5 ways to raise a mindful eater

Did you know that babies naturally eat when they feel hungry and stop when full? If you think about it, babies and toddlers are really good (and clear) about showing you signs that they’re hungry, and equally as clear about showing signs that they’re full. In fact, we’re all born mindful eaters!

As we grow older, we start to develop eating habits influenced by external factors (like craving soft pretzels when we pass by them in the mall, even if we don’t feel hungry) which can become ingrained in us over the years. By the time we become parents, we can forget that for babies and toddlers, eating is mindful. Instead of trusting our children, we can easily become food micromanagers. Think about it: the airplane trick, the two-bite rule, the “when you finish your veggies, you can have dessert” routine… those are all age-old tactics that parents use to control how much our kids eat. And our interference—although well-meaning—disrupts our kids’ natural tendency toward mindful eating.

If parents intervene too much, kids stop trusting their bodies when it comes to hunger and fullness, and instead, rely more and more on external cues for eating, potentially resulting in unhealthy habits like overeating, sneaking food, or eating when not hungry. Not ideal for building a long-term healthy relationship with food! 

It’s important to recognize that external factors and behaviours—regardless of how much we nurture Intuitive Eating—will come into play, and our kids WILL be influenced by them (and eat accordingly, sometimes). When we encourage mindful eating, we increase the chances that our children will carry these positive behaviours into adulthood.

How do we raise mindful eaters?

First of all, it’s important to know where the term “Intuitive Eating” comes from. It’s an evidence-based, mind-body approach to eating created by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. Mindful eating teaches people (usually adults who have forgotten!) to truly listen to their physical hunger cues; it is essentially about eating when you feel hungry and stopping when you’re comfortably full. Intuitive Eating now has 90 plus studies linking it to greater self-esteem, more enjoyment when eating, increased health and well-being, and better body appreciation and acceptance.

So, how do you start teaching your kids to continue to eat mindfully? Back off. The fact that children are naturally mindful eaters is a really GOOD thing. Stop pressuring coaxing, or forcing your kids to eat. Stop going into mealtimes with an agenda (as hard as that is). Focus on your job as the parent, which is providing nutritious and varied meals and snacks at appropriate intervals throughout the day, and then let your kids decide whether they eat and how much

Top 5 Tips for Nurturing Mindful Eating in Kids

  1. Respect that your child’s appetite fluctuates from day to day. Just like your appetite changes from day to day and meal to meal, so does your kids’! Regardless of how they ate the day before (or the day before that), respect their cues and respond accordingly.
  1. Establish a routine. Setting a routine when it comes to meals and snacks, so it is fairly similar every day, will help your child learn to expect when eating times are, and self-regulate their eating and appetite accordingly. Don’t let eating be a free-for-all; it will exhaust you, and your child will have a hard time figuring out their natural hunger and fullness cycles.
  1. Let your child explore new foods, free of pressure. Part of becoming comfortable with a particular food is by exploring it. When you see your toddler playing with or mushing up food, consider it to be a way for them to learn more about the food, while becoming comfortable enough to eventually eat it. Here’s the thing: you don’t want to pressure your toddler into eating something that they are not yet totally comfortable with. Allow a warm-up period.
  1. Stay neutral. This one is a tough one… especially when you have a picky eater.Resistrewarding your child with certain foods, or praising them for eating other foods, or you start to teach them that certain foods are “good” and others are “bad.” If you praise your child for eating broccoli, they’re going to start to wonder what the big deal is—and then if you reward them with a cookie (after they’ve finished their broccoli), they will come to regard cookies as the sought-after “yummy” food and broccoli as not so great. Keep foods emotionally neutral.
  1. Check your own “stuff.” Many of us have our own long-standing food issues (ahem . . . yoyo dieting anyone?), and this can spill over into parenting and feeding children. We want to avoid passing down any dysfunctional food habits, so make sure that you deal with your food issues in a healthy way. We recommend seeking help from a registered dietitian who has special training in mindful eating.

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