Children intuitively know what and how to eat. Yet we lose the curiosity and intuition with food by adulthood due to external labels and diet rules.
Children interact with the world with utter curiosity. At a young age, this curiosity is uninhibited by beliefs of what is good or bad, right or wrong, or how they should or should not behave.
A baby becomes self-aware through observing their fingers in motion or grabbing at their feet. A toddler explores their awareness of self through touching and holding objects; often shaking, biting and chewing to discover what the object is and its properties.
Parents in their role to protect their child from danger, but also to increase their child’s ability to interact and behave in a socially acceptable way, teach their children to distinguish right from wrong. They teach their children not to touch certain objects, place unknown objects in their mouth, or make noise through sucking and banging objects together. Some of these ‘rules’ are reinforced by siblings, peers and teachers. Over time we develop a perception of the most appropriate way to behave to gain the love and acceptance of those we love and respect.
The labels and rules we adopt with regards to our eating enable us to behave in a way that is socially acceptable. Unfortunately, with time, however, we can become constrained by these labels and rules, as we lose our sense of curiosity and intuitiveness.
Yet, young children intuitively know what and how to eat when provided with an array of whole foods, without labels and rules dictating what is healthy or unhealthy.
How children learn to eat intuitively
An important part of learning to eat intuitively is engaging all of the senses in the process of eating, as we often see with a toddler that plays with their food. This explorative phase is important in the development of their relationship with food, their food preferences and eating behaviours.
On first being introduced to foods a child can require up to fifteen exposures to the specific food to establish a liking for it. These exposures provide the opportunity for a child to become used to the smell, taste and texture of a food. It can involve a child playing with their food, sucking and chewing their food and at times spitting it out before proceeding with another taste test.
Unfortunately, however, these are behaviours that can be frustrating to a parent who simply wishes that their child would put food in their mouth and eat what they have been given. This frustration can potentially lead to a parent giving up on providing a child with a specific food, which unfortunately can reinforce a disliking.
In other cases, a parent may force a child to eat a certain food that they do not enjoy, reinforcing a belief that eating food even that you don’t enjoy prevents distress or is pleasing to their parents.
Learning food rules hinders intuitive eating
As a child’s comprehension of right and wrong increases, they may be rewarded and bribed for eating. This can then create a perception, for example, that if they eat everything on their plate they can make their parents happy. Or if they eat everything on their plate they will be rewarded with a food that they enjoy more so. Or they may discover that if they kick up enough of a fuss or create substantial enough of a mess they will be given the foods they really want to eat. These early eating experiences can reinforce beliefs and behaviours regarding food, which are not intuitive but based on learning what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and what fosters love and acceptance.
Over time a child not only becomes aware of what they enjoy and don’t enjoy, and what eating behaviours incite reward or punishment, they are taught that certain foods are good or bad. For example, they may be taught that broccoli is good for them and that ice-cream is not. They may be taught that if they are naughty they must eat broccoli or if they eat all the broccoli on their plate they are considered ‘good’. They may be taught that they can only eat ice-cream if they are well behaved or they have achieved certain milestones or successes.
Attaching our morality to food hinders intuitive eating
The multitude of such experiences we encounter in our childhood not only reinforce the moral value of foods but in our impressionable minds we can associate our own morality and self-worth to our eating; ‘you are such a good boy for eating all your spinach’. This can create a belief that if I eat well I am good, and if I eat unhealthily or excessively I am bad.
Consequently, eating no longer is an intuitive response to physical hunger or liking of a food. Eating instead becomes an expression of our morality and self-worth. We can become so bound up in the thoughts about eating that sensations in the body no longer play a role in our eating decisions. This is exasperated further by systemic diet culture and an idealisation of health and association with beauty. As such, once we reach adulthood we have a lot of undoing of rules and beliefs to allow us to embrace a more intuitive approach to eating.
I encourage you to take the time to identify your eating rules and explore how they may sabotage your relationship with food and your body, which I go into depth in the book, Joyful Eating: How to Break Free of Diets and Make Peace with Your Body.
If you are interested in fostering intuitive eating in your child or would like guidance on supporting a child who may be a fussy eater or you have concerns regarding your child’s eating I encourage you to check out the free resources by Ellyn Slater Institute.
- Davis C.M. Results of the self-selection of diets by young children. Can Med Assoc J. 1939. 41(3): 257-61.
- Paroche M.M, Caton S.J., Vereijken C.M.J.L., Weenen H., Houston-Price C. How Infants and Young Children Learn About Food: A Systematic Review. Front Psychol. 2017; 8: 1046.
- Strauss S. Clara M. Davis and the wisdom of letting children choose their own diets. CMAJ, 2006. 175(10): 1199–1201.