What Is Intuitive Eating And Does It Really Work For Kids?

No, kids won’t just choose to eat sweets and chips when you let them listen to their bodies.

by Adam Meyer
Three children at a dinner table eating spaghetti. One dangles a noodle into their mouth.

Intuitive eating — a mindful approach that advocates listening to your own body’s cues, rather than following a particular diet — has been around for decades and helped innumerable adults nail down healthier eating habits and identify disordered eating patterns. But does that mean we should be giving our children free rein to eat what they want too? As a parent of two snack-loving kids, my first concern is that, given the choice, they’ll always reach for sugary snacks and chips over fruits and vegetables.

But what if that’s not their instinct at all, but rather what society — and, sure, my parenting — has unwittingly taught them to do? How often — when we intervene to push healthier choices on kids — are we actually getting in the way of their own good instincts?

“Unfortunately, external influences can impact kids' ability to listen to their bodies at a young age,” says Kelsey Kunik, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating expert at Graciously Nourished. But that’s not how they’re designed to be. “Kids are natural-born intuitive eaters. Without outside influence, they let us know when they're hungry, eat until they're full, and refuse to eat past fullness or more of food they no longer want,” Kunik says. “Until they're taught habits that make them focus on external drives to eat and body shame, there are no external rules to unlearn.”

So, raising healthy eaters doesn’t have to mean hovering over your kid, making sure they’re eating their veggies and restricting desserts.

What Is Intuitive Eating — And Why Do It?

Intuitive eating doesn’t really mean parents let their kids eat whatever they want. Rather, it involves creating an environment that supports kids in regulating their food intake. It means allowing them to recognize and respond to their hunger and fullness signals rather than imposing strict rules or using food as a reward or punishment.

The benefits of intuitive eating for kids are numerous. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that middle school and high school-aged adolescents who engage in intuitive eating are actually more likely to consume more fruits and veggies and maintain a healthy weight. According to the study authors, the “results suggest that engagement in intuitive eating may provide a healthy alternative to popular, yet problematic, practices such as dieting and the use of unhealthy weight control practices.”

“When parents develop the intuitive eating ‘all-foods-fit’ mentality (except for food allergies) and incorporate all types of food into regular meals and snacks, children are less likely to want to go overboard with fun foods like cookies and chips,” says Caroline Young, a registered dietitian and owner of Whole Self Nutrition. “When certain foods are put off-limits or have rigid rules associated with them, kids will be more likely to practice ‘last supper’ eating, hiding food, or other disordered eating behaviors when they do have access to those foods.”

Intuitive eating can also encourage children to trust their bodies and view food as nourishment rather than a source of guilt or restriction. According to a 2013 study published in the journal Appetite, young adults who follow intuitive eating have greater self-esteem and body satisfaction and lower levels of depression and disordered eating.

“Raising intuitive eaters also means raising humans with the best chance at having healthy relationships to food and their bodies later in their lives,” Young says.

How To Make Intuitive Eating Work At Home

Create a healthy eating environment in your home by stocking your pantry and fridge with a wide range of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy snacks. Encourage family meals and lead by example, demonstrating your own intuitive eating practices. A 2022 study in Appetite concluded that kids are likely to model their eating habits after their parents. So practice what you preach if you want your kids to eat more mindfully.

“Parents can make sure their children are exposed to a variety of foods and times that are routine and convenient for both the parent and kids by implementing Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in feeding,” says Kunik. “In this framework, parents control what they offer their kids, when they offer food, and where it’s served. The kids are responsible for deciding whether they'll eat the food served and how much they eat. This can make mealtimes much less stressful while allowing kids to honor their food choices, hunger, and fullness.”

Other ways to help raise intuitive eaters include establishing structured meal and snack times. This helps kids keep a routine and ensures adequate nutrition throughout the day. Parents should also educate their kids about the importance of a balanced diet and the benefits of different food groups.

Overcoming The Challenges Of Intuitive Eating For Kids

Some children may struggle with interpreting their hunger and fullness cues, leading to overeating or undereating, and without proper guidance, kids may gravitate toward highly palatable foods lacking nutrition. That’s when parents need to step in and offer guidance and support, ensuring their child's nutritional needs are met.

Just as with adults, learning to interpret hunger and fullness cues takes practice and experience, and mealtimes are often the arena in which kids first express autonomy, independence and will, which can make adapting to any new mealtime routine a challenge for all. But consistency, good parental modeling, and stocking the house with whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can help to shift the whole family in a more intuitive direction.

Involving kids in meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking can also help, by allowing them to participate in decision-making and develop a deeper understanding of nutrition.

Most fundamentally, intuitive eating is an opportunity for parents to help guide their children toward nutritious foods without shame or judgment — and to help them develop a lifelong enjoyment of food.