The best intuitive eaters on the planet are kids. My job as a mom is to protect my children’s innate ability to feed themselves well. I wasn’t very good at this until the last year and a half while going through eating disorder recovery. It turns out that anorexia not only affected me, but also my children because I was super controlling of their food and portions. I watched their sugar, fat, and carb intakes; was hyper aware of fruit and veggie consumption; had strict rules about treats; managed snacks; and controlled how much/little food went on to their plates.
That was a lot of work, and really, in the scheme of culture totally normal for a parent wanting their kids to eat healthy. However, it caused stress at meal times. My kids weren’t good eaters–picky, whiny, and adverse to trying new things; everyone seemed hungry all the time;
When I went into eating disorder recovery, I had to relearn how to feed my family and reteach my kids what it really means to eat well. We follow the Ellen Satter Institute principles, which center on getting kids back to their intuitive ability to eat. Do kids need structure? Yes. Do they need to be hyper controlled? No. The nutshell of how this works:
~ Parents choose what and when kids eat
~ Kids choose if and how much/little they’ll eat.
As a mom I had to learn how to:
- Give my kids lots of choices of all the nutrients (including sugar, fat and carbs)
- Pull back on controlling what my kids put on their plates
- Teach my kids how to tune in with their bodies
What this looks like in our house
We have zero food rules. All nutrients are treated equal, which means ice cream, cookies, and treats have equal value as fruit, veggies, and whole grains. When we don’t put food on a pedestal to be earned or treated as the holy grail of all things yummy, the interest and desire to eat the treats becomes more even keel.
There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” food nor “healthy” and “unhealthy.” We have play food and serious food–all of it good and healthy if our bodies are hungry and asking for them.
We have a zero-pressure environment at meal times. All the choices are put on the table and then we tune in with our bodies. “What sounds good? Maybe start with a little and see how you feel–if you want more, have more. If you don’t like it, that’s okay. Maybe try a different choice on the table.”
No one has to eat everything on their plate. You don’t have to try anything if you don’t want to; you can try everything if you want to. Decide what sounds good to you and eat that. If a plate of cookies sounds good… go for it. If your body doesn’t feel good later, we’ll talk about it and see if maybe next time we try less cookies in combo with another choice like chicken or fruit. Maybe our body would like that better.
What mealtimes look like
Eat whatever sounds good. Sean typically eats toaster waffles w/syrup or peanut butter; sometimes he’ll have an egg too, if he’s in the mood.
Haley usually eats one or more of the following with a bowl of chocolate ice cream on the side:
- 1/2 peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- Leftovers from dinner
- Bagel and cream cheese
- Bacon if it’s freshly cooked
Yeah. That’s right. Sometimes her breakfast is a bowl of ice cream with bacon on the side. Crazy? From a cultural perspective, yes. Biologically speaking, though, her body is reading and absorbing fat, calcium, Vitamin D, sugar and protein–all necessary nutrients to get her metabolism and brain up and running in the morning.
Both kidlets get an apportioned amount of dollars per month in their hot-lunch account. Each day they pick what sounds good–either the hot lunch choice, as per the monthly menu hanging in our kitchen, or whatever sounds good for home lunch. Home lunch will range from dinner leftovers to mac and cheese to a bologna sandwich. They make their own lunches with minor assistance from me. Once in a great while, depending on what’s happening, I will make lunch for them and they are over the moon.
Since ditching the food rules, the kids choose home lunch more often than hot lunch (averaging hot lunch about twice per week).
We have a snack shelf in our pantry. They pack their home lunches from that shelf and have free access to the shelf whenever their bodies say “I’m hungry.” After school, they do have to have their snack eaten by 4:15 so they have appetites for dinner later.
I try to keep a bowl of “easy fruit” on the table at all times– grapes, cherries, blueberries–which I refresh every couple of days. Sometimes I switch to carrots, olives, cherry tomatoes. The whole family will graze on these as we’re coming and going through out the week.
Every night we have an optional “last snack of the day” between 8 and 9pm. Sometimes this is something as simple as string cheese or something off the snack shelf or it could be more involved, like a hot dog or quesadilla. It just depends on the activity we had during the evening. No one needs to go to bed hungry, and, in fact, we find we sleep better when our bodies have fuel for the work it does while we sleep.
Dinnertime is where intuitive eating really takes charge. Lots of choices and no pressure. Here’s a visual of what last week’s dinners looked like:
Monday: Pizza Chicken; arugula salad with the toppings (mandarin oranges, strawberries) separate in case someone wanted fruit but no lettuce; whipped cream (for the strawberries if you want); Go-gurt, Jello, and chocolate pudding.
Tuesday: My husband cooked Steak & Veggie Kabobs; rice; arugula salad with tomatoes; sliced strawberries. Not much else for choices that night.
Wednesday: Broccoli Chicken; rice; baked beans, leftover popcorn from snack time; applesauce; cheese and crackers. This night was a total jackpot on the choices! Haley sampled a little of everything; Sean loaded up on cheese and crackers, baked beans, and a little broccoli chicken.
Thursday: Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup; grilled cheese sandwiches; grapes; cherries; pickles. There was also ice cream, but I kept that in the freezer with expressed permission to grab some if desired. Sean’s baseball game had been cancelled due to rain, so we had a rare night at home! I took full advantage of the time by making something a little more time consuming.
Friday: Sloppy Joes; ABC Salad (arugula, bacon, and cheddar cheese); grapes ‘n’ strawberry salad; Spongebob Squarepants fruit snacks; Chips Ahoy. Need I say more here?
Saturday: Pizza night! Forgot to take a picture.
Sunday: Spaghetti Mac w/cheese; chocolate pudding; Jello; grapes and cherries; Go-gurt. I was running low on groceries that day and kind of made up the pasta dish. It was essentially elbow macaroni with meat sauce and shredded cheddar.
It took several months to find a new rhythm and sometimes we run into hiccups if our routine is thrown off, but removing the rigidity and rules (yet still keeping structure) has changed my kids for the better! They eat a variety of foods, including trying more new things; meal times are fun and relaxed; there’s no more begging for treats and snacks; they’re learning how to listen and respond to their own bodies. Now that they’ve reconnected to their intuition, food is fun, nourishing, and enjoyable as it was meant to be!