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7 ways to teach your child mindful eating

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It’s no secret that family has a huge influence on our relationship with food. From a very young age, children observe, copy, and internalize eating habits they see our parents, caregivers, and loved ones demonstrate. As parents, you have the power to foster healthy, mindful eating behaviors in your children to help them have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.  

The foundation of mindful eating is awareness. The focus is on the food and how you feel while you’re eating. When you engage in mindful eating, you are entirely present during your meal, which means you are devoting all your attention to eating–with no distractions. That means no TV, no radio, no phone or other electronic device, no newspaper, book, magazine or any other reading material. 

Eating mindfully means eating slowly and using all your senses, paying close attention to taste and texture, for example, and really savoring your food . Promoting mindful eating by practicing it yourself and modeling for your children how to eat mindfully can help your child build a positive relationship with food. (1) When they have a good relationship with food, they may be less likely to develop disordered eating behaviors. And eating disorders are occurring in children at younger and younger ages. (2)

Whether you’re new to mindful eating or you’ve been practicing it for years, here are some tips on how to teach your child mindful eating.

Last updated on 
April 5, 2022
In this article

7 ways to teach your child mindful eating

1. Teach them to recognize hunger cues

Help your child learn to understand their hunger cues by asking them how their body feels when they get hungry. Encourage them to pay close attention to what sensations they feel in their body when they get hungry and ask them specific questions. For example, does your stomach “growl?” What does it sound like? What does it feel like? Do you get a headache? Do you feel dizzy? Do your hands start to shake? Do your legs feel weak, like you’re going to fall down? Is it hard to concentrate on what you’re doing?

Also do this after they’ve eaten, so they can learn to gauge when they’re full. You can ask them to visualize what their empty or full stomach might look like and use these visualizations to teach them how to gauge their hunger. You can try whatever strategies make sense to you, but the important thing is that you are talking to them about how they feel and what they’re noticing about their body. 

2. Encourage them to slow down and tune into their senses

When you encourage your child to take their time and tune into all their senses, you are teaching them to have a stronger and more mindful relationship with their bodies and food. Here’s a helpful activity you can do to teach mindfulness:

Offer your child several different types of fruit to choose from. Once they choose a piece of fruit to have for a snack, ask them these questions: (1) 

  • What does your food look like? What color and shape is it?
  • Does your food make a sound? If so, what type of sound?
  • How does your food feel to the touch? Is it smooth or rough?
  • What does your food smell like? Do you enjoy its smell?
  • How does the food feel in your mouth? What does it taste like when it’s on your tongue? Once you chew, does the flavor change? How many different flavors do you taste?  

Eating slowly can also teach your child to understand their satiety cues, which is when their hunger is satisfied, so they can learn to listen to them.

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3. Create a distraction-free environment

It’s difficult to practice mindfulness with tons of distractions around. Turn off the TV and put away all devices during mealtimes. Remember, eating isn’t just about the food we consume—it’s also about the connections we make with others and how we bond over meals. You can also encourage them to set their fork or spoon down in between bites so they can focus on what’s in their mouth, as opposed to the next bite.

4. Allow them to serve themself

Not only will allowing your child to serve themselves encourage independence and self-sufficiency, but it will also teach them to become familiar with appropriate serving sizes and how much food they want to eat based on how hungry they feel. 

5. Wait 15 minutes after eating to decide if they want seconds

It typically takes the brain about fifteen minutes to know whether you are full or not. By encouraging your child to wait before getting seconds, you are teaching them to eat when they are physically hungry and not out of boredom or habit. This can also help them learn the difference between wanting and liking food.

6. Collaborate on a garden

If you have the space where you live, consider growing a garden and inviting your child to help you. A garden can promote a sense of accomplishment and autonomy, as well as allow your child to explore your food’s journey, from seed to plate. Let them help choose what you’re going to plant and help tend to the plants as they grow. Then, when you sit down together for a meal, you can both express gratitude for where your food came from and the work you put in together. 

7. Express gratitude

A little gratitude can go a long way. It is proven to improve people’s happiness and health, as well as help them to build strong relationships and relish positive experiences. (3) Before your meal, express appreciation for the opportunity to enjoy appetizing food and to share that food with people you love. (4)

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What you should try to avoid doing

Here are a few things you should avoid when fostering a mindful, healthy relationship with food. (5)

Don’t: Teach them to finish everything on their plate 

Forcing your child to finish everything on their plate, whether they are hungry or not, 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

Many of us are used to eating simply because of the time. We check the clock and decide that it’s time to eat because that’s when we decide we want to have dinner But this isn’t a useful practice and is counterintuitive to mindful eating. Mindful eating 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, it 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. Encouraging them to practice mindful eating isn’t enough if you aren’t also making it a priority. This means making sure you don’t expose them to diets that may teach them unhealthy behaviors, such as restriction or cutting out entire food groups. We know most diets fail, when it comes to losing weight and keeping it off, and can lead to long-term weight gain and disordered eating. (6) Not only are diets unhealthy, but they also communicate a goal-oriented attitude towards food. Meanwhile, mindful eating does not have a goal; it is about enjoying the process. 

Don’t: Engage in negative talk about your body 

This point goes hand-in-hand with the one above. Never, under any circumstance, should you make negative comments about your body or anyone else’s. Your child hears and internalizes everything you say. If you talk about needing to lose weight or how you hate your body or how you “feel” fat, your child will mimic this attitude and it may damage their relationship with food and their body.

Don’t: Label foods as “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy”

When you’re talking to children about food, what to eat or not eat or how much of something to eat, avoid referring to foods as “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy,” “allowed” or “not allowed.” This can be very hard to do, thanks to diet culture and the fixation our society has on what is perceived as healthy and unhealthy food and habits. Try not to label or assign 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), or assign limits to how much or little you “should” eat of something (you “shouldn’t” eat a lot of carbs). This can lead to feeling shame, not paying attention to innate hunger cues, hiding food, and 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.

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Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Michigan State University Extension. (2016). Teaching Kids the Art of Mindful Eating.
  2. Rosen, D.S. (2010). Clinical Report: Identification and Management of Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents.  Pediatrics, 126, 1240-1253.
  3. Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School. (2021). Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier.
  4. Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School. (2016). 8 Steps to Mindful Eating.
  5. Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. (2014). Review Article Relationships between Intuitive Eating and Health Indicators: Literature Review. Public Health Nutrition, 17(8), 1757-1766. doi:10.1017/S1368980013002139
  6. Lowe, M. R., Doshi, S. D., Katterman, S. N., & Feig, E. H. (2013). Dieting and Restrained Eating as Prospective Predictors of Weight Gain. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 577. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3759019/ 

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