Intuitive Eating for the Whole Family

A family breakfast with an assortment of fruits, toast, and drinks.

This is a guest post from registered dietician and nutritionist Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. 

A smiling woman with long dark hair wearing a black sleeveless top.

The natural hunger and fullness cues we are born with have the ability to not only regulate quantity of food consumed, but also ensure adequate nutrient intake and mental satisfaction. Some people even refer to our intuition as an “animal instinct” but, a variety of factors in modern day limit our awareness to our biological hunger, especially the attempt to control what and how much one eats.

A set of ten principles has been developed to aid in the application of Intuitive Eating (IE), an evidence-based philosophy encouraging food consumption in accordance with the body’s natural cues. These cues include hunger, fullness and mental satisfaction – all of which are influenced by food’s nutrient composition, taste and texture. With everything you have on your to-do list as a parent, the diet-driven media messages around you and your kids busy schedules, this may be harder than it sounds. However, you can save time eating this way if you’re used to counting calories or macronutrients and can decrease stress by being less restrictive and changing the way you look at food.

Various proteins like meats, fish, nuts, and eggs on a table.

One barrier parents may instantly identify is that they can’t honor each family member’s hunger at different times all day long. It also sounds stressful to honor each person’s cravings when there’s no time to cook four separate dinners. Embracing IE doesn’t mean ignoring the rest of your life, but paying enough attention to everyone’s needs and wants so that food can appropriately fuel you without becoming an obsession or an afterthought.

For example, 5:30 PM may actually be the only time your whole family can sit down together for dinner. When not eating intuitively though, parents may skip an afternoon snack at work when their energy dips and reach for coffee instead. This may lead to mindlessly overeating at dinner. If your kids don’t eat a balanced breakfast, they may overeat after school and then not eat a balanced dinner. To allow for more intuitive eating, send everyone off for the day with enough food to honor hunger and energize their day. This way, it’s easier for each person to sit and mindfully eat an appropriate amount of food, while enjoying the social aspect of the meal as well. Having a treat earlier in the day can also prevent cravings for large amounts of sweets after dinner.

Getting Started with IE

  • Don’t force your child to clean their plate (and recognize you don’t need to either). Beginning at the time you introduce food (versus breastmilk or formula) to your kids, you’ll want to let them guide you. Of course it’s important to encourage your child to try a variety of foods and do so a number of times. Still, if you force your infant to eat extra, or tell your child they aren’t allowed to leave the table until they’ve eaten everything, you push them past their point of fullness and alter their body’s ability to listen to fullness cues. This can lead to a lifetime of overeating, while also increasing anxiety around meal time.

Chocolate chunk cookies on a cooling rack and plate, with coffee, a jug of milk, and Nate's Honey.

  • Honor practical hunger. We don’t always have the ability to eat at the perfect time, but we often know when we won’t be able to honor our hunger in the near future. For example, if your child doesn’t feel very hungry in the morning, it is still an important time of day to ensure they get something in their belly since they won’t be able to eat for a while once they get to school. Adults may realize they’re always ravenous by the end of their weekly department meeting, so it’s practical to have a snack beforehand, even if you aren’t physically hungry at that point.
  • Don’t suppress cravings for sweets. Attempting to suppress cravings can lead to stronger cravings and binges later on whether it be that night, the next day or on the weekend. Add some raw honey and cocoa powder to your oatmeal in the morning while letting your kids drizzle honey on their strawberries. Mindfully enjoying this sweetness brings about mental satisfaction and enjoyment with food while also energizing your body and brain. Chances are you might not crave your usual bowl of ice cream after dinner or will feel more content with smaller portions.


Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN

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