• Melissa Genee, RD

Teaching Children to be Mindful Eaters

Perhaps you’ve noticed I’ve used the term “mindful eating” a number of times over the past few blogs. Mindful eating is a fairly hot topic in the world of health right now, but the term has been around for decades. Being mindful or intuitive means that you notice thoughts, feelings and your surroundings without judgement. Mindful eating engages all five senses: seeing the colours and textures of food, touching food (with your hands or while in your mouth), smelling food before and after tasting it, hearing food as you pick it up with your fork or while chewing it, and tasting and enjoying the food as you eat it. Mindful eating helps us enjoy each and every bite.

Children are inherently mindful eaters - they look, play, taste and smell their food. As babies, children know when they are hungry and when they are full. But as children get older, they slowly lose these skills. Children begin to look outward to determine if they should eat - is their sibling eating something they want? Did their grandpa offer them a cookie even though they aren’t hungry? Mindful eating reconnects us with our hunger and fullness cues, which helps foster a lifelong healthy relationship with food. Use these tips to help reinforce mindful eating with your children.

Talk [Positively] About Food

Talk to your children about why we eat food. Young children may not understand the concept of nutrition, but you can start simple by explaining that some foods we eat can help us give us energy to play and grow big and strong. When eating carrots, you could explain that those crunchy orange sticks keep our eyes healthy. You can also talk to your children about how their bellies feel before and after eating food. Ask your children to describe how hungry or full they are during a meal - this can help reconnect their hunger and fullness cues, prompting them to stop eating when their bellies are full.

Most importantly, when talking about food, remember to keep it positive. Do not label foods as good or bad - because there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” food. All foods contain nutrients, even candy! If your children hear you saying “sugar is bad” they may think that they are bad if they eat sugar. Instead, refer to less healthy foods as “occasional” foods and explain to your kids that we eat these kinds of foods less frequently because we enjoy the taste of them.

Involve Your Child in Food Preparation

What’s better than talking about food with your kids? Making food with your kids! Kids learn by experience and what better way to get them used to new foods then by having them help clean, chop and mix foods. This also helps children understand the time and care it takes to prepare meals. And bonus: children who help prepare foods are more likely to play with, explore and try those foods!

Avoid Distractions at the Table

Mealtimes should be reserved for feeding, exploring food and spending time with family. When toys, screens and games are present at the dinner table, your child is likely not focussing on their food. Distracted children tend to eat more quickly, which means they ignore their hunger and fullness cues (which can result in overeating). Remember to be consistent with this - your kids will quickly learn that mealtimes are for enjoying food, not for playing with toys.

Eat Meals Together

As much as possible, try to eat meals together at the dinner table. Keep meal times positive and use this as an opportunity to talk about food! Ask your kids to describe what colours are on their plate, what they smell, their favourite taste, what textures they see/feel and how the flavour changes as they eat it. All of these questions can help encourage positive exploration and mindfulness.

For other tips on creating a positive mealtime environment, check out our previous blog post: Healthy Mealtime Boundaries.

Be a Role Model

We’ve said this here many times, but your children look up to you and often mimic your words and behaviours. If your children regularly see you rushing through a meal while trying to answer emails or mindlessly snacking while watching television, it is likely that your children will also pick up those same behaviours. Eat slowly, reflect, enjoy your food and your children will follow suit.

By fostering mindful eating, your children will be better able to regulate their hunger and fullness cues - resulting in a lifelong healthy relationship with food. Remember to slow down, stay present and truly enjoy the moment with your family.

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