Hannah's 7 Top Tips for Fostering Mindful Eating in Kids

Over a decade ago when I was just starting out in my nutrition career I began in the hospital setting. I distinctly remember within my first few weeks a speaker coming to talk to the dietetics department. She brought with her the ‘new’ concept of mindful eating.

Now of course it was not technically new. However it did mark the re-emergence of the concept in modern nutrition.

Mindful eating, of course, sits firmly in the behavioural aspect of eating. Although it should effect the nutrients you eat, if practised properly!

Mindful eating helps to prevent over or under eating, obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It can also increase our enjoyment of good fresh food which nourishes our body.

The thing is most of us are completely shocking at mindful eating.

No really. You too.

Many of us see eating as a hindrance. Unless it is combined with a social occasion. Otherwise it is just another thing on the ‘to do’ list.

That does not mean we are not liking what we’re eating. Simply we forget to be aware of it all the time.

Thing is as adults we have to mindfully teaching ourselves to be mindful.

Meaning, for most of us, the art of being mindful is not second nature.

However for our kids there is hope! Well there is hope for us too…but it is always easier to start young.

So I thought I’d outline my top tips for encouraging mindful eating in your kids.

 

1. Sit to eat – Always

Sitting helps us to focus on the meal in front of us. If we snack whilst standing around, on the go etc it stops our brain from registering that we have eaten.

For every meal and snack, get your child to sit.

 

2. Turn the TV off

For children particularly, if the TV (or any other electronic device) is on they are less likely to register a meal infront of them. This could make them overeat, or not eat at all. It also completely switches their brain off from recognising hunger and full cues.

As soon as we start on the slippery slope of not listening to our hunger and full cues, this habit just continues on to adulthood.

 

3. No negotiation – they decide how much they eat

How often do you say – “Just one more bite for mummy?

Sure it might annoy you that they’ve left all their beans. However a simply solution for this is to decrease serving sizes so that they are still hungry when it comes to their beans.

Another way to do it might be that the family rule is to try one of each thing on your plate before you finish any portion of it? Or you could say no more seconds until each part of the meal is tried? Either way, it is about giving everything a go, rather than encouraging a child to keep eating when they’re done.

Another variation of this is to put value on a finished meal.

Yes, none of us want wastage. I get that. It is financially frivolous, as well as environmentally problematic.

However the research shows us that adults tend to over-estimate how much food a child needs. As it is typically as adult serving up a child’s meal, we do tend to give them larger portion sizes than necessary.

There are two ways you can get around this. Encourage your child to start taking some control over serving up their own meal. The second is to not throw away anything leftover. It can be reused as lunch the next day!

 

4. Only reward with play and time based rewards

I’m not against using rewards. Many kids respond very well to external rewards.

I mean how many of us would go to work if we weren’t getting paid right?

However we need to be very conscious of how we are using rewards, and how these may impact mindful eating.

What this means is that rewards should not be food based, they should be ‘time’ or ‘play’ based.

Rewards should still be driven by your child. They need to be part of the discussion on what they need to do to get the reward, and what the reward is. Not in the heat of the moment – but when you are setting up your reward system.

Then it is up to them if they do what is needed to achieve the reward. You can remind them – “You decided that you needed to try everything on your plate before I took you out on your scooter, remember?”

However you should not be forcing them to eat in exchange for a reward.

Rewards if done incorrectly can take away from the enjoyment of food. A meal is suffered in a hurried fashion, or so drawn out that it is cold and inedible. This is not mindful eating.

 

5. Be flexible with meal times and allow realistic snacking

Lately I’ve become quite conscious of our growing fear of snacks. Possibly it is that they’ve been demonised in the media? However I’m seeing a real move towards kids having 3 big meals per day rather than 5 smaller ones.

Kids have small tummies…like really tiny tummies. They do not eat a lot in one sitting (well usually – there are exceptions – like my daughter being able to eat her weight in pasta).

It is way easier to get a good nutrient load into kids when you spread their food across five meals than trying to cram it into three. So do not be afraid of your child saying “I’m hungry” and letting them have a snack.

Do teach your child the difference between hunger, thirst, and boredom. Always let them have a little water first to see if really they were thirsty. If I think my daughter has just eaten recently, I will give her water in her drink bottle, and set up a game to play. If she still mentions being hungry we can have a snack after the game, if not then it was probably just boredom.

Also along this vein, keep some flexibility with meal times. Some kids are starving when they wake up, others need to get their engines revving a bit first. Some days an early lunch or dinner might be needed, whereas other days they may not be hungry until a bit later.

Schedules are great. However we just need to recognise that sometimes we’re just not hungry at a scheduled meal time. That is okay. In our house, we still sit at the table with everyone else, but we don’t have to eat.

 

6. Vary their meal choices

There is too much of a good thing. We do tend to go off food if we have too much of it.

Is the only reason you remember what you ate yesterday because it is the same thing you eat every day?

Not awesome.

Our food recall is traditionally terrible.

Remember that piece of candy you took from the jar at the hairdressers? What about the cookie from the conference room leftovers?

We do not stop and savour what we’re having. Partly because any break from the norm is typically a ‘treat’ food which we feel guilty about and hurriedly try and consume before our brain wakes up to what we’re doing.

Food should be enjoyable at every meal. So put some interest into both you are your child's meals by changing it up a bit.

 

7. Allow plenty of time for meals

A rushed meal is not a mindful one.

I get it – we have busy lives. I too am caught between getting my daughter up early so her morning is not rushed as we try to get her out the door for school by 6:45am, OR letting her get some precious extra sleep.

However, as much as you can, meals need to be a peaceful, unhurried affair. This enables your child to calmly explore their food.

 

We cannot be 100% perfect ALL the time. There will be days when you're running late, there will be meals where everyone is exhausted and before you know it icecream is being exchanged for peas.

It is not the end of the world.

We do need to be on our game 90% of the time. If most days and most meals you are working to integrate these tips into your child's mealtimes...then you are heading in a great direction.

 

If you feel you need some extra support, we have our AMAZING eguide now available - Creating a Fearless Eater.

This eguide is a beautifully designed resource which takes you through a range of tools, rules, and techniques you can use with your child to increase the variety of foods they eat.

 

You will also get 3 bonus resources;

  1. Serving Size guide: A detailed look at daily intake for 1 - 4 year olds as well as handy meal ideas with portion suggestions.
  2. Menu Ideas: Over 25 meal and snack ideas with portion size guidelines.
  3. Reward Chart template: Outlines a way of tracking progress and giving rewards.

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