Raising an Intuitive Eater


Intuitive eating refers to a way of eating that honors hunger and fullness and leads to a healthy relationship with food and the body. Most children are born intuitive eaters, but many parents confuse intuitive eating with pickiness during toddlerhood and the preschool years.

However, in this day and age, I consider intuitive eating a superpower that should be fostered and protected. Not only will this way of eating protect against overweight and obesity, but it also is a balanced approach to eating that I believe decreases the risk of developing disordered eating. So how do you raise an intuitive eater? The first step is that you take a deep breath and trust your child’s inner wisdom. Next, as a parent, your job is to select and provide a variety of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. And it is your child’s job to decide if and how much they want to eat.

Here are five tips to raising an intuitive eater:

  1. Never force a child to eat. This is by far the most important tip. Intuitive eaters only eat if they are hungry most of the time. However, if children are recurrently forced to eat when they are not hungry, two things can happen. The first is that they will learn to habitually overeat. and they will lose the ability to tune into their hunger signals or they will develop an aversion or a fear around eating and then meal times become a battle. I will have another video about what to do if your child never seems hungry. 

  2. Avoid using food as a reward. When we associate eating hyper-palatable foods with love and reward, this can create problems around emotional eating. This is not the same as enjoying food or using food for fun and celebration. What I recommend avoiding is associating food with behavior or achievements.

  3. Never use food as punishment. Along the same lines as using food as a reward, withholding foods as punishment can lead to dangerous and long-lasting consequences for eating behaviors. Nourishment should never be withheld and specific foods should not be banned as a form of punishment as this is not only potentially damaging, but it is very likely to backfire.

  4. Allow your child to eat if they are hungry (ensure that there are plenty of healthy foods available for snacks and meals). Intuitive eaters don’t always follow societal rules around meal times, just like they may feel perfectly comfortable choosing not to eat if they are not hungry. They may be hungry and desire food between established meal times. I recommend having easily accessible healthy foods available so that your intuitive eater has options and the ability to honor their hunger during these times. 

  5. Do emphasize and encourage healthy foods, but allow some play foods after the preschool years. As a parent, you have ultimate control over what foods are present in the house, especially when your kids are small and not yet in school. In general, always having an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans and talking to your child about healthful and nourishing foods is a foundational practice. But once they get to school they will be exposed to a variety of treat (or play) foods that aren't necessarily health-promoting but are eaten for the sake of fun and pleasure. After this age, it is ok and I encourage you to keep some of their favorite play foods in the house. I will address having a play food drawer in a separate video.

I hope that these tips are helpful and encourage you to relax and enjoy raising your little intuitive eater.

Watch Dr. Yami's video on "5 Tips for Raising an Intuitive Eater"