How to teach healthy eating habits
By Edwena Kennedy
We hear a lot about slowing down and being more mindful in the adult world. It’s funny to me because mindfulness is one of those concepts we’re innately born with, unlearn, and then need to re-teach ourselves as adults.
If you observe babies and young toddlers you’ll see they are actually the most mindful of us all. They’re connected to their senses and the experiences around them. They look, smell, touch, and taste food before they eat it. They take their time. They only eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full.
They seem to fully enjoy the moment and will quickly let you know when something doesn’t bring them joy. Toddlers are even quick to make comments about how they experience and enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a food. It may not be exactly how we think mindfulness should be, but it’s mindfulness.Then somewhere along the way, we lose those skills. Some may think this happens naturally, but I think we unteach mindfulness to our kids. Unintentionally of course, but nonetheless, our lack of mindfulness around food is bound to have an effect on our kids.
Reversing this starts with awareness of our own actions, but there is a lot you can do to teach and preserve mindful eating practices starting in toddlerhood and beyond.
Let’s start with the division of responsibility. We decide what food to serve, when to serve it, and (a part that many people tend to forget) where to serve it. Ideally, this really means sitting down at a table. Does it have to be every single time? I’m not going to pretend that we don’t eat meals around the kitchen island or in the living room sometimes, but the key is keeping that the exception, not the norm. Aim for at least once a day to try to make it a habit.
It’s important to take a break from other activities and designate a specific and sacred time for eating, nourishing, and connecting. We don’t often think of meals this way but it’s a great place to start. If we teach kids to enjoy meals and snacks with at least one other family member, sitting down, with our full attention drawn to the “event” that is mealtime, we will start to instill a new idea about food. It’s not just something that mom or dad shove into us when we’re not looking, or something we eat in sporadic bites as we play with toys.
We want to teach them that it’s really a communal time for bonding, nourishment, and enjoyment. It deserves our full attention. This means no TV, phones, tablets, or toys. Distraction-free eating allows kids to focus on what’s in front of them and what they’re experiencing and helps them avoid eating too much, too fast, too little, or without noticing at all. Have you ever seen a child leave the table, only to come back 15 minutes later claiming they’re hungry?
Or have you ever seen a parent shovel food into their child’s mouth when they weren’t paying attention (risking overeating and a failed learning experience where tasting actually occurred)? As adults, what happens when you place a bag of potato chips in front of you while watching TV? Were you actually aware of eating or were you surprised when your hand hit the bottom of the bag and you realize you ate it all?
To help babies and toddlers direct all awareness to the feeding experience, give them utensils and/or let them eat on their own with their hands (don’t stress about the mess or manners, those things will come). Let them be conscious of every move they make picking up a piece of food and bringing it to their mouth. Let them control the pace of the meal, the speed at which they eat and chew. If they need to slow down utensils can help. If they eat too fast, try and eliminate the distractions and focus on conversation.
Encourage your child to talk about the foods they’re eating. What colour is it? What shape? Does it feel squishy? What happens when they bite it with their teeth? Does it smell like anything familiar? How long can the flavour last in their mouth?
The more creative you are with your questions and observations, the better they become at noticing and observing all aspects of a certain food. When this happens, they’ll start reversing picky eating and come to appreciate and savour the food in front of them.
Practise making observations yourself, such as savouring the crispness of the salad, or delighting in the rich tomato flavour of the pasta sauce. As an experiment take a piece of spinach or a tomato off your plate, be fully aware of its taste and texture. Put your fork down, close your eyes, and chew. Then make your comments. Your toddler will see what you’re doing, learn, and may even mimic you with a food of their choice. Simply start the tradition of savouring.
As much as we don’t want to hear “it’s yucky,” it’s good to practise non-judgemental observations and accept what children notice about the food. Listen to your child’s comments instead of rushing to an immediate response. When your child refuses to eat something, ask why. When they know it’s fine not to like something and fully trust you won’t make them eat it, they learn to assess what it was they actually didn’t like about that particular food. Help them figure it out, was it taste, smell, texture, or temperature?
Talk with them about how their bellies feel. When your kids are in tune they can start to understand what “hunger” and “full” really mean, recognize it in the future, and respond accordingly. This helps teach your toddler how to regulate their intake and eat appropriate amounts.
Many times, kids get snacks on demand and they confuse the feeling of being bored or tired with hunger. If they aren’t throwing a tantrum to get the food that they want, they may claim hunger to get the snack they want. We often give in and offer them food outside of set meal and snack times, and in turn they never really learn what the feeling of hunger truly is since they’re bellies are always semi-full. This may also mean they don’t finish their meals at mealtimes because they feel “sort of full” and they’ve learned that they can ask for a snack 30 minutes later and get one when they realize they are still hungry.
Instead of going through all this, or even automatically asking them to finish two more bites of food before they can end a meal, remind them the next eating opportunity isn’t for a while so they need to check in with their tummy to see if they need to fit anymore bites in.
Ask: Is it full? Does it feel like they can’t fit anymore? How many bites do they think they need to feel full? Try a small bite and then reassess. Young kids really can do all this, we just need to give them the chance. They are always watching and learning from us. Over time, when they see you practising these things meal after meal, they will remember what they learned previously about their feelings and this will become second nature.
“You can have dessert only if you eat your vegetables.” Sound familiar? This implies your child has to eat something “gross” to get to that delicious reward. It also shows them that being good is rewarded with sweets or desserts, so that as they get older, any time they feel like they deserve something at the end of the day they will go to food as their reward.
Rewarding behaviour with food also teaches kids to override their feelings of fullness just to get to the dessert at the end. Rather than tuning in with their body to determine if they’ve had enough, this can teach them to eat past the point of fullness just to get the dessert.
It’s much better to offer dessert occasionally regardless of behaviour. Alternatively you could offer dessert as part of a meal to help create a truly intuitive and mindful eating experience.
For more strategies for how to raising healthy eaters, follow Edwina Kennedy on Instagram: @mylittleeater.