Families today are busier than ever. With so much on children's plates between school, sports and other activities, taking time to focus on an actual plate can be daunting. However, teaching children to be mindful of what they eat is an essential part of establishing healthy eating habits.
Mindless eating – not consciously participating in consuming food – is a common cause of obesity and the rise of type 2 diabetes in children.
"The danger is in not being present in the moment," says Patricia Rodriguez, M.D., Vice President and Medical Director for Multicultural Community Health and Health Equity at Children's Health℠. "As a parent, you might see your child multitasking when eating. When this occurs, kids are not eating using their senses, listening to their bodies or enjoying the meal as much as they could."
What does it mean to eat mindfully?
In general, mindfulness calls for presence in the moment. As it translates to nutrition, mindful eating means avoiding distraction and eating with all the senses.
In practice, mindful eating involves being aware of what it actually means to be hungry. For example, emotions can often trigger feelings of hunger. Similarly, thirst can often masquerade as hunger. Being conscious about eating food, such as remembering the last time you ate, can help curb these feelings.
Mindful eating is important because it enables kids to appreciate the experience of eating. Perhaps the biggest benefit of mindful eating is that it helps to curb overeating. For example, a simple mindful eating exercise involves placing a small piece of chocolate on the tongue and holding it there. Making note of the smell, the texture and taste, may help show all that is needed is that single, small piece of chocolate to satisfy a sweet tooth. Talk to your child about being aware and trying a similar exercise.
Mindful eating works because it allows you to listen to your body. "By slowing down the process of eating, it's easier to be in the moment and enjoy the process," says Dr. Rodriguez.
Mindful eating tips
Here are some simple ways to practice mindful eating together as a family:
- Put away the electronics: Phones and televisions not only prevent children from being aware of how they feel when they are eating, but stop them from looking at their plates and engaging their senses.
- Sit down to eat together: Again, leaving electronics elsewhere, take time to appreciate your food in a dedicated space. Walk through the same exercises each day at mealtime with your family. It then becomes a natural, healthy habit.
- Don't drink your calories: While not specific to mindfulness, endlessly consuming calorie-rich and sugar-filled drinks, like juices and sodas, leads to mindless consumption.
- Mind your portions: Think about what you or your child is actually going to eat during the course of a meal. For example, if dessert is going to be served, consider skipping second helpings of the main course.
- Always stop when full: The stomach sends signals to the brain to let you know you are full. Help your child to understand and take the time to listen to those signals.
- Chew longer: Those signals from the stomach can take time to travel to the brain. Chewing allows time for satiety signals to occur.
- Encourage your child: When he or she eats mindfully, provide praise that highlights a specific action in the moment.
- Be consistent: Mindful eating habits do not develop overnight. Make it an activity with your child to work on developing those good practices together.
Interested in learning more about healthier habits for your family? Read more about pediatric weight management programs that include Get Up & Go, COACH, bariatrics and nutrition clinics.
Stay current on the health and wellness information that make a difference to you and your family. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more expert tips and insights sent directly to your inbox.