Mindful eating for kids can lead to a lifelong healthy relationship with food. Mindful eating encompasses being aware of how your body feels, not categorizing food as “good” vs “bad”, and eating slowly to savour and enjoy food.
Babies are born with mindful eating skills. They inspect and play with food, they eat slowly, and listen to their fullness. However, as children get older they start to lose these mindful eating practices. It can be a result of rushed meal times, frequent snacking, and messaging about diet and food choices that lead to this loss of the body and food connection.
So, how can we encourage mindful eating for kids?
Sit & Savour
Plan to eat most meals and snacks at the table with no distractions. This encourages children to pay attention to the eating experience and how their bodies feel.
Do your children struggle with wiggliness at the table? Being seated comfortably in addition to having realistic meal time length expectations are key. Children should be able to see the table and have good foot support. Also, timers are helpful tools for children to see how long they are expected to be seated for.
Encourage children to chew slowly and you can discuss how foods taste. For example, discussing terms like sweet, crunchy, salty are all great ways to encourage savouring foods.
Discuss how their bodies feel
Learning how hunger and fullness feels can be an abstract concept to teach. You can compare their bellies to a balloon and start asking how full it feels before, during and after eating.
Also differentiating between other reasons we may want to eat besides physical stomach hunger can be important conversations to have. Discuss differences between mouth, heart and stomach hunger.
There is a great book describing the three types of hunger for children here
Exploring foods can help to raise adventurous eaters and bring awareness and appreciation to food. Food exploration includes discussing where foods are grown, how they look and feel.
Food exploration activities:
- Grow a garden or visiting apple orchards
- Cook together
- Have children wash or cut produce
- Discuss the foods on the plate at mealtime. For example, what does it look like, how does it feel.
- Read books about foods
- Watch shows about foods
- Food play to explore foods in a less overwhelming environment
Remove pressure at mealtime
Pressuring children to eat discourages children from listening to their bodies. This can be hard for parents as they have their best interest at heart. However, pressuring is a short term tactic that often leads to more stressful mealtimes and does not encourage children to learn to accept new foods.
Instead, parents can follow their roles in the Division of Responsibility in feeding which means that parents decide:
- What food is being offered; although parents can ensure there are 1-2 safe foods that the child normally eats on the plate.
- When foods are being offered, sticking to meal and snack routines.
- Where food is offered, by having children sit at the table for the designated time.
Then we trust that our children will decide:
- If and eat how much they will eat
When it comes to picky eating there are lots of non-pressuring ways we can engage in mealtime to help overcome these challenges. Working with a Registered Dietitian to overcome these stressful mealtimes can be beneficial.
To learn more about the Division of Responsibility, you can read more from Ellyn Satter here
All foods fit
Don’t label food as “good” vs “bad”, instead call foods by what they are. Allowing all foods to fit without judgment is an important component of mindful eating. Children shouldn’t associate guilt or being bad with eating any types of foods. Parents can add in foods that are less nutrient dense randomly with balanced meals and snacks. As a result, this often leads to more neutrality in foods and being less likely to overeat these foods vs they seem limited in the diet.
Mindful eating for kids can help to take pressure out of mealtime, increase food exploration, and lead to better connection between food and body.
Of course, it is never too late to adopt these strategies as a family. Pick one or two mindful eating behaviours to start trying and you will start to notice improvements in mealtimes.
Above all, children learn from what we say and do, so adopting mindful eating practices ourselves is a great tool. Read more about Mindful Eating & Intuitive Eating on the blog here