Mindfulness: Using Awareness to Eat Healthy
It seems like buzzwords like mindfulness, meditation, and awareness are becoming more commonly accepted. When I was younger, these concepts raised images of gurus, hippies, and quacks. Today, the health benefits of meditation are undisputed, and mindfulness and living in the present are becoming lifestyles in their own right. This made me wonder: Could mindfulness be used to teach our kids to eat more healthfully?
A lot of the food we eat, we eat mindlessly. I am guilty party numero uno in this regard: I see mealtimes as my “time out” from the stress of being a full-time wife and mother, so whenever I can snatch a moment to sit at the table and eat, I grab a good book and read. Of course there are many manifestations of this: some people eat while they watch television, some while they read, and even some while they’re driving. Our kids are no exception. If they’re not eating in front of the boob tube, they’re likely to be eating on the go or while horsing around with their friends. Even in the hour-long child minding my kids attend while I go to the gym, the carers put the TV on while the kids eat their snacks.
The problem with eating mindlessly is that we don’t tend to think about what we are eating, or how much. On the one hand this is a really bad thing because it often leads us to eat too much of the wrong foods. We end up eating an extra dozen handfuls of popcorn, an extra bread roll, or an extra helping of pasta. On the other hand, we can turn this to our advantage. If our kids are eating mindlessly, they will end up eating more healthy stuff, like salad, veggies, and fresh fruit. It is up to us as their parents to replace the cookie jar with a bowl of fresh fruit and to relegate the serving bowl of pasta to the sideboard while a big bowl of salad takes pride of place on the table.
Using mindless eating as a trick to get kids to eat more healthfully only works when our children are eating at home. But as kids grow up, head off to school, and take on more and more activities, the number of opportunities we have to trick them into eating healthfully decreases. This is when we need to educate our kids in the skills they need to make good eating decisions.
Applying Mindfulness to Eating
Mindfulness goes beyond simply living in the moment. When it comes to eating, it is actually all-encompassing. Often, we taste the first and last few bites of a meal, but the intervening majority of flavor is lost on us. We frequently eat and cannot remember how much we consumed. We habitually underestimate how much and how many we have eaten. We don’t even know if we are hungry or full. We don’t pay attention. And the majority of us overeat as a result. And that includes our kids.
By applying a mindfulness approach, we bring our focus back fully onto our food. We pay attention to all those details, including:
- How fast or slow am I eating?
- How long does it take me to eat this meal/snack?
- What is the texture of the food?
- How does the food taste?
- How does eating this food make me feel?
- What memories, feelings, or emotions do I associate with this food?
- Am I hungry, not hungry, or full?
- Do I want to take each bite?
- What will be the consequences of eating this food?
Teaching Your Kids Mindful Eating
Getting kids to slow down and savor their food may seem a daunting task, but it is a skill that can be taught. Try this simple exercise with your kids and repeat it as frequently as possible until the act of being mindful and aware becomes familiar and a matter of course.
Have your child take a few raisins, some sunflower seeds, a cracker, a stick of celery, or another small snack the first time you try this, but you can also try this at the dinner table as a family. Begin by asking your child to describe how they are feeling. Are they hungry or full? Heavy or light? Relaxed or anxious? What is their mood, and does it affect their desire to eat? What do they think will be the consequences of their eating this snack? (Will it give them energy, make them gain weight, or make them feel more or less hungry?) Have your child pick up the food in his/her hand. Ask them to describe it in intimate detail. Is it heavy or light? Is it wrinkled or smooth? How does it feel sitting on their skin? Comfortable or uncomfortable? What color is it? What texture? Have your child bring the food up to their nose and inhale. What does it smell like? Is the smell strong or weak? Does this smell remind them of any thing, person, or experience? Have them place the snack in their mouth or take a bite of it. Before they chew have them assess how it feels in their mouth. Is it dry or wet? Warm or cold? Does the texture feel different on their tongue than it did in their hand? Does the food have a taste even before they begin to chew? Does it feel heavy on their tongue or light? Is it melting or solid? Ask them to chew but not yet swallow. What does the food taste like? Is it sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or umami? Does it remind them of anything? Does it affect their emotions at all? What is the texture of the food? Is it chewy or crunchy? Hard or soft? How does the texture change the longer they chew it? How does the flavor change? Tell your child to swallow. As they do so, have them focus on the feeling of the food sliding down their throat. Have them imagine it sliding down into their stomach. Now ask them how they feel. Do they feel more or less hungry? How is their emotional state? Do they feel satisfied? Guilty? Repeat with the remaining snack.
The Results of Mindfulness
Mindfulness and awareness may or may not motivate your child to make more healthy food choices away from home. They still might not choose to order salad when all their friends order greasy pizza. But mindfulness can help them be more aware of their bodies and their emotions as they eat. By nurturing mindfulness related to eating, you will make it impossible for them to continue to eat mindlessly. Whether they want to or not, they will suddenly find themselves “zoning in” when eating instead of “zoning out.” Unwittingly, they will begin to be aware of how much they are eating, how fast they are eating, and how they feel about the food they are eating. It will make them stop and think twice before heading to the snack machines – asking themselves if they are really hungry right now.
Mindful eating can really help kids to make better food choices. It can also help them to lose weight or to stay at a healthy weight. It will also help them confront their emotions surrounding food. If eating certain foods makes them feel sluggish or guilty, their awareness of this can help them choose to avoid those foods in the future.
Another benefit of mindful eating is that it gives kids a sense of consequences. The judgment center of kids’ brains doesn’t fully develop until their early 20’s. But by making consequences very clear and by teaching kids to consider the consequences of their eating habits, we introduce them to a useful skill that can be applied across the board in their lives.
Good for Relationships
Teaching kids the skills of mindfulness when eating can also be good for your relationship with them. In effect, teaching mindfulness is a form of granting stewardship. Instead of micromanaging and trying to control all of your child’s eating habits, you are teaching them the skills they need to make good food choices. Handing over the control to your kids, at least when they are out of the house, gives them a sense of power and control.
Power and control are essential for any human being. None of us likes the feeling of being powerless, and that includes even very young children. Anyone who has had a baby spit their food or formula out at them or refuse a particular type of food has run into this head on. If we want to inspire healthy kids, we cannot just focus on the last two words. Of course we want healthy kids, but we also want inspired kids!
Mindfulness is one tool of many that we as parents can deploy to teach our kids to make good food choices. By teaching them this skill, we can also give them the gift of being able to say to them that we trust them to make good decisions on their own. Being granted power, control, and stewardship over their own eating habits can be hugely empowering for kids of all ages. This does not mean they are without guidance! This means we provide them the guidance, the help, and the aid they need to learn how to make good decisions without wresting the control away from them.
Happy Mindful Eating!
I hope this tutorial on teaching mindful eating proves helpful. In fact, it is the kind of timeless wisdom we can all benefit from, no matter what our age. Mindfulness can stop us from reaching into the office candy dish when we don’t really want another chocolate, and it can stop us from going back for seconds when we are no longer hungry. But unlike conventional diets, mindfulness does not deprive anyone of the foods they want. It simply makes us more alert to our behaviors and empowers us to make good decisions. For an adult, this can be hugely liberating and for a child it is even more inspirational and empowering.
For anyone interested in using mindfulness and emotional awareness as the keys to resolving weight or food issues, I strongly encourage you to contact my good friend and personal inspiration, Kylie Ryan. And no, she didn’t pay me to say that. I just think she’s awesome and good at what she does, and I know you will, too.