Nurturing Mindful Eating in Kids

Making the switch from reward eating to mindful eating
tiny child opening his mouth for a treat
Alexander Motrenko/

Have you ever asked a three-year old why people eat? Go find a child between 2 and 5 years old and ask them (then come back to finish reading). So, what did you find out? You probably found that most kids say the same thing my 4-year-old said, “So that people don't die,” and not many say, “Because they're bored” or “Because they need to be distracted” or “Because they peed in the toilet.” These answers fall in the category of reward eating. But before we started rewarding kids with food, they were eating when they were hungry--the foundation for being well on their way to mindful eating.

At what point did we forget about the reasons that we eat? And more to the point, why do we forget this? Is there anything we can do to help our own children stick to eating not only for the right reasons but to eventually become mindful about their food?

Ditch the reward eating system

Before we start changing kids, we need to change the adults who enable and control reward eating. This is not the time to start feeling guilty for any time you've ever given your child a jellybean because she cleaned the playroom, but it is the time to decide that from now on, non-edible reinforcement is a much better way to reward desirable behaviour--if, indeed, it needs to be rewarded at all. It's also the time to decide that your purse or diaper bag does not need to produce an endless supply of food, but maybe it could contain some cool toys or small games brought from home when a distraction is needed. Let the food you bring along be a selection of healthy snacks for times when you can expect your child to be genuinely hungry.

From reward eating to emotional eating

Let's talk about reward eating for a moment. When a child becomes accustomed to receiving edible treats in response to positive behaviour, eventually food doesn't just satisfy hunger but it is wanted to satisfy the desire for a reward. This can translate years later into an adult relying substantially on food as a source of happy feelings rather than finding other ways to produce them such as going for a walk, reading a good book, talking to a friend, watching a movie, painting, playing with a dog, listening to music, exercising...the list goes on and on. Certainly, there are times when we feel like we “deserve” a treat, and occasionally this is just fine, but we need to be cautious when emotions are routinely and inextricably tied to eating. When a child begins to associate eating with feeling happy it can lead to a lifelong struggle with emotional eating. Using a star chart, celebrating with a huge high-five or just saying, “Yippee, way to go!” or giving little toy prizes are all better ways to reward children for positive behaviour.

Driven to distraction

OK, so you agree no more Smarties for practicing piano properly? Now let’s move on to the technique of distracting on the road to mindful eating. I was at a Bar Mitzvah and my 2-year-old daughter chose the exact moment that the boy's mother began speaking in front of her family and guests to pitch a hissy fit. I tried to keep her quiet. I tried very hard. But nothing was working. There's a lot of pressure to keep your kids quiet in a room full of silent, polite, fancily dressed people who are now glaring with disapproval. I realized that I had two choices: give my daughter a cookie from the centrepiece or pick her up and leave. It's a lot harder to leave while everyone stares at you (including the Bar Mitzvah’s mother); your daughter will likely keep screaming all the way to the exit (which she did) and you need to manoeuvre through the (imaginary?) finger-wagging crowd to get to the door. But I chose to be inconvenienced over teaching my children that eating to occupy oneself is a good idea. My hard and fast rule: food as a distraction is not an option.

The things you bring

The bottom line? Planning ahead is important. Prepare your child before you leave by explaining that you are going somewhere where being quiet or waiting is expected and that you are bringing toys along. Next, pack your bag full of quiet, small, non-edible toys or games: mini photo albums, a small bag of Lego, board books with peekaboo flaps, small dolls with different clothes for changing, transformer-type toys, mini puzzles, toy cars or trucks, sorting blocks, putty, letter-tracing paper, and anything else you, or your child, can think of. Finally, remember to thank your child for however long he or she lasted before asking, “Can we goooooooo now??” even if it was less time than you may have hoped for. It's important to remind yourself that while it's harder to distract a child with toys than it is with food, you are doing your child a huge service in the long run.

three kids happily eating apples

Destination: Mindful eating

But before you start picturing a toddler sitting in lotus pose on a mountain, meditating about whether or not she is hungry, let's clarify what I mean by mindful eating. When offering food at times when a child isn't actually hungry, we are messing with their body's natural ability to feel hunger and satiety. Mindful eating is just what it sounds like: eating with the mind as well as the body. The brain is in tune with the body's hunger cues rather than with the entreaties of emotion. Talk to your child about hunger and feelings of fullness. Say things like, “Right now I feel very hungry,” and after you've eaten something say, “And now I feel not hungry. I feel satisfied.” Also, talk about what hunger feels like - an empty tummy, a growling tummy, or maybe feeling cranky.

Mindful eating is also about being aware while we are eating and appreciating what we are eating. Slowing down and looking, smelling, chewing and tasting your food are all steps to enjoying a meal or snack. Spend five minutes with your child eating an orange together while you talk about how it smells, what it looks and feels like and finally, what it tastes like.

Holiday feasting and celebrations that involve food are excellent times to put mindful eating into practice. Again, prepare. Before you and your family go out to Grandma's for her over-the-top, enough-food-to-survive-Armageddon holiday dinner, sit down and talk about it. Talk about how there will be lots and lots of food. And treats galore. Talk about how although we might want to eat oodles of everything, our bodies won't be happy with us if we do. Talk about choosing a few favourite treats, eating and enjoying them slowly and then moving on to a different activity, even though there will still be treats available. Explain that it's not possible to eat every single thing we see, and that we will feel better, and therefore have a better time if we eat a smaller amount and then spend the rest of our time playing with family, or playing with new gifts, or dancing, or whatever it is that your family does.

If you're reading this thinking, “Actually, we don't do anything else besides eat,” then this may be the time to introduce a new family holiday ritual that incorporates mindful eating. Suggest that the party concentrate less on the eating part, and propose games or looking at family albums or making gift baskets for a local charity. There are many ways to celebrate a holiday, birthday, or festival - eating can be just a part of them. 

*Originally published February 22, 2016