Intuitive eating is a nonrestrictive eating style that encourages people to listen to the body’s cues for hunger and fullness. This way of eating may support the development of healthy relationships with food.
Intuitive eating is not a traditional diet. It does not involve rules or restrictions, and it avoids labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Instead, a person’s physical sensations determine what, when, and how much they eat.
This article will explore intuitive eating for children, its benefits, and how to encourage it.
Intuitive eating is an approach to food based on the body’s internal hunger and satiety cues. Rather than focusing on rules and restrictions, this eating style encourages someone to listen to and respect their bodily sensations, using these as a guide for when and how much to eat.
The idea behind this way of eating is that the body knows how much food it needs, and trusting it creates a positive relationship both to a person’s body and to their food.
Intuitive eating is similar to mindful eating, but the two concepts differ slightly.
Mindful eating involves focusing on the present moment while cooking and eating food, minimizing distractions, and appreciating each bite. Intuitive eating includes these principles, but it also aims to help people unlearn negative beliefs about food and their bodies, plus rebuild trust in themselves.
From birth, all children naturally practice intuitive eating. Babies drink milk when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Proponents of intuitive eating argue that this style of eating would continue naturally if children did not start learning adult rules and beliefs as they grew up.
Little research has examined the effects of intuitive eating on children.
However, a 2020 study of adults using data from 2010–2018 found that this practice predicted better mental health. Participants who ate intuitively were less likely to have low self-esteem, binge eating behaviors, or extreme weight loss behaviors.
Practices that go against intuitive eating may also have long-term negative effects. According to a study from 2023, engaging in feeding practices such as food restriction or pressuring someone to eat can affect maladaptive eating behaviors, including emotional eating and disordered eating.
An older 2016 study also found that, among 170 college students, those who experienced parental pressure to eat as children were more likely to have disordered eating as adults.
The principles of intuitive eating include:
- honoring hunger by eating when a person wants to
- honoring fullness by stopping eating when it feels right
- focusing on making and eating pleasurable and satisfying foods
- not labeling certain foods as inherently “good” or “bad”
- practicing self-compassion
People can also combine these principles with a more intuitive approach to exercise, which focuses on how movement feels.
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As a result, modeling intuitive eating in front of children can help them continue, or relearn, how to practice it themselves.
Caregivers can add to this by clearly explaining the reasons for their behaviors. For example, they can say “I am full, so I am going to stop eating now,” or “I am hungry, so I am going to have a snack.”
It may also help to:
- Set boundaries: Adults provide the food, but it is the child’s responsibility to decide when and how much to eat. Stick to these boundaries and try not to influence what the child chooses.
- Offer choice: When possible, allow children to choose what to eat from a range of limited options. For example, they might choose between two sandwich fillings at lunch or which snack to take to school.
- Allow self-serving: If the child is old enough, allow them to serve themselves so that they can manage their own portion sizes.
- Accept their choices: While caregivers can teach children about the nutritional value of different foods, once the child has made their decision, they should respect this.
- Focus on feelings: Instead of making judgments about food, focus on how eating feels. For example, if the child eats until satisfied, they can notice they feel good. If they eat until uncomfortably full, they can notice it feels unpleasant. This teaches them the consequences of their actions without creating guilt or shame.
- Set aside space and time: Where possible, have a designated part of the house for meals, such as a dining table, and regular times when food will be available. It is also important to try and set aside enough time to eat mindfully.
When teaching or modeling intuitive eating, do not:
- put foods into binary categories, such as “good” and “bad” or “healthy” and “unhealthy”
- criticize the child’s choices or attach labels to them, such as “picky”
- try to sneak more or less food onto a child’s plate
- use food as rewards or bribes for good behavior
- deny or take away foods as a punishment
- make comments about body weight, shape, or size in relation to food
Caregivers need to apply this to themselves, too. Children take in information from their surroundings, so hearing a caregiver be self-critical about their food or body size teaches them to think the same way.
Teaching intuitive eating to children can require a significant adjustment in mindset for adults. They may have to confront some of their own beliefs about food and their bodies in order to model the behavior for children, which they may find challenging.
Additionally, it may be hard to ensure intuitive eating is consistent in all the places a child goes. Though a caregiver could model this behavior at home, they have less ability to manage the school environment or other peoples’ homes.
There are ways around this, though. Caregivers can work on their own relationship with food and ask that other relatives respect their way of doing things.
People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism may not notice their body’s hunger and fullness cues in the same way as others. Some may also have sensory issues with certain flavors and textures.
This has led some people to wonder whether intuitive eating could benefit neurodivergent children. At present, though, there is no research on this.
Because intuitive eating focuses on listening to physical hunger cues, it may not work for every child. Caregivers can try intuitive eating for their child, but they may want to discuss it with a knowledgeable doctor or dietitian first.
Intuitive eating for children may help create or reinforce a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. It involves eating according to physical cues, savoring food, and avoiding restrictions or judgment.
Modeling intuitive eating can help teach this approach to a child. Providing a few options, allowing children to serve themselves, and setting aside space and time for mindful eating can also help.
Intuitive eating may not be ideal for everyone. If caregivers try this approach for a while and their child is eating a very limited diet or eating a large amount of food for their age, they should speak with a doctor or dietitian.