Ever offer your toddler a snack to stop crying, no matter when they last ate? Have you trailed your picky eater while they 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.
Slow the meal down. Try serving some foods at each meal that take longer to eat, like soups, salads, and cut-up fresh fruit and vegetables. Encourage kids to savor food by asking them to describe its shape, color, smell, texture, and taste.
Skip the lectures. This isn’t the time to talk about discipline or homework. Meals should nourish your child’s mind and soul. Have each person share a funny story or happy memory from the day.
“You don’t want kids to have a negative association with mealtime -- you don’t want it to be a time when parents are telling them they have to go and clean their room later,” Diewald says.
Help kids get in touch with hunger and fullness. There’s a difference between hunger, desire, thirst, and cravings. One easy test: If they’re truly hungry, they’ll say yes to healthy foods such as apples, carrots, or cheese sticks; if they say they’re only hungry for cookies, that’s a craving.
“The best thing a parent can do is really articulate the value of eating food when we’re hungry, or eating food when our body needs it,” Gill says.
If your child asks for a snack 30 minutes after a meal, you can try saying, "I know food is good and it’s really fun to eat. But it’s really important to eat when our bodies need it so we don’t end up eating too much."
See if they’d like to play a game, read a story, or take a walk instead.
Don’t force your child to eat. Membership in the Clean Plate Club should not be mandatory. It only teaches kids to ignore their inner sense of hunger and fullness.
“When push comes to shove, a child should be allowed to decide, of the foods you’re offering, which of the foods they’re going to accept and how much,” Diewald says.