I want my children to eat healthily and grow up with a healthy relationship with food. My youngest prefers fruits and veggies over sweets while my oldest would be happy to eat only chicken and bread for an eternity. Parenting both ends of the spectrum, at the same table, can be really tough. We had a meltdown one night at dinner. Afterwards, I was replaying the scene in my head, “why is it that one of my kids always says no to new foods while the other would nosh through almost anything and proudly ask for seconds or even thirds?” Is one behavior actually better than the other?
It was then that I knew our food-loving family needed a new approach, one that included empathy and a lot less shame for the “reluctant” eater as well as some control and boundaries for our “overzealous” eater. That new approach was mindfulness.
Many of us are taught at a very young age that food can be much more than nourishment. Most of us wouldn’t even pause before giving a toddler cheerios to keep them amused. Our kids watch us take pictures of our food and they listen when we talk about restaurants like they are rock concerts. Food has moved beyond being fuel and nourishment and has become a source of entertainment.
Practicing mindfulness especially while eating can help to break bad habits that might be on autopilot. If you are watching TV, socializing or feeling stressed, adults and kids alike might act a certain way without even knowing it. The key to stopping a bad habit is figuring out how to turn off the autopilot. Here are some tips your family can use to encourage a healthy mindful eating approach to your daily life.
Concentration. Turn off the TV, computer, or smartphone while eating. It’s easy to lose track of how much you have eaten when you are distracted. Same goes for grazing those gorgeous appetizers while standing around your sister’s birthday party. Make a plate, sit down and enjoy your choices. You will be more fulfilled.
Be present. Admire the color, shape, and smell of the food. Encourage a discussion about where the food was grown or prepared. Try to imagine what it might look like there. Everyone can participate in this activity, even the reluctant eater. The conversation might spark some interest or perhaps some bravery to try something new.
Nonfood rewards. Have you ever promised dessert for trying asparagus? As adults, we reward ourselves with food too. Instead, offer up nonfood rewards like 10 minutes of extra playtime, reading an extra bedtime story, or taking a trip to the park.
Awareness. Every day there are opportunities to eat more than we should. Cookie trays in the conference room at work, a bowl of candy at the bank. You don’t have to deprive yourself, just eat smaller portions. If you aren’t willing to eat an apple or small salad than you really aren’t that hungry, so choose wisely. Likewise, if your family has been out all day and comes home completely depleted it is more likely that you will overeat. Bring along some healthy snacks to keep your family fueled and in control.
Slow down. If your kids eat at a snail’s pace you might think this is crazy but stay with me. Taking time to chew and enjoy our food gives our bodies time to recognize when we are satisfied. Setting your fork down between bites or moving into a different room before going for seconds will help you from eating on autopilot. If your child asks for a snack 30 minutes after a meal, offer to do something else like play a game, color, or go for a walk.
Lighten up. Ever hear yourself saying, “just two more bites?” Forcing your kids to eat more teaches them to ignore their inner cues for hunger, fullness, and thirst. Instead, regularly offer healthy foods and allow your child to choose from and how much of something they will eat. Leave the anxiety and frustration off the menu. Let mealtime be a place where you can nourish both your mind and soul.