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Lessons from a Toddler: Intuitive Eating

My oldest daughter, Natalie, is 2.5 years old. She has some strange eating habits that I wouldn't mind saying goodbye to. When she eats a sandwich she scoops out the middle with a spoon, leaving a PB&J carcass splayed on her plate.

She finds a raisin in the couch cushions from snack time three days ago and pops it in her mouth. "Mmm, Mama, it's yummy!" 

Lately she's gone out of her way to point out each food item on her plate, identify it, and tell me she doesn't like it. Then goes ahead and eats the whole thing.


But she does have one habit that I hope she holds onto forever, a habit that I'm working so hard to reinforce, and one that I'm working on adopting for myself.

If she's hungry, she eats.

If she's not hungry, she stops eating.

Not exactly rocket science, right? Simple, but not easy.

I've been watching her lately and it's truly amazing. She can be in the middle of a single animal cracker, decide she's all done, and put it down and walk away. She is the definition of intuitive eating.


She has none of the emotional attachments to food that so many of us do. She doesn't stress eat. Granted, she also can't drive and has no debit card, so swinging through the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru for a caffeine boost and a couple donuts for herself isn't exactly something she has the option to do at the moment.

She doesn't tell herself she's "being bad" if she eats a cookie. She doesn't praise herself for "being good" if she eats broccoli.

And I don't want her to do that. Not now, not ever. I want her to eat cookies sometimes because she wants one, and broccoli sometimes because it's delicious, especially with sweet potato fries and a nice burger. IT'S JUST FOOD. IT HAS NO MORAL ATTRIBUTES.

I think that my husband, Will, and I have a pretty good relationship with food. This hasn't always been the case for me.

I've done Weight Watchers and carefully meted out points for bread. I did mental arithmetic all day that left me with nothing for dinner except a salad of carrots and lettuce and a spritz of 1-calorie salad dressing, because I'd already "used up" my points.

I know many people lose weight and have been successful with Weight Watchers. They've also made a lot of changes (mostly positive, from what I understand) since I did the program almost 10 years ago. But I really, really didn't like how OBSESSIVE it made me about my food. Weighing literally everything. Cutting a cookie into thirds and eating one piece because that's all I had the points for. Thinking about nothing but POINTS POINTS POINTS all day long. This approach works for some people, it made me totally crazy. I lost weight while doing Weight Watchers but I didn't feel healthy, either mentally or physically. This is just my own personal experience and I'm not saying NO ONE SHOULD DO WEIGHT WATCHERS EVER.

I've gone the other way and completed a Whole30. I felt much better than I did on Weight Watchers, but then as soon as the program was over, I couldn't maintain it. I fell face-first into a pile of chocolate and went on a crazy sugar binge that left me nauseated and with a massive headache. I know it's a in, 30 days. Not meant to be continued indefinitely. But even eating that way, even, say, 80% of the time, left me feeling cranky and deprived.

Whole30 devotees, I know you are probably reading this and thinking but but but you didn't slay the sugar dragon! You need to do another one! It's amazing and life-changing and you'll feel so much better if you just do it!

I know you mean well. I really do. I used to be a Whole30 evangelist, too. But here's the thing: I don't have Celiac disease. I have no food allergies. Did I feel good when I wasn't eating bread and dessert every day? Yes. But was it sustainable for me? No.

For me, personally (and that's the key word, right there), bread is ok. I don't want to cut a huge swath of foods out of my life. I like dessert. I like toast with my scrambled eggs in the morning. And I'm going to eat the damn toast, because as I said earlier, IT'S JUST FOOD. IT HAS NO MORAL ATTRIBUTES.

I don't want my daughters to be afraid of food. I don't want them to see food as the enemy, as something to be controlled and mastered, something that you achieve victory over by eating certain things or not eating others.

How do we teach that? My relationship with food has gotten to a point over the years that I'm comfortable with, but it's not perfect. I have days where I eat a lot of Oreos and then I feel not-so-great about it. But for the most part, I move on. I ate the Oreos. It's over. I don't punish myself by eating less the next day or exercising more and trying to "work it off."

Can you imagine telling your kids that? That because they ate cookies today, they need to go for a run tomorrow? Insanity. So why do we treat ourselves like that?

I'm not a nutrition expert. I'm not a doctor. I'm not a psychologist. I'm not anything except a mom trying to do right by her kids.

So when Natalie offers me an animal cracker, I accept it with a big smile and a thank you! and I eat it. I love animal crackers. She loves animal crackers.

And when she offers me a couch-cushion raisin, I politely decline while snagging it out of her hand and throwing it in the trash. I don't love couch-cushion raisins. That's one food group I'm totally ok with cutting out of all of our diets.