· By Julia Boase

Intuitive Eating for Kids

You might think that Intuitive eating (sometimes called mindful eating) is a new concept given the buzz around mindful practices right now, but it’s been around for decades and has actually always been part of how humans eat. 


In nutshell intuitive eating is a practice that encourages us to listen to our body’s natural appetite signals which are there to tell us when we’re hungry, and when we’re full. Part of intuitive eating is also accepting that we all live in different bodies - some of us are programmed to live in bigger bodies, some smaller. As I like to say to my kids, we all come in different shapes and sizes and this is what makes us unique. Your appetite is intrinsically linked to your bodies genetically determined shape and size. Listening to your appetite is acknowledging that your body knows how much fuel it needs to maintain specific size/shape (or take into account growth spurts in kids).

Every single one of us is born with an appetite, it’s essential for life. There were a set of very interesting experiments conducted by Fomon and colleagues back in 1975 where they looked at what happened when you took formula fed babies and altered the concentration of their formula such that some formulas contained many more calories (energy) and others far less energy in the same amount of formula. What do you think happened when the babies were fed these different formulas?  Intuitively they seemed to know that some formulas contained more calories than others, and the babies that were fed the very energy dense formulas drank less than they usually would, and the babies that were fed the weak formulas drank more - ie they were able to compensate for the changing amount of energy by drinking more or less formula. I can’t think of a more beautiful way to demonstrate how appetite regulation works. 

Unfortunately this precious gift of appetite regulation often goes haywire when our eating environment starts to interfere. Studies done by Birch and colleagues (1987) showed that young children would happily eat in the absence of hunger when rewards or incentives were introduced. 


We all indulge in a little non hungry eating from time to time, and this in itself is not a concern and pretty normal. For example who doesn’t load up on the goodies at the Christmas table knowing that you’re probably only going to see those foods once a year? What is not normal is when your daily eating is impacted by non hungry eating or you have no idea whether you’re hungry or full. There are a number of factors that researchers have put forward that we think interfere’s with a child’s ability to lean into their appetite


1. Eating pace - being rushed to finish your meals, think scoffing breakfast because you’re going to be late for school. Create a quiet, calm space for eating. Allow about 10 -15 mins for snacks and 20- 30 mins for meals (note - don’t let meals extend beyond 30mins. Research has shown that meals of a longer duration often enter “battle zone” territory in which parents are trying to encourage their kids to eat more, but in reality very little is eaten).

2. Distraction - this is a HUGE one for both kids and adults. For kids it’s things like watching the TV or iPad while they are eating or playing with toys (the old aeroplane in the mouth trick used in infants also fits here). For adults it’s often working at their computer while they eat or scrolling on their phone. When you are distracted you’re not fully listening to the signals your body is sending you. Have you ever sat through a movie with a huge tub of popcorn only to realise you’ve finished it and you can hardly recall eating it ? This is classic distraction. Part of what our bodies need when we eat is a sense of fulfilment from that food. If you haven’t truly been “present” while you were eating, your body often hasn’t got that sense of fulfilment it was after, and this can send a signal to your body that it still wants to eat. Clear your table, turn off the TV and have a no phones at the table policy.

3. Being asked to clean your plate, eat everything that you’ve been offered, or just take X amount of bites - this is common practice among parents who misinterpret the job of feeding their child as “I must get them to eat”. Actually your job as the parent is simply to provide the food at regular intervals, your child’s job, is whether or not they are going to eat it, and how much. Whilst we might feel as parents that we ought to know how much our kid’s need to eat, we actually can’t. Only our kids can tap into their natural appetite signals and know how hungry or full they are. Trust your child’s ability to do this, and remind yourself that your job is done when the food is served.

4. Eating to a pre-determined schedule - Ever sat down and eaten lunch simply because the clock says its 1230pm and that’s when you eat lunch even though you weren’t that hungry? Whilst you do want to feed kids to a predictable routine (eg breakfast, mid morning snack, lunch), have a little bit of flexibility. If your morning snack was late, your kids might not be hungry at their usual lunch time. If they didn’t eat much at lunch? No problem, bring their afternoon snack forward a bit, but try and be responsive to what your kids are telling you about how hungry they are at one time.

5. All day snacking - common amongst pre-school kids. Non stop eating means that you’re never really hungry or full. Long term this makes it difficult to hear your bodies natural appetite signals. Try and stick to a routine as above with some built in flexibility. 

6. Boredom eating - Are your kids just cycling back to look in the pantry again? Are they really hungry or just plain bored? Going for a snack to procrastinate or just for something to do, is something we’ve all done at one time or another. Try and identify when your kids are doing this and redirect them to another activity. Remind them that if they’re hungry they can expect at snack/meal at roughly what time (and bring it forward a little if you think they are truly getting ravenous!).


Raising your kids in a family that supports intuitive eating has been shown to protect them from some of the effects of our diet focussed society and can reduce the incidence of eating disorders, improve their body image and make them less likely to succumb to dieting. 




1.Fomon SJ, Filmer LJ, Thomas LN, Anderson TA, & Nelson SE (1975). Influence of formula concentration on caloric intake and growth of normal infants. Acta Paediatrica Scandinavica, 64(2), 172–181. 10.1111/j.1651-2227.1975.tb03818.x


2. Birch LL, McPhee L, Shoba BC, Steinberg L, Krehbiel R. “Clean up your plate”: effects of child feeding practices on the conditioning of meal size. Learn Motiv. 1987;18:301–317


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