Your kids are naturals at this healthy approach to eating. Here's how to keep it that way.

Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Intuitive Eating as a Family Illustration
Credit: Emma Darvick

A toddler who's ravenous one day and only nibbles the next. A preschooler who asks for a second cupcake, takes one bite, then pushes the rest away. These things might frustrate parents from time to time, but they're all positive signs--because they're intuitive eating in action. But, what is intuitive eating, anyway?

Intuitive eating is a way of eating that involves honoring your natural hunger and fullness. That means eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full.

Sounds simple enough, right? Truth is, kids are born intuitive eaters. But then something happens. Parents start micromanaging what their kids eat: telling them to take five bites before they can leave the table, pressuring them to finish their milk so they don't waste it, rewarding (and punishing) them by giving (or withholding) dessert. These practices not only disrupt the natural rhythms of intuitive eating but they can also lead to developing unhealthy attitudes and habits around food.

"The more parents interfere with eating, the more you see overeating, eating in the absence of hunger, and sneaking food," says Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, co-author of the book Intuitive Eating.

To foster intuitive eating with your kids, put more trust in your child when it comes to food. Here's some guidance from Tribole:

Avoid rules around eating: That includes no rules about the number of bites they have to take to be done with dinner.

Make all foods (emotionally) equal. Broccoli isn't the yucky stuff to slog through, and sweets aren't the end-all-be-all. Avoid putting foods on a pedestal, especially sweets. (Serving a small portion of dessert with dinner is one way to equalize foods at mealtime.)

Don't label foods as "good" or "bad". Kids shouldn't associate certain foods with "being good" or feel shame because they want to eat something that's deemed "bad" or forbidden.

Respect your kids' hunger cues: Let them trust their bodies. When they say they're full, avoid pressuring them to eat more. "It sounds so basic, but these cues can easily be undermined," says Tribole. "No one but you can know what food tastes like to you or when you're hungry or full."

Check your own baggage: "Some parents have their own tangled relationship with food," says Tribole. If you have your own issues around food, recognize them—but try not to let them influence how you feed your child.

Tribole says that when you put these things in place, food and eating will be enjoyable—not the battle of wills that some dinner tables become. "Eating can become a nice time for family connection," she says. "Not a war about food."

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.