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Want to Curb Emotional Eating? Spend a Day with a Toddler

At dinner, I put a sippy cup and a plate of grapes, sliced cucumbers, and a bit of cut-up hamburger in front of my daughter Maya, who is strapped into her high chair, tapping her heels against the back of the chair and squealing in delight, knowing what’s coming next.

I secretly give myself a high-five, thinking tonight’s going to be a good night. She stares at the tray, has a few cucumbers, a bit of hamburger, and a single sip of milk. She looks at the grapes but ignores them until I take one and exclaim how delicious it is … at which point she murmurs, “Mmmm” and grabs a fistful herself. Success! I think.

Then she looks at me straight in the eye, chucks her sippy cup on the floor and proceeds to push her whole dinner off the high chair tray into the welcome view of our 105-lb black Lab, Rocco, who then licks up everything on the floor and cozies up next to her, begging for more while she dissolves into giggles. So much for that high-five.

I try to coax her to eat a little more, and then my husband tries to get her to eat a little more … but it’s useless. She shakes her head vehemently at us and tries to squirm out of her high chair. At that point, it’s clear dinner is done.

Such is life with a toddler.

For as frustrating as it can be for parents to see their children barely eat sometimes, the truth is, Maya was done, and she knew it. Babies and toddlers have this innate, amazing ability to eat intuitively. They eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. While what she ate didn’t seem to be much of anything to me, it was enough for her — and her body was satisfied.

Later, after we had tucked her in, I took a look at her daycare report and noticed she had had an extra sippy cup of milk that day and ate all of her breakfast and lunch plus all of her snack, which she doesn’t always do. Knowing this, it made sense that she wasn’t very hungry at dinnertime.

“Watching my daughter eat has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of motherhood to date.”

As adults, many of us have lost that innate ability to eat intuitively. We’re tempted by that ad for a new, melty sandwich at our favorite café, the smell of fresh-baked cookies at our child’s school, or  the sound of someone making popcorn at work. We’re tempted by “naughty” treats that make us feel “bad” about ourselves.

We eat when we aren’t hungry, simply because something is there. We’ve eaten when we’re bored, when we’re happy, sad, anxious, or depressed and we continue eating even when we are no longer hungry. If we ate intuitively, we would eat only when we are hungry and until we are satisfied. We wouldn’t view food as “good” or “bad” but rather, as just “food” — a source of nourishment and sometimes pleasure.

We’d eat like children do.

Watching my daughter eat, first as an infant and now as a toddler, has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of motherhood to date. She is the most intuitive eater I know, and, as someone who has struggled with her weight and has had a complicated relationship with food most of her adult life, I realize I can learn an awful lot from observing her.

I can’t help but wonder: when didI lose that ability to self-regulate? When did I lose that ability to be in tune with my body and its needs and not self-medicate with food?

It’s a little ironic to think about, but in a world of excess and in a nation plagued by an obesity epidemic, our children — the most intuitive eaters on the planet — could ultimately be our best teachers.

Here are some of the tips I’ve gleaned from watching Maya eat that I plan to put into action myself to fine-tune my own eating habits.

1. Eat while sitting down. This sounds like a no-brainer, but trust me, this is not something that comes naturally to me. My husband and I are both guilty of standing in the kitchen after work, talking about our days/planning the evening while eating a snack. But even a banana should be eaten sitting down, at a table — it makes the act of eating more mindful and deliberate.

2. Observe what’s on your plate before digging in. I try to make sure meals are balanced, but it’s not often I really examine what’s on my plate: looking at the texture of the roasted broccoli or the caramel hue of the hunk of crusty baguette. Maybe it’s the years of cooking for myself or the lack of mystery (I know how my chicken cacciatore tastes) but whatever it is, I don’t take the time to let the aroma of my meals or the presentation of my meals tempt me; I just dig in. Maya observes and then eats.

3. Pause between bites. So often when I eat, I’m thinking of a million things and trying to multi-task that I don’t really get to enjoy meals. I don’t always pause between bites and really get to taste the flavors of my meal. But doing so helps us decide if we want more or are satisfied with what we have eaten.

4. Chew slowly and deliberately. Maya is a very dainty eater and very deliberate when she puts something in her mouth. Though she might make a mess, she doesn’t shovel food in. And once said food is in her little mouth, she chews thoughtfully, slowly, and deliberately before reaching for more.

5.  Only eat what is on your plate. Obviously my daughter can’t go up to the fridge for seconds or mindlessly munch after dinner. She eats what is in front of her, and if she wants more, she can sign for it or point for more. And once the kitchen is closed, it’s closed. There is no “one more bite of XYZ” in her world; there doesn’t need to be one in mine, either.

What I find amusing is these are all also great weight loss and weight maintenance tips I’ve employed in the past — and this mama has a couple pre-pre-pregnancy pounds to lose before summer.

Are you an intuitive eater? Are your children intuitive eaters? When did that change?

Melissa Henriquez has been blogging at Let There Be Light since 2008. A New Jersey native who went to college and graduate school at American University in Washington, D.C., Melissa currently lives in the midwest with her college sweetheart husband, 17-month old daughter, and 105-pound Labrador pony – er, puppy.

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