Menu

9 ways to teach your kids to trust their instincts about food

The best way to teach our kids to eat well is to encourage them to trust themselves too; to listen to their bodies' cues about hunger, fullness and comfort.

9 ways to teach your kids to trust their instincts about food

Before I became a mom, I thought that feeding my child well was something I could just learn from experts. If I found the right lactation consultant, if I read the right books on baby-led weaning, it would all click into place.

Then my oldest daughter, Violet, was born with a rare congenital heart condition. The birth defects went undetected on my prenatal ultrasounds, so I spent the first month of her life snuggling, loving and most of all, feeding her—without any idea that she was dangerously ill. When our breastfeeding sessions went from 45 minutes to 20 minutes to 6 minutes, I thought we were getting more efficient. I didn't know my baby was starving.

The day before Violet's 1 month birthday, she went into heart failure and nearly died. We were rushed to the nearest children's hospital and they saved her life. But the unexpected side effect of their essential-yet-traumatic medical interventions was that Violet stopped eating.

She developed what's known medically as an oral aversion, where babies learn to associate anything coming near their mouth with pain and fear. And so, suddenly, all of the experts I'd found, all of the plans, all of the "common sense" advice about feeding kids (like "just let them get hungry!")... no longer applied.

We spent the next two years helping Violet heal from that early trauma and feel safe around food again. In the process, I realized just how many of us don't feel safe around food or have complicated relationships with how we eat and how we think our kids should eat that make it almost impossible to feel good about what's happening at our family dinner table.

Violet began eating again—began experiencing hunger again—when food once again offered comfort and pleasure, just as our early nursing sessions had in the first days of her life. That's when I understood that a healthy relationship with food isn't something that you can outsource. We have to start from a place of trusting our bodies and trusting our own instincts around food. And the best way to teach our kids to eat well is to encourage them to trust themselves too; to listen to their bodies' cues about hunger, fullness and comfort.

In fact, they're probably even better at it than we are. Here are nine ways you can help them stay connected to those essential eating instincts.

1. We are born knowing when we're hungry and when we're full.

Healthy newborns cry to be fed and fall asleep when satiated. We don't have to be taught to have these feelings, but we can be taught to ignore them. By age three, children have naturally disconnected a bit from their eating instincts because they've been socialized to eat with their families. But when parents push messages about "three more bites of broccoli" or "you're eating too much pasta and not enough chicken" on their kids, what we're really saying is "don't trust your body; trust me. I know more about how you should eat."

In fact, nobody can judge another person's hunger or nutritional needs. Research shows that kids eat best when we give them a degree of autonomy at the table; offer a variety of foods and let them determine how much to eat (and even whether to try everything on offer).

2. Food is more than fuel.

Eating is so essential to human survival that our bodies have evolved multiple mechanisms to ensure we eat—and feed our young. And hunger pangs are just the start; when parents feed babies, our heart rates slow, levels of stress hormones drop and oxytocin and other "feel good" hormones rise. Babies experience similar benefits. In this way, the need to eat isn't just about physical nourishment—it also ensures that babies form secure attachments. It's how we fall in love.

3. Fed is best.

This is true when you're feeding a baby and it will still be true when you're packing their elementary school lunch boxes: That PB&J with the crusts cut off that you know they'll eat is probably a better bet than the Instagram-inspired bento box full of unfamiliar foods. PS. "Fed is best" is also true when you're feeding yourself—if you're hungry, you are always better off eating something than depriving yourself because it doesn't feel like the "right" thing.

4. How your kid eats matters more than what they eat (or how much).

Food and love are inextricably linked in most families, but so are food and power. Children who are subjected to high-pressure feeding tactics grow up with more anxiety around food. You don't have to short-order cook, but you can serve family meals that offer at least one thing everyone can eat (it's fine if most nights, that's bread and milk!). Then trust everyone at the table to take it from there.

5. Don't apologize for your own hunger or your food choices.

Hunger is normal. Liking some foods and disliking others is normal. Model that for your kids by owning your own choices. When they hear us shame foods or ourselves for eating foods, they internalize those messages.

If you're stuck in a cycle of feeling negative about food and your body, it can be helpful to ask, "Is this how I'd want my daughter or son to eat? And is this how I'd want them to feel about food?" Then give yourself the same permission.

6. Remember that nutrition is not gospel.

In fact, it's more often an unsolvable Rubik's cube of conflicting advice and sketchy data. You can view the goals of health and a more sustainable food system as deeply worthwhile, but not so all-encompassing that they dictate how your family behaves at every meal. Sometimes we're going to eat a lot of cookies. Other days, we're going to eat salad. We're not better or worse people for making those choices and when you prioritize meals that taste good and truly satisfy your hunger, nutrition has a way of taking care of itself.

7. Some foods serve us and some foods don't.

If your family is dealing with an allergy or a food intolerance, you can make choices to support that person's health without making a moral judgment about the food that isn't working for them. No matter what the wellness industry claims, gluten isn't evil. (Neither are eggs, dairy, peanuts… you get it.) There's no need to demonize foods or food groups just because it doesn't agree with someone in your house. Focus instead of everything they can eat.

8. All bodies are valuable and worthy of respect.

Even the ones that our culture deems unattractive or unhealthy. Talk to your kids about what their bodies can do, not how they look. Avoid talking negatively about your own body around them, and stop body shaming in its tracks when you encounter it in the world.

9. Remember that all of this is an ongoing process that we begin again at every meal.

Don't beat yourself up if you make a dinner nobody eats or find yourself falling back into old habits of pressure or food anxieties. You'll get to try again in a few hours. The only way to learn to eat is by eating.

You might also like:

14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

Meadow ring toss game

Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

$30

Balance board

Plan Toys balance board

Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

$75

Detective set

Plan Toys detective setDetective Set

This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

$40

Wooden doll stroller

Janod wooden doll strollerWooden Doll Stroller

Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

$120

Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

$30

Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

$100

Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

$40

Vintage scooter balance bike

Janod retro scooter balance bike

Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

$121

Wooden rocking pegasus

plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

$100

Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

$45

Wooden digital camera

fathers factory wooden digital camera

Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

$179

Wooden bulldozer toy

plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

$100

Pull-along hippo

janod toys pull along hippo toy

There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

$33

Baby forest fox ride-on

janod toys baby fox ride on

Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

$88

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

Shop

Motherly editors’ 7 favorite hacks for organizing their diaper bags

Make frantically fishing around for a diaper a thing of the past!

As any parent knows, the term "diaper bag" only scratches the surface. In reality, this catchall holds so much more: a change of clothes, bottles, snacks, wipes and probably about a dozen more essential items.

Which makes finding the exact item you need, when you need it (read: A diaper when you're in public with a blowout on your hands) kind of tricky.

That's why organization is the name of the game when it comes to outings with your littles. We pooled the Motherly team of editors to learn some favorite hacks for organizing diaper bags. Here are our top tips.

1. Divide and conquer with small bags

Here's a tip we heard more than a few times: Use smaller storage bags to organize your stuff. Not only is this helpful for keeping related items together, but it can also help keep things from floating around in the expanse of the larger diaper bag. These bags don't have to be anything particularly fancy: an unused toiletry bag, pencil case or even plastic baggies will work.

2. Have an emergency changing kit

When you're dealing with a diaper blowout situation, it's not the time to go searching for a pack of wipes. Instead, assemble an emergency changing kit ahead of time by bundling a change of baby clothes, a fresh diaper, plenty of wipes and hand sanitizer in a bag you can quickly grab. We're partial to pop-top wipes that don't dry out or get dirty inside the diaper bag.

3. Simplify bottle prep

Organization isn't just being able to find what you need, but also having what you need. For formula-feeding on the go, keep an extra bottle with the formula you need measured out along with water to mix it up. You never know when your outing will take longer than expected—especially with a baby in the mix!

4. Get resealable snacks

When getting out with toddlers and older kids, snacks are the key to success. Still, it isn't fun to constantly dig crumbs out of the bottom of your diaper bag. Our editors love pouches with resealable caps and snacks that come in their own sealable containers. Travel-sized snacks like freeze-dried fruit crisps or meal-ready pouches can get an unfair reputation for being more expensive, but that isn't the case with the budget-friendly Comforts line.

5. Keep a carabiner on your keychain

You'll think a lot about what your child needs for an outing, but you can't forget this must-have: your keys. Add a carabiner to your keychain so you can hook them onto a loop inside your diaper bag. Trust us when we say it's a much better option than dumping out the bag's contents on your front step to find your house key!

6. Bundle your essentials

If your diaper bag doubles as your purse (and we bet it does) you're going to want easy access to your essentials, too. Dedicate a smaller storage bag of your diaper bag to items like your phone, wallet and lip balm. Then, when you're ready to transfer your items to a real purse, you don't have to look for them individually.

7. Keep wipes in an outer compartment

Baby wipes aren't just for diaper changes: They're also great for cleaning up messy faces, wiping off smudges, touching up your makeup and more. Since you'll be reaching for them time and time again, keep a container of sensitive baby wipes in an easily accessible outer compartment of your bag.

Another great tip? Shop the Comforts line on www.comfortsforbaby.com to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices. Or, follow @comfortsforbaby for more information!

This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that supporting Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

It's science: Why your baby stops crying when you stand up

A fascinating study explains why.

When your baby is crying, it feels nearly instinctual to stand up to rock, sway and soothe them. That's because standing up to calm babies is instinctual—driven by centuries of positive feedback from calmed babies, researchers have found.

"Infants under 6 months of age carried by a walking mother immediately stopped voluntary movement and crying and exhibited a rapid heart rate decrease, compared with holding by a sitting mother," say authors of a 2013 study published in Current Biology.

Even more striking: This coordinated set of actions—the mother standing and the baby calming—is observed in other mammal species, too. Using pharmacologic and genetic interventions with mice, the authors say, "We identified strikingly similar responses in mouse pups as defined by immobility and diminished ultrasonic vocalizations and heart rate."

Keep reading Show less
News