Feeding children can be challenging for lots of reasons including: power struggles, fussy eating, frequent snacking and children not eating like the rest of the family. How do we avoid these scenarios which unfortunately are all-too common in many homes? Well intuitive eating may well provide some answers.
The term intuitive eating was proposed back in 1995 by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their book called Intuitive Eating, which is still seen as the go-to book in this area.
But what exactly is intuitive eating? Well it’s a way of eating that fosters a positive relationship with food (without dieting) and a positive body image.
The basic belief is that if we’re intuitively eating we eat when we’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Sounds easy doesn’t it? But there’s often a lot more to it than that. This basic process can easily be undermined. There are 10 core principles involved in intuitive eating including honour our physical hunger and feel our fullness.
Many of children as well as us adults don’t realise when we’re hungry, as we maybe snacking often and eating in the absence of hunger or eating just because food is available, for example, when it’s dinner time. From the start of a baby’s life it’s a good idea to use responsive feeding. This means reacting promptly and appropriately to our child’s needs. The key is to watch out for a baby’s signals, that is if they are hungry as well as being full or satisfied (the feeling of satiety). For example, we offer milk to a baby in response to hunger clues including opening their mouth. While we stop offering food to a toddler when they turn their head away (a fullness cue).
Many sources including the World Health Organisation advise that we learn to recognize, respect and respond to children’s physical signals of hunger and fullness. It is so important that we as parents or caregivers don’t ignore our children’s internal clues. The good news is that babies are all born intuitive eaters – they will finish eating when they’re full and (most of the time) they will eat when they are hungry. This means that at times our children will eat more than we expect and at times they will eat less, and we need to trust that this is ok. To help with this, it’s a good idea not to focus just on one meal but to look at eating over a period of a few days.
As children get older, we can encourage our children to tune into what their body is telling them; for example, is their tummy feeling full? If so maybe it’s a good idea to stop eating. We can reassure them that there will be more food available later, for example, there will be more sweets available again tomorrow. We can also help them make these connections, for example, if their tummy hurts maybe because they ate too much.
If children have learnt to listen to and trust their bodies when they are younger, they are more likely to continue to do this when as they grow older, when they are ‘without us’ and more independent.
A huge part of responsive feeding is trusting our children. This is difficult for many of us parents and caregivers, including me. But to help, Ellyn Satter has proposed the very useful Division of Responsibility in Feeding in 2015. At the core of this framework is that we trust our children to be responsible for how much they eat or whether they eat at all, at any given time. Take the following example: should we expect our children to finish their plate of food if they are already full?
This of course comes with parental responsibility which means parents are responsible for providing the food, and providing structure to ensure children are hungry for eating times (having time to get hungry and are not grazing or frequently snacking).
Basically parents decide what is being served (a range of foods), and when it’s been served (regular meals and snacks). Parents also have a role in trying to ensure mealtimes are pleasant, as well as showing children a good example (by enjoying a variety of foods). Ideally we sit down and eat with our children frequently, with the focus on family time rather than just eating.
This style of feeding advises against pressuring children to eat certain foods or certain amounts of foods (for example, ‘have 2 more bites’), as well as rewarding (or punishing) children with food. These strategies are always well-intentioned, but often result in negative outcomes including increasing fussy eating and causing stressful mealtimes. They may also have a negative effect on our child’s ability to self-regulate their eating. They may also lead to unhealthy attitudes and habits around food, including over eating (if they are frequently eating when they’re not hungry), and emotional eating (eating in response to a variety of states, other than physical hunger). The key idea is that our children should eat in response to physical hunger, rather than being bored, tired, sad, upset or other feelings.
There is also a general consensus that we should avoid using food generally as a reward, for example, if our child eats their veggies, they can have dessert.
Likewise research on restricting food or certain types of food, such as sweets, shows its negative effects including: a huge desire to eat these foods when the food is available, often resulting in excessive consumption. It may also result in our children sneaking food, which can happen even with young children such as 7 year olds. It may also mean eating in the absence of hunger; and emotional eating, especially when these “forbidden” foods are restricted. Therefore it’s important to offer sweets and more ‘indulgent foods’ to your children too sometimes, as part of a varied diet.
Of course we as parents or caregivers are more likely to restrict a child’s food if we perceive our child as overweight or at risk of becoming so, or if we ourselves have a history of dieting or emotional eating. Therefore we may need to look at our own relationship with food , to ensure its not negatively affecting our children attitudes and behaviours towards food.
Many of us (including many of our children) are on autopilot, having very busy schedules, including homework, and different activities. This often results in distracted eating, whereby children are not tuning fully into what their body wants to tell them; and may result in negative outcomes such as over eating. Mindful eating involves slowing down, taking our time to eat and paying full attention to our food. Therefore its best for our children (and for all of us) to sit down, without devices or other distractions and focus on what we’re eating and how we’re feeling, for example, are we getting full. Even if our children started focusing on just a few bites every mealtime to start with, they would begin to see how much more satisfying food is, when eaten like this.
So to foster healthy, long-term relationships for our children with food; we can all benefit from using ideas from intuitive eating, including responsive feeding and mindful eating.
Photo courtesy of verywellheath