Angela Youngs, PsyD
Teach hunger/fullness cues.
Throughout the day, especially during meal and snack times, prompt your children to check in with their bodies. Are they hungry? How do they know? What signals do their bodies send to them to alert them of hunger? How hungry are they? How do they know when they’re full? Prompting such questions can help teach children the skill of tuning in with themselves. You can model this skill by checking in with your own body out loud.
Refrain from labeling food “good” or “bad” / “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
We want to avoid placing a value on food, as all food has its place. When we label a food good or bad, we also label the act of consuming it the same way. From there, we begin to internalize our own worth based on our eating behaviors. This can lead to a complicated relationship with food and our bodies. Instead, talk about food serving a variety of purposes. Food can help us grow strong. It can bring people together. It can make our bellies and hearts happy.
Provide appropriate choices during mealtime to provide practice.
Provide your children with appropriate food choices to allow them to practice responding to their internal body cues. You can ask them to tune into their bodies and decide how much of a food they would like. If possible, provide options during mealtimes to instill a sense of agency and teach decision-making skills. You can also involve them in meal or menu prep. Perhaps you can allow your children to pick a meal once a week and help you prepare it.
Do not require children to clean their plates.
This requirement can disconnect your children from their natural hunger and fullness cues. Allow your children to stop eating when they’re full to reinforce the act of noticing fullness cues and honoring their bodies. If you’re worried about food waste, you can help them check in with their bodies and decide how much they’d like to serve themselves based on their hunger cues.
Acknowledge when your children engage in intuitive practice.
You can use phrases like, “Nice job checking in with your body!” to reinforce the act of eating intuitively.
Avoid commenting on body size.
Whether the comment is “positive” or “negative,” commenting on your children’s body sizes can lead them to hyper-focus on their own bodies, which can also lead to shame, body hatred, and thinking their body size determines their value. If you would like to compliment or praise your children, look for things that go beyond appearance. You could say, “You are so strong!” “Thank you for setting a good example,” “This was hard, but you didn’t give up,” “You are brave!”
Reject diet culture yourself by refraining from criticizing your body or discussing diets.
Children are always learning from you, and they hear more than you think. If your children hear you criticizing your body or someone else’s body, they may begin to do the same with their own bodies. Instead, model positive body talk by stating things you appreciate about your body that do not relate to appearance. For example, “I really appreciate my arms because they allow me to give you big bear hugs!” or “I love how strong my legs are. They allow me to run and play with you! I always have so much fun when we play!”
It can be challenging to change the way we relate to food and our bodies, but doing so can set your children up for positive body esteem and a healthy relationship with food. If this feels overwhelming, or you would like some additional guidance, reach out to a mental health professional with experience in intuitive eating. You don’t have to navigate it alone.