With the growing issues of obesity, food intolerances, and allergies, most of us are aware of the importance of ensuring that children have access to nutritious, whole foods. Equally as important is creating a healthy relationship with food and building habits that children can maintain throughout their life.
Mindful eating, the idea of eating with full attention to the present moment with compassion and without judgment, can be a useful exercise for anyone. Research has shown, that with consistent practice, it can prevent binge eating, allow us to notice satiation (feeling “full”) earlier, and really enjoy the act of eating with all of our senses. It can also reduce the habit of emotional eating, or eating unconsciously – we all know what its like to finish a meal without knowing it!
Here are five practical ideas to encourage mindful eating for your kids and your entire family.
1. Setting, Setting, Setting: And I don’t mean the table setting! I mean be mindful of where your child eats. Studies have shown that children that regularly eat in front of the television or computer may consume more than they might at the dinner table, and thus increase their risk of obesity and decrease their ability to notice their body’s own cues of hunger and satiation. As much as possible, try to keep all meals at the dinner table.
2. Routine: Routines are helpful for most healthy habits. As much as possible, try to keep your child’s mealtimes consistent. This decreases the chances of skipping meals and emphasizes that mealtimes are as important (if not more) as other activities.
3. Shop with your Child: We are all curious beings, children are just a bit more open about it. Involve them when you shop for food – this helps them become more mindful of their sources of food, and also encourages literacy skills. Encourage chats at the supermarket or farmers market about where each food item might come from. If they are able to read, encourage them to read food labels along with you. For fruits and vegetables, read where each item might originate from, and how long it might have taken for each item to reach the store. These early discussions allow children to realize the larger issue of food economics and how the choices we all make each day can impact what is grown, and which are available to us from a price and location point of view.
4. Kids can be Sous-Chefs too: As long as they are not exposed to sharp objects like knives or a hot stove, kids can be helpful and interested in working in the kitchen with you. For instance, they can help with washing vegetables, tearing kale or lettuce for salad. Accept imperfection in return – it’s more important that they feel comfortable with the process of making a meal. Give them some flexibility in return – allow them to decide on an extra vegetable or fruit to include for instance. The will be more inclined to try something they have prepared.
5. Mindfulness at the Table: When enjoying the meal reflect on the above 4 ideas and encourage your child to eat mindfully. Recall the steps it took for you to make the meal together. A simple exercise you might do with the first bite: ask them to think about what the food looks like on their fork, spoon, or hand. What does it smell like? How would they describe the taste? How would they describe it to someone trying it for the first time? When they chew, is it smooth or crunchy? How does it change over time? What happens when they swallow? How long does it take for the taste to go away?
6. Be a Role Model: Children model what they see. So try to practice mindful eating as much as possible yourself. Try to be patient and non-judgmental and be conscious of the words you use around food. Food has become very political and, if we are not mindful, can be a source of controversy and antagonism. Try to be open-minded to your children’s tastes and distastes. It’s more important that they feel part of the discussion than outside of it. Involve them as much as possible in your family’s food choices.
7. Remember the Big Picture: Eating is part of the “big picture” of activities that should nourish our body, mind, and spirit. Other things include our relationships, sleep, and activities we enjoy. So, nothing should be labeled as “bad” or “good” - as with all things, there are pleasant and unpleasant parts. We try to encourage our children to eat foods that give them the nutrients their body needs, and to nourish themselves with anything they do – this is the big picture. Healthy eating and healthy lives will follow with this in mind.