Here’s a familiar scene in my house. My six-year-old son sits down on the couch to watch TV. He settles in with the remote. Immediately I hear…
Mama, can I have a snack?
Whether his tummy is truly rumbling, or if he’s just eaten a giant bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, sitting on the couch to watch television equals munching on snack foods.
It’s an example of mindless eating — eating on autopilot, out of unconscious habit rather than genuine hunger. Linking snacks with the television is a well-known form of mindless eating, but there are tons of other examples. As grownups, we eat with our favorite shows on, we eat when we’re bored or anxious. We eat because our co-worker has cookies on her desk, or because our child left grilled cheese crusts on her plate. In kids, mindless eating can look different, but the idea is the same: Your toddler won’t eat at the table, so you sit on the floor and give him “drive by” bites of pasta while he plays; your child says he’s full, but you insist he eat what’s on his plate; or you pack enough snacks to feed a circus troop in your bag in the case that your child gets fussy or bored (guilty as charged). Mindless eating just means you’re not a conscious participant in your food consumption. You’re not making deliberate, internally-driven decisions about eating — the behavior is automatic and the cues come from the environment.
Psychologists tell us this is an unhealthy habit at any age, because it leads us to eat the wrong things, to eat too much (one third of American kids are overweight or obese and the World Health Organization calls childhood obesity “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century), or to eat as a distraction or a self-soothing technique.
As it turns out, we’re all pretty susceptible to mindless eating. Studies of food psychology have shown that we’re not very good judges of our own hunger, and that we have less conscious control over our food decisions than we think we do. If you put a bigger plate or serving bowl in front of adults or kids, they serve themselves more — and eat more. Even the color contrast between the food and plate affects how much we eat (more contrast makes for accurate consumption). Environmental cues, like the behaviors of our dinner companions and whether or not we’re distracted by television, affect how we eat as well.
That means it’s easy to eat mindlessly, and it takes conscious practice to do something different. Fostering mindful eating in kids is important because the earlier it’s in place, the better the child’s relationship to food through the years. Here’s how you can plant the seeds of mindful eating for your kids:
It’s okay to be hungry
When your little one was a baby, hunger was an urgent need you had to meet, right now. When our children are wee little things, we focus on feeding and weight gain as a marker of health. But as they grow, this doesn’t really apply the same way. More eating and more food is not necessarily better, and hunger is not an undesirable feeling we have to satiate immediately.
It’s actually fine to be a little hungry, and it’s okay for us to embrace this and tell our kids this too. Take after school snacks in my home: my son arrives from school ravenous. I give him a snack, he gobbles it, asks for another one, and that cycle repeats over and over: A plate of crackers, cheese, almonds, and carrot sticks. He asks for another plate. I do the same. But at a certain point, I tell him it’s okay that he’s still hungry (actually it takes your brain about 20 minutes to know you’re satiated, so cutting off the snacks early isn’t such a bad idea), and his stomach needs room for dinner later. It feels weird to deny him food, since I spend half my life thinking about feeding him, but I still say It’s okay to be a little hungry, buddy. Actually it’s kind of good for you. When I stick to this, by the time dinner comes, he’s hungry and much more receptive to his roasted Brussels sprouts.
You could ask your kids to rate on a scale from 1-10 how hungry they are. After the meal, check in with your hunger again. When my two-year-old starts to fidget and say she’s done and can I be ‘scuzed? I ask her to check in with the rest of us, to see if we’re done, and then with her own belly to see if it’s done (my son actually lifts his shirt and addresses the question directly to his stomach). It’s not a finish-what’s-on-your-plate situation, it’s a prompt to look at your own internal cues.
Taste it, like it, scale it
We have a few simple rules at our dinner table: no toys (they have to be “parked” somewhere else away from the eating surface), and definitely no television or other distractions. Mealtime is for sitting, talking, and eating (I mostly choose what we’re eating, they choose whether and how much to eat). It’s a protected space. One of the only places we aren’t allowed to multitask — eating while e-mailing or eating while watching The Lego Movie. The only thing to focus on is the food and each others’ company.
That makes it easier to actually have conversations about the food itself — which is how my son and I started taste testing. It’s nothing fancy, I just ask him which ingredients he thinks are in the food and how he’d describe the taste, and we rate foods on a scale from 1-10 (sweet potatoes with butter and pepper = 8, gluten-free bagel once ordered at a health food store = 0, mac n’ cheese from our favorite restaurant = 11). I’m not a stickler for only healthy foods, I just want my kids to like food, like different tastes, and like sitting together.
Practice with the raisin
You may have heard of the raisin meditation — this is a famous exercise developed by Jon Kabbat Zinn, the influential thinker in the field of mindfulness. It’s simple, and it changes the way you eat. Try it with your kids.
The raisin meditation goes like this: Hold a raisin in your hand. See and touch the raisin as if you were an alien just seeing this for the first time. Smell the raisin — hold it to your nose to take in the aroma. Place the raisin on your tongue and hold it there without chewing. Hold it there for a bit. Now taste the raisin, bite it slowly, and when you do, pause and notice the flavors and textures. You get the idea — it’s to slow down and pay attention, using all your senses. You’re in the moment and connected to what you’re eating.
As kids pay attention to their food, those neural pathways that connect taste receptors in the tongue to perceptual areas of the brain that evaluate flavors and portions (yummy, sweet, flavorful, want more, or too much, I’m done) become strengthened. If they connect the food on their plate to their aware, conscious brain, they have a healthy relationship to food, and it’s a good thing for their eating habits — now and for years to come.
Heather Turgeon is co-author of the upcoming book The Happy Sleeper: The science-backed guide to helping your baby get a good night’s sleep (Penguin Random House). She is a psychotherapist who writes about child development and parenting.