much she eats. Children have different metabolic needs, which change based on things like activity level and current growth rate. That means that it’s normal and healthy for the amount of food they need each day to change over time.

Autonomy is a part of normal development. The desire for autonomy usually begins around age two. This is also around the time that your child can safely do some tasks on her own. As soon as your child can safely serve herself, allow her to do so. This will also reinforce that you trust your child to know what, when, and how much she needs to eat. Toddlers often use “no” as a way to assert their independence. If your child refuses food, trust that the biological need for nourishment will eventually win out, and she’ll get the nutrients that she needs. Allow the whole family to take part in grocery shopping and food prep by assigning age appropriate tasks. This also increases the likelihood that she will be interested in trying the foods that are served. As your child becomes old enough to read menus, allow her to decide what she wants when out to eat and to place her own order. You’ll know that you can trust her.

The way you introduce new foods can set the tone for your child’s food relationship. Baby led weaning as a way to introduce first foods tends to align really well with intuitive eating. Allowing a child the freedom to be messy and process the sensations that come with a new food is an important part of development and future confidence in eating. If your child rejects a food the first time she eats it, that’s ok. Continue to serve it and allow her the option to try it with no pressure. This is also a good way to let her learn about different preparation methods. For example, she may not like cooked, glazed carrots but love them raw and dipped in hummus. It’s also a smart idea to serve new foods or foods that your child has a tendency to reject alongside foods that she is familiar with and regularly accepts. This will make trying the new food less daunting. She’ll also feel like it’s ok to decide not to consume the food in question because she has other options. Along with the need for autonomy that normally occurs around age two, fear of the unknown is another developmental milestone that occurs around this time. If a new food causes a meltdown, it’s ok. Stay consistent in offering a variety of foods and not pressuring your child at mealtime. Watching her parents eat and interact with the new food can help your child to get over any irrational fears. Finally, just like you have foods that you prefer over others, so will your child, so there may just be some foods that she never loves.

You are your child’s greatest support. You are so powerful in helping your child develop her food relationship. If you show that you are emotionally invested in what, when, or how much your child is eating, she will begin to pay more attention to you than what her body is telling her. Rather than being highly invested in what your child is eating, focus on setting a positive example. Enjoy a variety of foods, eat to satiety, and enjoy the social aspect of eating meals as a family. Teach your child that food is for satisfying hunger and nourishing her body. Try to avoid using food as a bribe, reward, or comfort, which can begin to create the habit of emotional eating. Always validate big feelings and help your child find healthy strategies for dealing with them.

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The views expressed in this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any condition and should not be substituted for medical or nutritional advice.