Children are naturally mindful eaters.
This was shown in an amazing experiment by Dr. Clara Davis, who allowed children to self-select what they ate from a variety of unprocessed, unseasoned, healthy foods placed on the tray of their high chairs. Although they develop preferences for certain foods, all the children ate a balanced diet and grew well. 1
This is very good news! It means that mindful eating, the ability to hear and follow the wisdom of your own body, is a skill you already have. You had this ability as a child, but it was covered over, by many influences. All you have to do is rediscover this ability and practice it!
We teach children what foods to enjoy.
The only food preference that all humans are born with is sugar, and perhaps an innate caution about bitter foods. Everything else is taught.
That teaching begins before birth. Foods the mother eats flavor the amniotic fluid that the baby swallows. If a mother eats carrots, her baby will show a preference for carrots after birth. The foods the mother eats will also flavor breast milk, and become associated with comfort and love.
By repeatedly re-introducing small bites of food (and ignoring the grimaces they make when any new food is introduced) we teach babies and young children to like the foods favored by their family or culture. This is why Indian children enjoy spicy curries, Eskimo children happily chew on whale blubber, Thai children snack on fried grasshoppers, and Chinese children relish sulfur-smelling “hundred year old” eggs.
Let babies feed themselves. It may be messy, but research shows that spoon-fed babies are more likely to become obese, perhaps because adults want to “finish the jar” and don’t pay attention to the baby’s satiety cues.
If you want a healthy eater, make meals relaxed and fun. Never use food as reward or punishment.
We are conditioned beings. That conditioning begins early in life. When food is paired with tension or verbal abuse, what do children learn? To eat and run, to eat alone, or to eat more comfort foods.
Dietician and eating therapist Ellyn Satter has a wonderful website 2 on feeding babies and children of different ages, including “picky eaters.” It includes helpful videos and research to back up her recommendations. She created the simple and wise Division of Responsibility in Feeding, for toddlers up to adolescents:
The Division of Responsibility
- The parent is responsible for what, when and where: (what foods are served and when and where they are served)
- The child is responsible for which and how much: ( which foods they eat and how much they eat — including none.)
Teach children to pay attention to internal cues. Introduce a few of the nine hungers as you investigate a new food.
Research shows that children and teens will eat more appropriately and experience more satisfaction if they are taught to pay attention to internal cues (such as eye and mouth hunger, stomach fullness) as they eat.
Infuse eating with connection, curiosity, investigation and fun.
Try fruits no one in the family has eaten before. Asian markets are a good place to look for things like mangosteen, dragon fruit, and passion fruit.
Play games and learn as you eat. The Family Dinner Project is a non-profit based at Harvard. Their website has many resources including recipes, videos of families, conversation starters and games for children of different ages at family meals.3
Did your family follow Ellyn Satter’s Rules when you were a child?
Did your family encourage you to try new foods? Do you try new foods now?
NOTE for ME-CL teachers-in-training: Special live online Learn&Share Sept. 6th with Jan on Kids and Mindful eating click here.
Jan Chozen Bays, USA
- Clara M.Davis, “Results of the Self-Selection of Diets by Young Children,” Canadian Medical Journal, 41 (1939): 257-261.
- An engaging book filled with interesting research about children and eating is Bee Wilson. First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. (Basic Books: New York, 2015).