Child practicing intuitive eating

Raising An Intuitive Eater

There’s been a lot of talk about intuitive eating lately, which got us thinking: If we can learn to eat intuitively, when did we learn not to?

No matter how you diverged from your natural eating style, it’s possible to get it back—and support your children in maintaining theirs, say Sumner Brooks, MPH, RDN and Amee Severson, MPP-D, RDN, authors of How To Raise An Intuitive Eater. “We don’t need to teach intuitive eating; children naturally do this. We need to support them in their natural eating behaviors,” Brooks says.

Understanding Intuitive Eating—for Your Kids and for Yourself

There’s often a misunderstanding of what it means to eat intuitively. Many people think that intuitive eating is all about cravings and appetite—just eat what you want when you want. But that approach doesn’t consider the whole picture. A more complete definition is complex. The definition of intuitive eating that we use is from Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole (pioneers of intuitive eating), which encompasses the complexity of the human eating experience and our relationship to food: instinct, thought, and emotion.

Our instincts, which are controlled by our reptilian brain and help us survive, compel us to seek food when we’re hungry. Instincts are the reason restrictive diets don’t work long-term. If you are in a calorie deficit for an extended period, your body goes into survival mode, so you constantly think about food and you are determined to seek it out in order to survive.

We’re human, though, so we can also think and use our logic and reasoning to make our eating decisions. We can ask questions like: What am I doing today? How much energy do I need to do what I need to get done? What can I eat that will help me feel good throughout the day? Logic is a great benefit that helps us eat in a way that fuels us and keeps us feeling as good as we can.

Our unique instincts, thoughts, and emotions make up our personal intuitive eating experience.

What Disrupting the Intuitive Process Looks Like

Parents mean well, but sometimes, without even realizing it, they say things that can deter a child’s intuitive eating process. Some examples are asking, “Are you sure you’re hungry?” or “Are you just thirsty or bored?” before your kid eats something. Or it can sound like, “You don’t really need that.”

These little questions and comments can accumulate and eventually instill distrust in your child’s ability to follow their own instincts. Then they begin to question themselves: Maybe I am just thirsty or bored; maybe I don’t need this, even though it sounds really good right now.

Another thing that we often see is parents comparing eating styles with another child’s or labeling children as “good eaters” and “bad eaters.” This adds to the constant attention and judgment our society has concerning eating and food preferences. It can be overbearing for a child—they know when their parents care a lot about what they’re eating or when there’s not a certain type of food in the house—they notice and feel it all.

Ways Parents Can Help Their Child Eat Intuitively

It’s important to know that we don’t need to teach intuitive eating; children naturally do this. We need to support them in their natural eating behaviors and they will learn to self-correct, if needed. You can compare it to when a child is learning to walk. We don’t try to keep them from falling. To become competent walkers, they must explore, wobble around, and fall and get back up again. But we don’t let them learn to walk in a parking lot or on the street. We keep them surrounded by safe boundaries that allow them to find their way. There’s a balance of exploration and boundaries when it comes to raising an intuitive eater, too.

Tuning in to yourself and your child is essential. It’s ultimately about making mealtime a positive experience that leaves them feeling good and satisfied. Here are some things that can help:

Have a flexible and reliable feeding routine. This helps provide some structure but also a safe space for them to learn how to listen to their body, feed themselves regularly, get enough to feel satisfied and try new foods. We recommend keeping a pretty loose schedule. For example, plan for the family to eat a snack around this time each day and meals around these other times each day but with enough flexibility that allows for the natural flows of life—unexpected schedule changes, changes in timing of hunger, etc.

Have desirable food options. A child should know that at every single meal and snack, there will be enough food for them and there will be enough food that they want provided for them. For example, you can provide your child with a pound of Brussels sprouts in one meal—that would be more than enough food in terms of volume—but if your child refuses to eat Brussels sprouts, then that really is not enough food for them.

There should be something they want to eat with each meal. We don’t need to force them to eat things they don’t want. If you know they like strawberries, then make sure strawberries are on the table, rather than pressuring them to eat bananas if they are averse to them.

Offer a combination of familiar and new foods. This doesn’t mean every single meal has to include a new vegetable and a new fruit, but generally doing this over the course of a week or a month, whatever is best for your family, is great. Repeating staples and family favorites works, too.

Stop pressuring them to eat. Just stop. If you need to bite your tongue to stop yourself from making a comment, we suggest doing so. We’re (kind of) joking, but we use that example because it’s that crucial. If you feel the urge to say something about their food or eating, pause and notice the discomfort inside yourself. Let it dissipate and allow your child to make the decision—they are more than capable of doing so. Ultimately, we don’t want our children to develop disordered eating patterns.

Talk about anything else other than what they’re eating during mealtimes. Let the food be there. If you find yourself wanting to talk about food, you can shift the conversation and instead ask them how they are doing or feeling. It distracts from the food and helps you connect with your child. It’s okay to express enjoyment, pleasure, and satisfaction about what you are eating, of course, but the goal is to place more attention on your child than on the meal.

Model intuitive eating. Parents are often unaware of how our systems and culture influence our eating preferences and patterns, and we unconsciously pass these ideals, behaviors and anxiety on to our children. When parents relearn and model intuitive eating, it can make a tremendous difference, since our children are very attuned to our actions.

For some parents, this may mean eliminating diets or restrictive eating or doing deep inner-child psychological work (many of our eating patterns are ingrained from a young age). It could also mean making conscious decisions to release control of your child’s eating, trust that your child can self-regulate, and give them the freedom to experiment and learn.

Looking for more guidance, contact us to schedule a complimentary 15-minute consultation with one of our Milwaukee Intuitive Eating Therapists.




Intuitive Eating Tricks for Halloween Treats

“Halloween” and “candy” are almost synonymous, and this can be a confusing time for us to know how to handle the sugar overload that’s heading towards us like a high-speed freight train, especially for those struggling with and eating disorder and working in recovery.

Most individuals spend their time thinking about costumes, decorations and haunted houses weeks before the big day but individuals who are recovering from an eating disorder are often inundated with thoughts of body image and weight disturbances when shopping for a Halloween costume and walking the candy aisles.

Shopping for a Halloween costume, navigating parties, and being faced with Halloween candy, treats and drinks are just a few of the many ways that Halloween can trigger your eating disorder in unexpected ways. Being mindful of these potential triggers and arming yourself with coping tools to support your recovery is vital. Whether you are trick-or-treating, attending a Halloween costume party or passing out candy with your friends, these triggers may creep up on you before you know it.

Halloween Treats and Binge Eating

Halloween in recovery can mean binge eating can be more likely during times of stress and increased anxiety. During this particular holiday, stress and anxiety may be caused by feeling pressure over Halloween to dress up, attend a Halloween party or potluck, pass out candy and purchase candy. From chocolate bars and candy corns to lollipops and gummy bears.  Halloween can lead to candy overload, which can lead to intense urges or action to binge. Depending on your eating disorder, you might have kept yourself from indulging in Halloween candy in the past; you might have binged on it after everyone had gone to sleep, or some combination therein. If you are still in recovery for your eating disorder it is recommended that you have a recovery action plan to help with the triggers.

Understanding your reasons for binge eating, along with learning how to deal with stress and anxiety through other coping strategies are beneficial to your health and recovery. Here are some tips for your recovery action plan to help you avoid binge eating on Halloween this year.

1. Practice Mindful Eating. This starts with allowing yourself to use all of your senses in choosing to eat foods that satisfy you while nourishing your body at the same time. You obtain the opportunity to acknowledge your genuine responses to food, such as your true likes and dislikes, without any judgement. Eat with awareness of your senses.

2.Remember to have regular meals/snack throughout the day. Try eating three regular meals and two snacks to prevent cravings that can lead to overeating. Have a game plan for the potluck. Meaning look at all the foods before you take a plate. Figure out which foods seems the most appetizing to you and which foods you know you are hungry for. Plate your food, allowing yourself to enjoy what you are eating. Give yourself permission to stop eating when you feel satisfied.

3. Feel empowered to use your voice and seek support. Identify who you support system is going be for the Halloween festivities. Strategize with your support system on what type of support you may need and what that will look like.

4. Practice Self-Compassion. When you start experiencing feelings of guilt and shame, practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment? ~Kristin Neff

Halloween costumes and body positivity

There are many ways that Halloween in recovery can be challenging. Clothing shopping can be triggering for individuals who are in eating disorder recovery, especially costume shopping. Costumes tend to be on the skimpier side and our society tends to praise women who show more skin and wear less clothing on Halloween. Regardless of where you are in your eating disorder recovery, it is important to feel comfortable in any costume you wear. Whether it is a homemade costume or a store-bought costume, you should feel comfortable and exuberate self-confidence in your costume.

If you feel that a costume will trigger you to have negative thoughts then here are some ideas to try instead of dressing up; 1.  to try a different costume that you feel comfortable in 2. buy a Halloween t-shirt instead of dressing up 3. wear Halloween colors in clothes that make you feel good.

Regardless of where your Halloween takes you, the most important part is practicing self-care. This is at the root of most recovery-minded decisions. Self-care means spending time with people who support your recovery, and giving yourself permission to enjoy that Snickers!

If you feel like you would benefit from support when it comes to your relationship with food, reach out to us at to schedule a FREE initial consult with one of our eating disorder therapists.