Teaching your kids how to eat is a big part of teaching them how to take care of themselves. Teaching eating fundamentals when they are young -- the younger the better -- sets the stage for them to manage their eating by themselves each time they walk out your door.
Most American parents don’t teach their kids much about eating. In France, teaching kids how to eat has always been a fundamental of parenting. I discuss this in detail the blog French Lessons. In most US homes meals are haphazard, and nutrition is just a list of food they should be afraid of. This leaves kids with a vacuum or space where knowledge about feeding themselves could be. This gap often gets filled in with our diet culture’s ideas on eating.
In college your daughter could fill in this gap with the common eating behavior in dorms or sororities where the girls binge and purge all the time -– 40% of college women engage in this disordered eating behavior. Better your child goes to college with habits in place for how to eat from you, so this disordered eating behavior will seem weird to her when she gets there.
I advise teaching your kids the framework of intuitive eating based on the seminal book Intuitive Eating by Elyse Tribole and Evelyn Resch. Intuitive eating has you clue into body cues to figure out when and what to eat. This is how people ate forever before dieting and diet culture interfered with our intuition around food. Intuitive eating is used by nutritionists, dietitians, and in eating disorder treatment.
I’m showing you how to teach the basics of intuitive eating to your kids from a tool I created for habit change in adults. This is my Intuitive Eating Post-it note pad on the right. For both kids and adults you ask yourself questions 1 through 4 at meal or snack times until this simply becomes how you think around food.
When you are teaching this to kids you won’t actually use the Post-it; it will drive them crazy. I am using it here just for illustration. For kids, you teach intuitive eating by sprinkling in the first 4 questions during some of their meal and snack times.
For habit change in adults, you'll want to use one Post-it for each meal or snack. (The bonus 5th question is used if you are reaching for food and are not hungry.) I have more detailed instructions on how to use the Post-its the blog Intuitive Eating Post-its, if you are interested for yourself.
1. AM I HUNGRY?
You begin to teach intuitive eating by sprinkling in, “Are you hungry?” at some meal and snack times. You're trying help your child get in touch with their internal hunger cues. You can explain that these cues are just like the body cues that tell them when to use the bathroom.
Diets teach you to ignore your internal hunger signals, and many adults who’ve been dieting for years literally cannot locate these signals anymore. For adults, you'll want to notice different hunger values on the Post-it with the gas tank graphic. If you’re interested in these values for yourself, I go through them in detail here.
For children, it's enough they just notice that they're hungry. You can ask them if they feel a rumbling in their stomach, or a slight headache, or if they notice they are super hungry, can they tell that they are getting cranky?
2. WHAT DO I WANT TO EAT?
Next, you want your kids to learn how to make a mindful food choice. As adults we end up making about 200 food choices a day. To teach your children to do this you ask your child, “What are you hungry for?”
We want to teach them to choose foods that make their body feel physically well as part of caring for their body. Teach them that there are nutritious foods that fuel our body well and allow us to have the energy to work our muscles and our brains. And there are play foods, that are fun and give us pleasure, but don’t necessarily help our bodies run.
Your family's eating habits
This is where your family’s everyday habits will end up being really important. What you serve as nutritious food and play food will become what your child wants to eat. They won't know to crave fish when they're hungry if they've never eaten it before. I think your everyday habits around food and eating end up forming the basis for how your children eat maybe forever.
Given the magnitude of this task, it is worth thoughtfully asking yourself how do you want to feed your family? Your job is to provide healthy, nutritious food at regular times and to provide pleasurable food. Like everything else in life, this is a balance.
- What do nutritious meals and snacks look like in your home?
- What play foods do you enjoy together?
- When are mealtimes? What makes them enjoyable for everyone?
- How do you manage hunger between meals?
- How do you eat mindfully? Focus on the food? Eat without too much distraction?
- What role does food and eating play in your home? No focus? Too much focus?
And, it's important to understand two things that could derail your eating intentions for your kids: their feelings of deprivation and guilt around eating. Feelings of deprivation and guilt work together to form the basis for much of our culture's eating issues (statistics on our culture's eating issues can be found here and here).
And, going on a diet seems weird to the French as well. They have been taught to balance their own nutrition and pleasure from childhood so, and farming that responsibility out to the latest craze which deprives them of their valued pleasure is entirely counter-intuitive.
Food morality and guilt
It is very important to teach your children that there are no good or bad foods. Nutritious foods and play foods BOTH have their place in our food choices. Nutritious foods fuel us well, and play foods are for fun. You need fuel and you need fun, just like in life. The French with their cultural notion of joie de vivre (joy of life), know that you can’t be all work and no play.
Having good and bad foods sets people up to have food morality. It can make people feel guilty or bad about themselves when they eat a certain type of food that has been labeled as bad. Our culture does this all the time when it describes certain foods as sinful, guilty pleasures, or forbidden on the eating regime du jour -- like today's diets that forbid or strictly limit bread or sugar.
Women I work with often describe a guilt-filled nightly ritual where they review what they ate that day to determine whether they were good or bad -- they use food to pass judgment on their character of strength or weakness. Often this guilt spirals into beating themselves up because they ate a bad food.
We want to avoid setting this dynamic up for our kids. We don't want them to layer their self-worth and idea of their character on top of what they ate that day. It makes food too important, giving food too much power to get caught up in their idea of themselves. Going down this path causes their self-esteem to take a hit just because they ate a cookie; and we all eat cookies sometimes. This guilt spiral is how disordered eating behavior begins, as food goes beyond nutrition and pleasure and starts to be used in ways that don't serve the eater well, such as a way of valuing themselves, as I discuss in the blog, Food is just food.
3. AM I ENJOYING MY FOOD?
We want our kids to know how to enjoy their food as a part of eating mindfully. To teach mindful eating, you can talk about the enjoyment you experience from eating. You can ask them, "How does the food taste?" or "Do you like what you are eating?" Focusing on the food while eating gets kids to hone in on their tastes. It also slows down the experience. Here in the US we all learn to eat distractedly, with the TV on or while doing something else. Paying attention to eating and eating slowly helps your stomach register when you’ve had enough, making it easier to physically sense when you are finished.
4. AM I SATISFIED?
Finally, we want them to understand is when they are done eating. This is often the hardest question for adults and the easiest concept for young children. A child knows when they've had enough food -- as you can see when your child puts down an ice cream cone after a couple bites.
Your task here is to keep them in touch with that satiation signal that has them put down the ice cream cone -- which that has 2 parts. First, there is the gas tank part that registers a full stomach; I've drawn this on the Post-it. You can ask, “Do you feel full yet?” After a big meal ask, “How does your stomach feel?” You want them to notice the physical fullness signs and physical discomfort when overfilled.
Then, we want to know, "Did what you ate hit the spot?" This is where lessons are learned for next time. After a meal of veggies and protein, you might want to ask an hour later, “Did you notice that you had energy to play soccer more easily after that nutritious meal?” Even if your child didn't notice he had more energy, point out the genuine lesson you want them to learn, “When I eat veggies and chicken for a meal rather than cookies, I notice I have more energy to play tennis.” They’ll be on the look-out for how food makes their body feel for next time.
5. EMOTIONS AND EATING
Number 5 on the Post-it is not a part of what we teach our kids. It's used for adults to clue into existing habits that don’t serve them well, like excessive emotional eating. We don't want food to become their go to method for coping or only tool in their emotional toolkit when they are feeling bad.
If your child looks sad, frustrated or irritated, give them a hug and talk to them. Keep the cookies in the cupboard until well after you've addressed what's bothering them.
- Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Body Respect, 2014.
- Carolyn Costin, Your Dieting Daughter, 2013 (2nd edition).
- Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick, 2017.
- Mireille Guiliano, French Women Don't Get Fat: The secret of eating for pleasure, 2007.
- Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, 2014 (2nd edition).
- Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue, 2006 (2nd edition).
- Rachel Simmons, Enough As She Is, 2018.
- Julia V. Taylor, The Body Image Workbook for Teens, 2014.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch,Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, 2017.