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Healthy and Mindful Eating for Children

Common sense practical advice about family nutrition.

Key points

  • Rather than having many rules about food, have lots of conversations about it.
  • Mindful eating is deliberately paying attention and being fully aware as you eat inside and outside your body.
  • It is important not to fall into "all or nothing" thoughts about eating, modeling healthy eating habits while also allowing for treats.
Source: quincymahangi/Pixabay

I recently interviewed Jan Chozen Bays, Roshi, a pediatrician specializing in working with abused children and the author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship With Food and Mindful Medicine, among other books. She has studied and practiced Zen Buddhism since 1973, serving as the teacher for the Zen Community of Oregon since 1985. Bays is a wife, mother, contented cook, and avid gardener.

Mark Bertin: I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to stay healthy in our culture. A friend of mine said recently it’s like everything outside the produce aisle is either overly processed, deep-fried, or full of sugar. Portion sizes are crazy, too, and then there’s the influence of advertising on our choices.

Jan Bays: Your friend was right about the way supermarkets are arranged. The healthy food (or “real food," as Michael Pollan calls it) is generally around the outside store perimeter: dairy, fish, meat, eggs, produce. The “food-like substances” are in the middle–a shorter walk for the customer.

In light of that, how do you get started with parents discussing balanced eating habits?

Of course, children learn their eating habits early on from their parents. Research shows that babies are “taught tastes” even in utero. Foods their mother eats flavor amniotic fluid and breast milk.

Evelyn Satter is my go-to expert on feeding children. She has a wonderful website. I think her answers to this question are better than mine. Her division of responsibility approach is practical and really works.

MB: Eating whatever is around nowadays is often not so healthy. But kids are kids and sometimes don’t make long-sighted decisions. They rely on grownups to model a healthy lifestyle and learn from safe boundaries. Where is the middle ground for parents between too controlled and too out of control?

JB: Rather than having lots of rules about food have lots of conversations about food so that a meal isn’t just shoving food in but interacting in a fun way.

One way to introduce balanced eating habits is to explore and discuss eating and food at the table. 'Do you know where spaghetti comes from?' Then look at Youtube videos about how to make pasta noodles or try making them. You can watch together the BBC April Fool’s Day spoof about where spaghetti comes from.

Cook together. I’ve found that if kids learn to cook healthy food early on, that is how they eat later. If “junk food” is only eaten occasionally in childhood, it usually remains an occasional addition to a healthy diet. If parents only have healthy snacks around and ready for snacking without preparation–like carrot sticks or apple slices in the fridge or tangerines to peel, then that’s what children grow up liking.

If your cabinets and refrigerator contain only healthy food and if desserts like ice cream are a once-a-week occasion, and desserts or candy are not used as bribes, and if eating together as a family is a pleasant and regular experience, you’ve gone a long way to avoiding food issues later.

It's also important not to fall into "all or nothing" thoughts about eating. If you forbid yourself–or your kids–from having, for example, any food containing refined sugar or white flour, that may create even stronger desires for those 'forbidden' foods. For example, we have 'dessert night' twice a week, with homemade cobblers, puddings, or cookies at the monastery where I live. My 12-year-old grandson collected several pounds of Halloween candy. After, his parents allow one or two candies nightly until a lot of it goes stale and forgotten under his bed.

MB: While the word mindful has almost become a pop culture cliché, most everyone agrees that life gets easier when we’re intentional, instead of mindless, in our choices. We can remain aware of enjoying our ice cream and then also of being full, though there’s more ice cream to be had. Or aware while shopping. How do you define ‘mindful eating’ so people relate to the idea?

JB: Mindful eating is deliberately paying attention, being fully aware as you eat, both inside your body, heart, and mind and outside yourself, in your environment. Mindful eating is awareness without criticism or judgment (this last part is really important).

We can tell kids to 'pay attention,' but it doesn’t compute unless we actually show them how to do it. We have to help them slow down. Play the game together of 'Eat one grape slowly' and describe at each stage of eating it what you notice or discover.

Look at the grape, smell it, roll it around in your fingers. Ask your body if this would be healthy for it. Take one bite, and bring your attention to your mouth. What is happening in there? What does your tongue do with it? How does swallowing happen?

One father who came to a Mindful Eating weekend made a chart and put it on the wall where his family ate. It showed the nine aspects of hunger, the different cues we have for eating: Eye hunger, nose hunger, mouth hunger, heart hunger, etc.

Before eating, his family would talk about which hunger was strongest. They would look at the table and talk about which foods appealed to the eyes, which to the mouth, which to the heart, etc. They talked about how full their stomachs were before the meal and how much volume their stomachs would like. This can be repeated before taking seconds and at the end of the meal.

MB: What’s one way people can get started?

JB: Pause to really look at your food before you dive in. Look at it as you would a work of art.

Bring to mind all the people and other beings whose life energy flows to you in this food, like the farmers, farm workers, insect pollinators, truck drivers, and supermarket employees. All shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities of people, and probably all political beliefs too. Silently thank them. Eat the first three bites or the first three sips slowly and mindfully in this way.

Next, try eating at least one meal or snack each week in silence and with your full attention on your body and the food as it enters your body and then is processed, absorbed, and flows to your cells.

Another great thing to try is having a garden at home or even one cherry tomato plant in a pot on the balcony or apartment window. Enrolling kids in growing a food plant of their own is a great way to get children to try new fruits and vegetables. And then, school-based garden programs are very beneficial, mentoring kids on growing food and then cooking it.

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