Ever offer your toddler a snack to stop crying, no matter when he last ate? Have you trailed your picky eater while she played, pleading “just one more bite?” Or maybe you eat your own meals standing at the sink or you scarf down a sandwich in the car -- because who has time to sit at the table?
Even when we know what healthy eating looks like, sometimes life gets in the way. But when families often eat on autopilot or use food as a reward, it interferes with everyone’s natural ability to sense when they’re hungry, stop when they’re full, and choose to truly enjoy food. That can make it easy to overeat and gain weight.
The trick is to decide to slow down and enjoy your meals, free of distractions, a practice that experts call mindful eating.
“The No. 1 principle is to get more enjoyment from each bite so you only have the number of bites you really need to be satisfied,” says Debra Gill, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Livingston, NJ, who teaches mindful eating for weight management to kids and adults. “Once you have a healthy relationship with food, you’re less likely to use food as a tool to cope or control other things in your life, like anxiety, social rejection, depression, or anger.”
With a few easy tweaks, you can get your family to start to eat more mindfully, at least some of the time.
Eat at the table as often as you can. “Food that is eaten in other areas, such as the family room or in a car, tend to be eaten quickly and in haste,” says Michelle Maidenberg, PhD, author of Free Your Child from Overeating: A Handbook for Helping Kids and Teens. We’re also more likely to choose less healthy foods when we’re on the run, she says.
At mealtime, make food the main attraction. Make a family rule that there will be no phones, computers, or TV at breakfast or dinner.
“When kids eat in front of a television or iPad, they tend to ignore their body’s fullness signals and may overeat or not even taste the different flavors in their food. They cannot fully register what they are eating when their focus is on something else besides their food,” says Lisa Diewald, RD, program manager at the Villanova College of Nursing’s MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education.