What is mindful eating?
The foundation of mindful eating for kids and adults alike is awareness. The practice is built around the idea of paying attention to whatever food is being eaten, on purpose, in every moment, without judgement.7
This often looks like eating slowly, using all your senses, and really savoring your food. And the intention behind this technique is to help kids build healthy eating habits and thoughts around food, such as:1
- The idea that they should feel physically better after a meal
- Recognizing when they're full, and eating accordingly
- Understanding the differences between eating out of boredom, habit, or because they feel physically hungry
Promoting mindful eating by practicing it yourself and modeling the concept for your children can help reinforce these positive eating habits.1 And when people eat intuitively, they've generally been found to have better mental and physical health.5 This can help children avoid developing dangerous disordered eating behaviors, which sadly have started showing up in children at younger ages over the years.2
Tips to encourage mindful eating for kids
How to teach your child about food relationships, healthy habits around food, and the difference between distracted eating and mindful eating may feel overwhelming at first.
But whether you’re new to this type of mindfulness practice or you've been following it for years, there are some tips that may help you teach your child how to eat mindfully.1,4,7
What to avoid when teaching kids about healthy relationships with food
While encouraging mindful eating practices can help proactively teach your child about food relationships, staying away from other habits can also help discourage negative thoughts and behaviors around food.
Here are a few things you should avoid when trying to encourage mindful eating for kids.5
Don’t: Teach them to finish everything on their plate
Forcing your child to finish everything on their plate, even healthy foods, teaches them to ignore their internal hunger and satiety cues in favor of a household rule. This can cause a disconnect between mind and body and lead to disordered eating behaviors.
It’s also very important not to tell your child to stop eating when you think they’ve had “enough” of something, especially something you perceive as “bad” or “unhealthy.” This also teaches them to ignore their body’s built-in hunger and satiety cues and can cultivate a disordered relationship with food and their bodies.
Don’t: Force them to eat because it’s dinner time
It's important for a child to eat regular meals, but not everyone has the same internal clock when it comes to hunger.
In fact, many people will eat dinner, typically the largest meal of the day, not necessarily because they're hungry for it, but because it's the "right time" to eat dinner. This isn’t a useful practice and is counterintuitive to mindful eating, which involves acknowledging your hunger cues, eating food to satiate and nourish your body, and being present while you eat.
Don’t force your child to eat at a certain time if they aren’t hungry during that time. Wait and allow them to tell you when they are hungry. Much like the tip above, forcing a certain dinner time teaches them to eat when they aren’t hungry, which can lead to a dysfunctional relationship with food.
Don’t: Expose them to diets
It’s important to model healthy eating behaviors for your children, including savoring food and eating nutritious snacks when hungry between mealtimes. Many people also rely on the rules of a diet to help them through the day, but these programs are considered by many experts to actually be forms of disordered eating.6
Exposing a child to the concept of caloric restriction or cutting out entire food groups can leave a dangerous impression and work to reinforce the unhelpful idea that foods are either "good" or "bad." Not only are diets unhealthy, but they also communicate an unhealthy goal-oriented attitude towards food.
Meanwhile, mindful eating does not have a goal; it is simply about enjoying the process and doing what feels good and right for your body in the present moment.
Don’t: Engage in negative talk about your body
Similar to modeling disordered behaviors to a child in the form of excessive diets is modeling disordered thoughts around food, eating, or body image. And one of the most common ways these ideas get passed down is from parents making derogatory remarks about their own body or appearance.
Your child hears and internalizes everything you say. If you talk about needing to lose weight, how you hate your body, or how you “feel” fat, your child will mimic this attitude, and it may do long-term damage their relationship with food and their body.
Don’t: Label foods as “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy”
When considering how to teach your child about food relationships, try to avoid referring to certain foods as “good," “bad,” “healthy," “unhealthy,” “allowed,” “not allowed,” or any other type of generalization.
This goes for assigning value to certain foods (tree nuts are “healthier” than peanuts), types of food (“junk” food is “bad” for you), or aspects or ingredients in food (white flour and sugar are “bad” for you), as well as assigning limits to how much or little you “should” eat of something (you “shouldn’t” eat a lot of carbs).
This can be very hard to do. The prevailing diet culture does much to emphasize this kind of black and white thinking, where certain foods or body types are inherently "good" or "bad." In reality, no food is inherently bad, but eating something that's considered "forbidden" can lead to feelings of shame and encourage disordered eating patterns.
Food is fuel, a source of energy for our bodies. It can be a source of pleasure and source of community. Mindful eating is one way we can help keep it that way for our kids.