While most parents of young children are worried about getting more food into their kids, some parents have the opposite problem: kids who never seem to get enough. Forever “hungry” these kids eat and eat.  All the while, their parents worry and worry.  If you are parenting an overeater, what can you do?

You’re in a bind.  A hands-off approach isn’t going to work with you – of course you have to do something – but you know you can’t put your kid on a diet or restrict foods without making things worse.

There’s an interesting approach to weight loss and body acceptance called Intuitive Eating, which I think can be adapted to guide people struggling to parent an overeater.

Intuitive Eating is an approach that teaches adults to trust their body and its signals.  At the same time, it teaches people how to make food and eating choices that promote optimal physical and emotional health.

Although it is widely believed that children are naturally Intuitive Eaters, research shows that parents frequently (although inadvertently) teach children to disregard their internal hunger/satiation cues — these are the best intentions gone awry.

Here are the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating, modified for parents to use to teach their overeating tots to eat right: 

1) Reject the Diet Mentality Dieting doesn’t work for adults or for kids, so don’t put your child on one.  But, dieting doesn’t work as a parenting paradigm either.  Stop worrying about nutrients and counting calories and don’t talk to your child about weight. It’s the quickest way to foster rebellion and self-doubt.  Instead, consciously empower your child’s internal cues around eating.

2) Honor Your Hunger. Talk to your child about what hunger feels like and then help her identify her other “voices” of hunger: Taste Hunger (food looks good), Practical Hunger (planning ahead for a busy day with missed meals), Emotional Hunger (eating to quench uncomfortable feelings).

3) Make Peace with Food.  Throw out the idea that some foods are “good” and others are “bad.” Instead, ask your child to identify what food she really wants – and then give it to her.

4) Challenge the Food Police. Banish the food police by helping your child make peace with food and never praise her for eating certain foods, for NOT eating certain foods, for finishing her meal or for practicing restraint.

5) Respect Your Fullness.  Instead of deciding how much your child should eat (2 more bites, only ½ a slice) teach your child to pay attention to her body signals. Try asking your child for a mid-meal pause to check her satiation level – is she hungry, unsatisfied, or starting to feel full? Using a visual rating scale (1-10) can be useful.

6) Discover the Satisfaction Factor. Encourage your child to savor – not to hoard, or snarf down — her food.  Do this by making snacks and meals inviting and by encouraging your child to honor her cravings instead of hiding them.

7) Cope with Your Emotions Without Using Food. Food can be used to cope with feelings in a myriad of ways.  Instead of plying your child with cookies when she’s crying (or lollypops at the doctor’s office), teach her to soothe her feelings in other ways instead.

8) Respect Your Body. People come in all shapes and sizes, yet our culture adores the thin ones.  Respect your child’s body and she will too. When she starts to notice other people’s body sizes, help her see that the social standard is unattainable.  Emphasize health over weight.

9) Exercise – Feel the Difference. This one is pretty easy since most kids move around.  But if you’ve got a couch potato on your hands, try getting her involved in sports that are fun. Exercising is a great way your child can care for her body.

10) Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition. Stick to the basics: teach your child that fruits and vegetables, low fat proteins and whole grains are best and should make up the bulk of her diet.  But don’t forget the fun.  Make room for the foods you kid loves.  And teach her it’s OK to eat.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Source: Tribole, Evelyn and Elyse Resch. 2003. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works 2nd Edition. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York.