How to Support Mindful Eating in Kids

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If you've ever noticed that food has more vivid flavors and pleasing textures while you're on vacation, you've experienced the power of mindful eating. Mindful eating focuses on paying more attention to what you are eating and to the overall experience of enjoying your food.

There are numerous benefits of eating mindfully, especially for children. From staying in tune with their body's natural hunger cues to connecting with satisfaction and enjoyment, it's no wonder this approach has boomed in popularity lately. Mindful eating can help foster a healthy relationship with food in kids as well as minimize their risk of disordered eating.

What Is Mindful Eating?

Many of us have heard the term "mindful eating," but may not know what it actually means. According to the American Diabetes Association, mindful eating is based on the practice of mindfulness, which encourages people to be consciously aware of their experiences, whatever they may be.

Similarly, mindful eating encourages people to be consciously aware of their experiences with food. By intentionally focusing on the food you are consuming, and using each of your senses in the moment, you can truly gain awareness as to how that food tastes, smells, looks, and feels.

Mindful eating is rooted in several principles. These include being nonjudgemental about your eating experience, slowing down and taking your time as you eat, becoming aware of your body's cues, and an awareness of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.

According to Yaffi Lvova, RDN, owner of Baby Bloom Nutrition, Toddler Test Kitchen, and Nap Time Nutrition videos and podcasts, mindful eating looks a little different for children than it does for adults. Eating mindfully means isolating one sense at a time while blocking out all other input. "With kids, this can be playing a game to determine which food is the crunchiest to isolate sound, while touch may have to do with comparing the texture of different foods," Lvova says.

Why Is Mindful Eating Beneficial for Kids?

Mindful eating has a myriad of benefits, including encouraging a mind-body connection and positive relationship with food. These benefits are not only valuable for adults, but also for children.

According to Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, owner of Chelsey Amer Nutrition, many people (including kids) are on autopilot, consumed by busy schedules, homework, and extracurricular activities. This often results in distracted eating which can lead to undesirable outcomes such as overconsumption and weight gain. Mindful eating habits will help your children understand and attend to their internal body cues and get more satisfaction from their eating experiences.

If you're wondering how to begin to teach your kids to eat mindfully, read on. Here is a breakdown of why mindful eating is important at every child's age and how to foster the practice in your kids.

Toddlers/Preschoolers

We are all born intuitive eaters, says Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS, a psychologist and health and wellness expert who prefers to go by Dr. Rachel. "Young children naturally eat when they feel hungry and stop when they feel full," she says. They also use their senses to explore and learn new things.

Encouraging mindful eating helps reinforce the innate skills they're born with, especially when adult influence starts to interfere with these natural cues, says Amer. Given that toddlers already have a natural inclination to eat mindfully, it's important to nurture that skill. Therefore, a child's future as a mindful eater, depends on their adult's ability to separate their own relationship with food from their child's.

How to Teach Mindful Eating to Toddlers/Preschoolers

Kim Van Dusen, PsyD, psychologist and CEO of The Parentologist, encourages toddlers and preschoolers to use their sensory systems to learn about food. This allows them to familiarize themselves with the sight, smell, taste, and texture of various foods, Dr. Van Dusen explains.

According to Lvova, it's important to talk about what different foods can do for the body rather than to the body. She suggests asking questions like, "Do you see a food on the table that you want to try?" and "Do you think it would taste different if you try it with your eyes closed? What about if you cover your ears?" Such questions help kids to isolate their senses and focus on one sensory experience at a time, which is the essence of mindful eating.

Tips for Practicing Mindful Eating with Toddlers/Preschoolers

Dr. Van Dusen emphasizes the importance of keeping healthy foods within reach. This way, healthy choices are familiar to your child from a young age.

"It's also important to make mealtime fun and positive," adds Dr. Van Dusen. Play a game during dinner, taking turns speaking to each other between each bite to encourage slower eating, she suggests. Playing food-based games creates a positive interaction between a child and their food, says Lvova.

Lvova also suggests making sure that your child's seat is comfortable so they are more likely to sit down while eating and keep the focus on savoring food. "For young kids in high chairs, their feet should be supported so that their ankles, knees, and hips are at a 90-degree angle," she says. It is also important to be realistic about attention span at this age. Expect around 3-5 minutes of undivided eating attention in the toddler age range.

School-Age Kids/Tweens

As kids get older, their natural instincts to eat mindfully are often overridden by the influence of external sources, like adults and the media, says Dr. Rachel. Older children begin to lose the awareness of internal hunger cues, which is why it's crucial to teach mindful eating and nurture positive eating experiences.

Tweens are also dealing with their changing bodies. They are beginning to form thoughts about body image which are often heavily influenced by social media. Fostering mindful eating can help kids and tweens form a healthy body image.

How to Support Mindful Eating In School-Age Kids/Tweens

"This is a great age to teach kids to start listening to their bodies and to stop eating when they are full", says Dr. Van Dusen. Mindful eating can help them tune into their bodies and understand their internal hunger and satiety cues.

Parents can also teach kids simple mealtime manners at this age, like putting your fork down between bites, adds Dr. Van Dusen. Modeling positive eating habits and choosing healthy foods is another great way to teach your kids to be mindful eaters.

According to Lvova, this age group resents micromanagement, so the best approach may be to ask questions that get them to start thinking mindfully, rather than pointing out something specific they should be doing. Thought-provoking questions could include, "What is your favorite food? How does it make you feel? Does it remind you of any stories about friends or family?"

Tips for Practicing Mindful Eating with School-Age Kids/Tweens

Dr. Van Dusen encourages parents to involve their kids in the food buying, cooking, and eating process. Have kids play a part in planning out meals, which will help to eliminate impulse eating, often the biggest downfall to eating mindfully.

According to Dr. Rachel, keeping technology and screens away during mealtime is very important, though easier said than done. "You want the food experience and eating to be the activity and nothing else," she says.

So much of children's lives, particularly at this age, involve technology and it's difficult to truly concentrate on the sensory experience of food while watching a screen. To encourage kids to stay off their phones while eating, establish set rules such as no phones during mealtimes. You can also model healthy screen time habits like putting your phone away when sitting at dinner or keeping your phone tucked in your pocket while preparing food.

Teens

It can be especially helpful to teach mindful eating to teens. "This is the age where kids are bombarded with messages about dieting," says Amer. This can lead to a negative relationship with food. Teens are also experiencing their changing bodies and further developing ideals about their body image. For these reasons, it's imperative to support mindful eating and encourage a healthy relationship with food, eating, and their bodies.

How to Support Mindful Eating In Teens

Parents can teach teens appropriate life skills pertaining to food, such as grocery shopping and cooking meals using healthy foods, says Dr. Van Dusen. This provides teens with independence and choice in what they eat and will support healthy habits that they can carry with them into adulthood.

"Parents can also encourage teens to practice gratitude for their food," adds Dr. Van Dusen. Being grateful for the food they have on their plate will hopefully lead to increased appreciation of food and thus create positive feelings around eating.

"It's important that we do not talk about mindful eating as a diet, as it is not", explains Dr. Rachel. Parents should instead reiterate that mindful eating is a way of becoming more aware and present while eating so the experience is more enjoyable.

Tips for Practicing Mindful Eating with Teens

According to Dr. Rachel, the S-S-S model is a helpful strategy for teaching mindful eating. It stands for sit down while you eat, eat slowly, and savor your food. In order to truly savor your food, you need to be sitting down and slowing down.

Another strategy that Dr. Rachel uses is called the Raisin Exercise. According to the American Psychological Association, this technique involves looking intently at the raisin, feeling its texture, tasting all its flavors, smelling its fragrance, and hearing its sounds as you swish it in your mouth. Through this exercise, you can practice concentrating on each sense and help train your mind to be still and focus on the present.

The raisin exercise is a great introduction to mindfulness practice, which can be applied to many areas in life, not just eating. Teens are dealing with a lot of stress and anxiety due to added pressure in school and in social situations with peers. Mindfulness is one strategy that can help teens cope with stress.

A Word From Verywell

Mindful eating is an approach that helps people be present while eating and focus on their experiences with food. This practice has many benefits for children of all ages including developing a healthy relationship with food and building awareness of body cues, like hunger and satiety.

Supporting eating mindfully looks a little differently at each age. For younger children, it means encouraging them to play with their food and touch and smell it. As children get older, involving them in the food preparation process and keeping screens away at mealtime can further their connection to food and their bodies.

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9 Sources
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