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How (and why) to teach your child about mindful eating

October 02, 2015

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating is eating with full awareness; it engages all the five senses (touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound) so we are able to have more enjoyment out of our food. By using all of our senses, one is able to appreciate all the characteristics of the food that is being offered. Mindful eating helps provide insight into what is making someone want to eat. Through mindful eating, one can experience the joy of food without the feeling of guilt and judgment from oneself.

Why should someone eat mindfully?

Eating mindfully can lead to positive and lasting changes; it teaches us to savor every bite and helps develop a healthy relationship with food. It can help create awareness by recognizing physical hunger and fullness cues to prevent overeating, which could lead to weight gain. Being mindful of the nutrients a meal is providing can help us make better and more healthful food choices. Eating mindfully can increase the joy and satisfaction of meals, which can be done by savoring each and every bite. 

What is triggering my child to eat?

When your child is feeling the need to grab a snack or a meal, have them pause and bring awareness to that moment. Encourage them to ask themselves, why am I eating? Is it due to hunger, sadness, happiness, boredom, or availability of food? It is important for your child to know why they are reaching for a snack or a second serving of fries at dinner. This can help prevent overeating and feelings of guilt later on.

Here are three reasons why children eat:

  1. Hunger – This is when the stomach provides signals such as growling and emptiness to let us know it is time to eat. Hunger comes gradually, and food provides satisfaction without the feeling of guilt. This is where we often make healthier food choices due to relying less on comfort foods and more on foods that nourish our body. When we feel hunger, this is when we should be planning our next snack or meal.
  2. Emotion– Many kids eat when they feel angry, sad, happy, or even bored. Food often brings comfort and happiness for those who are emotional eaters. Teaching kids about food awareness can help them overcome emotional eating, especially when their moods are always changing. Emotional eating often arises with a sudden craving for sweet or salty foods, which then could lead to making not-so-healthy choices. This is a time when many kids often eat more than they should and feel too full.
  3. Appetite – Appetite is the desire to eat even when we are not hungry. Appealing foods such as cake, chips, brownies, macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, and ice cream can stimulate appetite in the absence of hunger. Sometimes kids eat because food is readily available, such as at restaurant buffets, chips on the bottom shelf of the pantry, popcorn at a movie theater, or even at a best friend’s birthday party. The key is differentiating between appetite and hunger.

How can I teach my family to become more mindful eaters?

Next time you are sitting at the table with your kids have them focus on eating mindfully, and keep them in the moment. Discuss hunger, emotional eating, and appetite. Do they know the difference? Try introducing the hunger scale to them, where 1 is most hungry and 10 is being very full. See how they rate themselves before each meal and snack. Mindfulness takes practice, so don’t get discouraged if your child becomes bored or uninterested quickly.

This activity below focuses on all of the five senses. Pick one particular food at a time such as an apple, celery, mashed potatoes, carrots, crackers, almonds, yogurt, granola bar, etc. and go through each step with your child.

Step 1: Touch - What do you feel? Is the outside rough or soft, fuzzy or slimy? Did you expect this food to feel like this?

Step 2: Smell – What does the food smell like? Is the scent pleasant, sweet, or does it even have a scent?

Step 3: Sight – What do you see? Is the surface dull or shiny? What color is it? Does the food look appealing? Does it have any spots or bruises?

Step 4: Sound – When you take the first bite, what do you hear? Is there a sound? Think of the difference between the two foods such as a baked potato and an apple, will their sound be different or the same?

Step 5: Taste – Chew very slowly, just noticing what each bite feels like. It might be a bit weird for some children, especially ones who gobble down their food, but continue encouraging them to be in the moment. What does the food taste like? Is it sweet, tart, salty, or greasy?

Dinner time can be a great way to practice mindful eating. Once each member of the family has their plate, go through the five steps and have a discussion after each one. Does each family member have the same opinion or different? Does someone dislike the texture but enjoy the taste? Continue having mindful eating discussions often; help children develop a positive relationship with food at an early age.

Practicing mindful eating can take time, but be patient and be in the moment.