By the time my children could both walk and talk, I had been yoyo dieting for nearly 25 years. It may not have been obvious on the outside, but my head was filled with food rules acquired from years of intermittent restriction to make up for years of mindless and emotional eating. I could estimate the calories and points of just about any food; I knew how long I had to spend on the treadmill for eating a “bad” food; and I had worn out the pages of my Weight Watchers Cookbook. I regularly experienced the elation, deprivation, and guilt of my perpetual eat-repent-repeat cycle.
I admired my husband’s ability to eat whatever he wanted. He certainly didn’t seem to have extraordinary willpower so I assumed that he was just lucky to have a great metabolism. That was one trait I hoped my children would inherit from him.
Fortunately, they too seemed to effortlessly eat what they liked (within the reasonable, not rigid, parameters we set). I was careful not to impose my diet-thinking on them because deep down, I knew that it wasn’t working for me and it wouldn’t work for them either.
As I marveled at their instinctive ability to regulate their fuel intake according to their needs, I realized that they hadn’t inherited it from my husband; we are all born with these innate skills! As we grow, some of us unlearn them. We learn to eat for reasons other than hunger-mealtimes, tempting food, stress, anger, boredom, deprivation, guilt, and countless other triggers – and often choose foods based on those other triggers.
I decided that my job wasn’t to teach my kids when and how much to eat; they already knew that. My job was to provide them with a variety and balance of delicious foods and support their natural skills so they could thrive within the current food-abundant environment.
I eventually relearned to eat instinctively and developed the Mindful Eating Cycle to help others learn how to do it too.
So what are the instinctive skills we’re born with to manage our eating?
Let’s briefly explore each of the decision making skills in the Mindful Eating Cycle and talk about what parents can do to support instinctive eating in our children, and if necessary, relearn it for ourselves. (To find out if you have forgotten these skills, take this quiz.)
Supporting the Instinctive Eating Cycle
Why? Why do I eat? When you eat instinctively, the need for fuel mostly drives your eating cycle.
What parents can do: You are responsible for making sure your children’s fuel needs are met consistently.
When? When do I eat? When your body needs fuel, it triggers the physical sensations that tell you you’re hungry.
What parents can do: Scarcity and excessive hunger are powerful triggers for attachment to food and overeating when food is available. Recognize and respond to your baby’s signals of true hunger promptly. As they grow, provide balanced, enjoyable meals at reliable intervals and offer appropriate snacks for hunger that occurs between meals. For older children, give them increasing responsibility for meeting their fuel needs.
What? What do I eat? Our food choices are affected by availability, preferences, social and emotional influences, awareness of nutrition information, and many other factors. When given positive exposure to a variety of foods in a supportive, non-coercive manner, children naturally seek balance and moderation in their eating.
What parents can do: Provide a consistent supply of interesting, healthful foods, and model enjoyment when eating these foods. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” using bribes, threats, or guilt, or becoming a “short-order cook.” Read more: 7 Things Parents Say that May Contribute to Eating Issues in Kids (and what to say instead).
How? How do I eat? When you’re eating to satisfy hunger and nourish your body, you eat mindfully, paying attention to the food and your body’s signals.
What parents can do: Involve children in selecting and preparing food. Eat together as a family as often as possible. Make the family table a pleasant, relaxed time for nourishment and connection.
How Much? How much do I eat? You typically decide how much food to eat by how hungry you are. When your hunger is satisfied, you usually stop eating, even if there’s food left. You recognize that being too full is uncomfortable and unnecessary since you will eat again when you are hungry.
What parents can do: Observe for signals that your child is satisfied. Babies will slow down, start looking around, or fall asleep. Toddlers will refuse food, spit it out, play with it, and/or become easily distracted. Older children will verbalize that they are full and exhibit other disinterested behaviors. Don’t bribe or threaten them to continue eating beyond these natural boundaries or they will learn to override their body’s signals, leading to overeating when portion sizes are larger than they need.
Where? Where do I invest my energy? Your fuel is used to live your life; for children that includes growing, exploring, playing, and learning. Any leftover fuel is stored until it’s needed.
What parents can do: Limit sedentary activities and screen time; play and exercise together as a family; encourage fun physical activity; don’t focus on physical appearance; model appreciation for your body’s capacity to become more energetic, stronger, and flexible.
Our children don’t need us to teach them when and how much to eat but they do need us to model a healthy, balanced approach to food and provide enjoyable meals and physical activity as a family.
Please share your thoughts and ideas for supporting healthy habits in our children!