5 important eating lessons we can learn from kids
Posted April 12
When I was a new mom, I gave my young daughter her very first chocolate chip cookie. These particular cookies are my absolute favorite sweet treat, and I was ecstatic about the idea of watching my little one enjoy something so delicious.
We ate a great dinner together as a family and then I pulled the freshly baked cookies out of the oven and put one on her high chair tray for her to enjoy.
I fully anticipated her diving right in and eating the entire thing, but what she ended up doing was a bit of a shock to me — she ate a bite or two and then made it clear she was done. She enjoyed it, but realized she was full, and was ready to move on with the rest of her night.
I'd witnessed my daughter's proficiency at honoring her own hunger and fullness cues up until that point, but I really wasn't prepared for her to be so good at continuing to honor those cues when there was a cookie in the picture. For so many years of my life, cookies and other treats like it were extremely difficult for me to not overdo.
But I sat there in amazement and watched my little one heed her bodily cues. In that important moment, I realized my daughter is really good at something that many adults struggle with: the entire process of eating.
Now I know many of you might be thinking that kids aren't good examples of eating: they're often finicky, picky or throw downright tantrums about food. Many of those struggles with toddlers and eating tend to be more about a power struggle between the child and the parents rather than about food itself.
There are cases where parents should seek help from a trusted medical provider for child eating concerns, but in general and under the right circumstances, children are incredibly intuitive about their energy intake and are great examples of what it looks like to have a healthy relationship with food.
Here's a list of the important lessons about food and eating that kids can teach us.
For kids, eating:
- Is enjoyable. Kids aren't afraid to enjoy the eating experience. They get excited about eating their favorite foods and enjoy delicious foods. For adults, food is meant to be enjoyable and rewarding, too — we don't need to be afraid of enjoying foods because tuning into that experience actually helps us know when it's time to stop and is an important part of connection with others and our quality of life.
- Is guided by cues of hunger and fullness, most of the time! Under the right circumstances, kids are incredibly gifted at intuitively understanding when they're hungry and when they're full. As adults, we can learn to pay attention more to those cues and not let rigid dieting rules get in the way of the natural mechanisms built into our bodies to help us know how to best take care of them. We can learn to work with our bodies by honoring their cues, rather than working against our bodies with rigid dieting rules.
- Deserves its own time during the day. Kids don't do very well with their eating when it's rushed or on-the-go. Playing while eating doesn't usually go over very well with most kids. Kids teach us the importance of setting aside time for regular planned meals and snacks throughout the day — an important concept for adults and kids alike.
- Involves all five senses. Kids intuitively love to dive into their meals with all five senses, and sometimes it drives adults crazy. "Stop playing with your food! Don't lick it!" a parent might say, but in reality, kids are curious and intuitively understand the importance of making the eating experience a mindful one. As adults, we can learn to slow down a bit and appreciate all the aspects of a meal, allowing us to be more present and mindful while eating.
- Doesn't result in guilt or shame. Unless an adult teaches a child to feel shame or guilt around food, kids will naturally be food-neutral. To a child, there's nothing inherently bad about a cookie, just like there's nothing inherently great about a carrot. Kids understand that food isn't a moral issue: they simply eat what they like in the amount that their body needs, and then move on with life. For kids and adults alike, a more food-neutral approach to eating tends to lead to more nutritious choices overall because shame around food tends to lead to all-or-nothing thinking and ultimate bingeing on foods that are labeled as "bad."
Of course there are exceptions to the above points. There are some kids who struggle with extreme picky eating or other food-related struggles that get in the way of these points being true for that child. But when parents can support a healthy relationship with food and avoid high-pressure situations around eating, kids can be some of the best examples to us in how to have positive, enjoyable and healthy interactions with food.
So, next time you're around a little one, pay attention to how they eat. We can all learn a thing or two about healing our relationship with food by looking to little ones as examples.
Paige is a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in helping people heal their relationship with food. She hosts Nutrition Matters Podcast and has a private nutrition consulting business based in Salt Lake City.