The most important way to teach mindful eating to children is for parents themselves to practice eating mindfully with their children. Children feel safe when parents respond with kindly awareness. This creates a shared emotional space for warm connection.
Young children learn from modeling the conduct of their parents. Modeling works, partly, because children perceive the parent’s body language. Children come to imitate the parents’ behavior over time. Opportunities for modeling can take place during shopping and food preparation. Kids like handing parents food from the store shelf, age-appropriate vegetable gardening, table setting and kitchen tasks. Teaching parents to be aware of how they can engage their children in food-related play is a big part of my pediatric nutrition practice.
The Basic Guidelines for Feeding Children
The first basic feeding guideline is for parents to provide the food, time and place for meals. The second guideline is that children have the right to choose which foods to eat and how much. Wise parents prepare foods they like to model enjoyment, support health and family traditions. Part of creating a healthy environment is the exclusion of all electronic or screened devices during meals. These distract from the experience of eating and being together. Letting children choose not to eat certain foods gets support from research that shows that young children have all sorts of reasons to not eat, including variable appetites. Stable mealtime expectations create stable eaters.
When your child’s plate is still full of several different food and they want more of one particular food, you can try this: “You can have more when you finish the food that is on your plate.” This statement maintains parent and child roles while avoiding the use of the word ‘No.’
Mindful Eating Games
Table games can be a fun way of bonding and can prevent frustrating discussions about table manners. Kids love games because they involve rules and rule breaking. My kids liked to stick out their tongues to show off the food they chewed. When a new glop was presented, we told them that we would put it in the Chewed Food Museum.
When requests for food come too soon after eating or you sense boredom, ask: “Where in your body are you hungry?” If their eyeballs wander and they cannot answer the question you know that it’s not physiological hunger, and that some together time is needed. If you take that time, you will be nourishing heart hunger, the emotional need for connection, rather than supplying unneeded food.
Untimely food requests can also be met with open-ended questions to keep the connection between parent and child open. For example, you can respond to an inappropriate request for pizza with, “What color pizza do you want?” Or “Do you want pizza from Mars?” Keep asking open-ended questions to keep the game and the connection going. Games beat struggles. A variation on this game is to make a simple line drawing of the desired food on a scrap of paper. Take a make believe bite yourself and then offer the imaginary “food” to your child. See what happens.
The best meals come spiced with mindful parenting. Those are the ones rich in vitamin Love.
Richard Kahn, USA