Healthy Kids

Does Intuitive Eating Apply to Kids Who Are Picky Eaters?

If you’re on the journey of raising intuitive eaters, I know you’re doing the hard work of countering diet culture in your home and learning to enjoy freedom with food as a family. 

It’s not easy, and there might be many things that make you wonder if you’re doing this thing right. I mean, no one handed us a playbook on how to feed our children, and let’s be real – there’s so much conflicting information out there these days, it can feel challenging to know what to do at times to support your kids in building a positive relationship with food and their bodies. 

Because the concept of “raising an intuitive eater” can feel a bit arbitrary, too, this can also raise some confusion around how to navigate tricky feeding challenges with your children. 

One such area of confusion is around picky eating. 

Let me just say, as a mother of a child with picky eating tendencies and sensory sensitivities, I understand the difficulties and challenges.

Raising an intuitive eater is really about supporting and preserving your child’s innate intuitive eating cues and abilities. But what if your child only wants to eat a handful of foods? Or in the case of my own daughter, what if your child only wants to eat beige, carbohydrate foods (Ritz crackers and goldfish, anyone?)

Can you really trust your child’s innate intuitive eating abilities in these situations? Are there expectations to the rule of being able to trust our kids to really eat what they need from the foods we provide? 

Many parents I work with who are navigating picky eating in their homes find it hard to trust how their kids eat. 

Maybe you’ve found yourself in the same boat, where the foods your child gravitates toward eating makes you question if they’re getting enough variety, meeting their nutrition needs, or able to grow in a way that’s healthy for them. I totally get this, and your concerns are absolutely valid. 

As a parent, when our ability to trust our children starts to falter, this can weaken our capacity to support our children’s intuitive eating abilities. And no where do I see a parent’s capacity to trust their child’s eating abilities challenged MORE than when picky eating is involved. 

Children who are more selective with food, who have sensory sensitivities, and who eat limited foods and quantities can raise many questions, doubts and fears. These things make it hard to trust our children to eat, and really, trust is the foundation of raising intuitive eaters. 

So how can you work through this if you’re navigating picky eating while simultaneously aiming to raise a picky eater? 

The good news is that there’s hope for you and your child, my friend. 

It starts with redefining what it means to raise an intuitive eater and adjusting your expectations for how or what your child should be eating. 

Redefining What it Means to Raise an Intuitive Eater

When it comes to raising an intuitive eater, there are often misconceptions and myths that misconstrue what this actually means. 

Raising an intuitive eater has more to do with HOW you feed your child and the trusting feeding relationship you’re building with them versus the WHAT of what you’re actually feeding them (or what your child may be eating from the foods you provide). 

Diet culture plays a huge role in shaping our ideas of how we should be feeding our children, and what our children should be eating, and this can often infiltrate our ideas of what it means to raise an intuitive eater – even on a subconscious level. 

The truth is, diet culture has framed picky eating as a problem to be fixed, squaring off parents as failures if their kids don’t willingly eat vegetables or are open to trying a wide array of rainbowed-colored foods. 

A common misunderstanding with children who are more selective about eating is that somehow, the way they eat is wrong. That it can’t possibly be intuitive to survive on chicken nuggets and cheetos, or that the quantity of food pickier eaters eat can’t somehow be what’s right for them. 

As a parent of a picky eater myself, I totally understand. There’s been many times where I’ve watched what my children choose to eat from the foods I provide and question their abilities to eat what they need to support their overall health and growth. 

But here’s what I’ve learned: my own discomforts around how my children eat are not a reflection of them but of ME. 

Anytime the way my own child eats brings up discomfort in me, it’s because of something in ME that needs to be looked at more closely, not something that’s inherently wrong with my child or how my child eats. It’s all about adjusting my response to how my child is eating versus trying to “fix” how my child is eating. 

Just because my picky eater doesn’t eat in alignment with my expectations of how I think they should eat doesn’t mean they’re broken or incapable of listening to their bodies. Not in the slightest.

And if you’re a parent navigating picky eating and wondering these same things about your own child, I really want to encourage you to examine your own expectations and beliefs about how your child eats. 

Because at the end of the day, if we’re trying to get our children to eat in alignment with our own expectations because it makes us feel better about ourselves, then that is not going to help them preserve their own intuitive eating abilities. 

Raising an intuitive eater is about helping your children learn to become the best experts of their own bodies, and the only people living in your children’s bodies ARE your children. And if you’re trying to steer their eating choices from your own fears or hidden agendas, this isn’t going to allow them to learn how to listen to and trust their bodies (the foundation of what it means to raise an intuitive eater). 

Raising an intuitive eater is NOT about: 

  • Having a child who willingly eats vegetables

  • Getting your child to eat whatever you put in front of them

  • Having a child comply with what you want them to eat when you want them to eat it

  • Getting a child to eat certain foods or quantities

In order to truly support your children in becoming the best expert of their own bodies, it’s important to first lay down your own expectations and hidden agendas in order to give your kids space and freedom to grow into the person they’re meant to be (not who you want them to be). 

I know this is a hard pill to swallow. It was for me, too – and I had to learn this the hard way. 

For a long time, I had to make peace with the fact that my picky eaters weren’t going to eat certain foods, like vegetables, and that they’d mostly survive on beige, carbohydrate-based foods. 

As a dietitian mom, I took a LOT of shade from people who questioned how I fed my kids and the way my kids ate, which made it even harder to be okay with where my kids were when it came to eating. Especially as a more adventurous eater myself who enjoys cooking, it was challenging when my child wasn’t into the many different types of foods I also loved to cook and eat. 

But when I finally realized that the way my children ate wasn’t a problem to be fixed, it changed everything for me. 

Because the goal of raising an intuitive eater is not about getting your picky eater to eat more foods that you want them to eat or to try to make their picky eating tendencies go away. 

Let me fill you in on a little secret: all kids are built differently, with different personalities, temperaments and learning styles. All of these things absolutely influence their eating behaviors and tendencies. 

As an example, one of my daughter’s who is a pickier eater and more selective with food also has a personality that is more cautious and hesitant. She also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and with that come sensory sensitivities. She’s more easily overwhelmed by different sensory stimulations, including smells and tastes. So it makes sense that some foods might be overwhelming to her palate, and therefore, more challenging for her to eat. 

When I learned the many complexities related to her picky eating, I also began to understand that her picky eating wasn’t a problem that I needed to fix. I don’t even like using that term to label kids – “picky eaters” (but am using it for the sake of this blog post to help drive a point). 

The point being, there’s no wrong way to learn how to eat, and there’s definitely not a wrong way to learn how to be an intuitive eater and the best expert of your body. 

Just because your child might be more selective with food doesn’t mean they are unable to listen to their bodies. 

On the contrary, your child is likely VERY in tune with their body and sensory needs, and is learning how to eat food in a manner that feels safe for them. 

Rejecting certain foods doesn’t mean your child is rejecting YOU or trying to be difficult. 

Many foods are just harder for certain kids to eat, and instead of trying to change them to be something they’re not, we need to learn how to embrace them where they’re at and offer them unconditional acceptance of who they are. 

That is the most important facet needed to support your children in building a positive relationship with food and their bodies. 

When your children understand that you trust them explicitly to eat what they need from the foods you provide them on a regular basis, they will also learn how to trust themselves. Even if they only chose to eat the carb from the dinner you served or have a tendency to gravitate towards sweeter foods. 

Whatever it is, kids need to feel trusted in order to feel capable of themselves, and extending your trust to your children, especially around food, will empower them to learn to become the best experts of their own bodies, no matter how or what they choose to eat. 

Part of reframing this conversation is also redefining the goals of raising a healthy eater and intuitive eater. 

The goal is not to get your child to eat in a certain way or even to be open to eating certain foods. 

I learned early on with my picky eater that there are definitely certain foods she may never eat, and I had to make peace with that. 

The goal is to help your child build positive associations with food and eating, so it’s something they enjoy, something they feel good and confident about doing. 

When we focus on creating positive experiences around eating and making that our primary goals, our children will naturally be able to eat in a manner that supports their bodies in the healthiest way possible. 

This can’t happen if we’re prioritizing nutrition above everything else or fixated on certain outcomes at mealtimes (like our kids eating certain foods or amounts). I know it seems backwards, even counterintuitive, but again, trying to push your own hidden agendas on your children will sacrifice the bigger picture goals: supporting them in building a life-long positive relationship with food and their bodies. 

In order to support this, especially for our pickiest eaters, we have to prioritize CONNECTION over CORRECTION (i.e. trying to correct them to eat in a certain manner that might not even be feasible for them). 

So where can you start with this? 

Learning to Let Go of Expectations

What can make it challenging to trust your children as the best expert of their bodies, especially when they’re pickier eaters who have a more selective approach to food? 

This is definitely easier said than done, and if you’re struggling to let go of your own expectations around how your child eats, please give yourself compassion.

There are many factors that can interfere with your ability to fully trust your child and their eating behaviors and tendencies, many of which are out of your control and none of which are your fault. 

Let’s explore some of these together. Because when you have more awareness of the things that are challenging your ability to support your child’s innate intuitive eating abilities, you’ll have more opportunities to grow and expand your trust in your child. 

Remember, when your child feels trusted to eat, it reinforces their ability to trust themselves. 

So what might be making it hard for you to do this? 

Expectations you have for your child and how your child eats are often a cumulation of many different experiences and influences. 

For example, if you were told by medical professionals that your baby was losing weight and that you needed to be vigilant about getting enough milk in them, you might internalize a false belief that your child doesn’t have the capacity to take in an amount of food that is right for her body. 

Or if you’ve had friends or family members who comment on your child’s pickiness or try to get them to eat more food, you might come to believe that there’s something wrong with your child and how they eat. 

These are just some of the examples of the experiences that influence our expectations around how our child should be eating, which deter our ability to fully trust our kids as the best expert of their bodies, even if they are pickier eaters. 

Some of the other factors that may be at play can include: 

  • A history of medical or behavioral complications

  • A misunderstanding of neurodivergent children 

  • Fear around your child’s body size

  • Parental history of a chaotic relationship with food and body

  • A traumatic birth/postpartum experience with your child (for example, having a preterm child with a NICU stay)

  • Fear around your child’s overall nutrition and growth

  • Diet culture messages around how/what your child should eat or how/what you should be feeding your child

  • Comments and questions from family members, friends about how your child eats

  • Comments, questions from health care professionals about your child’s growth, nutrition and eating preferences

Again, these are just some of the factors that may be at play when it comes to challenges that may make it harder for you to trust your child with food. 

False seeded beliefs about how your kids can or cannot eat can create pressure to feed your children in a way that may not be right for them. This can actually interfere with your children’s abilities to eat intuitively and break trust in the feeding relationship you’re building with them. 

Taking some time to examine what these things may look like for you can help you heal through them to better support your child to build a more trusting feeding relationship. It’s about moving from a fear based- approach to feeding to an approach that’s rooted in trust in your children. 

Rebuilding on a Foundation of Trust

Remember, there’s no standard for raising an intuitive eater or criteria for what an intuitive eater looks like. What’s most important is that you’re building a nurturing and trusting feeding relationship between you and your child as you learn to do your part with feeding and trust your child with eating. 

From a trusting feeding relationship, your child will have the positive environment to learn how to build confidence in themselves as the best expert of their bodies – no matter what foods they gravitate toward eating. 

I like to say that feeding our kids is about the relationship, it’s not a checklist of tasks or milestones your child needs to eat. 

Your child is already equipped with the innate abilities needed to self-regulate their intake to grow at a rate that is right for them. 

You don’t need to teach them how to become an intuitive eater; rather, you need to TRUST their intuitive eating abilities to help preserve their innate signals to self-regulate what they need. 

What they need from you is unconditional trust in their eating abilities. When they feel your trust in how they eat, they’ll also learn how to trust themselves. 

Learning to trust your children to eat also prevents any feelings of shame or guilt from attaching to their food choices or eating behaviors. 

If you’re looking for additional ways to support your picky eater’s intuitive eating abilities, check out these points below: 

3 Things to Focus on to Support Your Picky Intuitive Eater

  1. Exposure without pressure:

When it comes to children who are more selective with food, it’s important to consistently include accepted foods at every eating time.

This helps them feel safe at meals and snack times, especially when they can identify a food they feel comfortable eating. This isn’t catering to them but ensuring their felt safety at mealtimes.

Along with this, you can also expose your child to other foods – not with the end goal of getting them to eat certain things (again – look out for that hidden agenda!), but rather, with the idea of helping them grow comfortable in a variety of eating situations.

Food exposures should happen without any pressure, forcing or bribing to eat. It’s also important to remember that food exposures don’t have to directly involve food or eating.

Sometimes, the best food exposures happen outside of mealtimes because kids feel less pressure and are more likely to learn.

This can look like taking your child to the grocery store, letting them help you in the kitchen, pretend play with food or reading a book about food. Focus on providing safe food exposures to support your child in learning how to eat, and trust them to eat what they need from the foods you provide.

2. Positive eating experiences:

When it comes to the big picture of raising an intuitive eater, the most important factor is to create positive eating experiences.

When your child experiences food in a positive way, they’re more likely to build positive associations with food. This gives them the foundation to learn how to trust their bodies and to build confidence in their eating abilities. 

You can create positive eating experiences in a variety of ways, including: 

  • Ensuring safe foods are including at eating times

  • Not pressuring your child to eat certain foods or amounts

  • Honoring your child’s eating abilities

  • Keeping language neutral/positive

  • Being aware of your own limitations

  • Creating an eating environment that is conducive to your family’s needs and child’s eating abilities

  • Integrating food options that are enjoyable for you and your family

Focusing on creating a positive eating environment can help your child feel safer and ultimately, to build positive associations with food. This is a foundational piece to supporting their innate eating abilities. 

3. Positive leadership in regards to food:

Supporting your child’s intuitive eating abilities doesn’t mean letting your child eat whatever they want whenever they want it or just letting them run the show when it comes to food and dictating what they want to eat.

Kids still need us to take a leadership role when it comes to eating. This looks like offering food reliably and consistently. This also looks like being intentional about incorporating foods your child likes and prefers alongside other foods your child is learning how to eat.

Taking a leadership role with feeding your children means participating in meals, prioritizing feeding yourself and including your children as active participants, too. It’s about giving your children autonomy within a structure that supports their innate eating abilities.

All of these things can help you build the trusting feeding relationship needed for supporting your child’s innate intuitive eating abilities.

When your child can follow your lead around food, this can help them trust that they’ll be fed and also support them in building positive associations and connections around food and eating. Positive food parenting approaches will help you focus more on CONNECTION over correction. 

No matter what your journey has been with your picky eater, I want to encourage you to give yourself some grace. Feeding kids is hard. Picky eating can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Raising an intuitive eater is something that should support your family toward enjoying more freedom and flexibility with food. This is made possible by learning to trust your child’s innate eating abilities, no matter how differently their eating looks from your expectations.