Michele Zipper, Tournesol Kids Coach

In a world where human beings keep moving faster, we all too often stop living in the moment. The pull of getting things done quickly and jumping to the next task has become a great societal problem. Fortunately, there are many solutions to bring our attention back to the present. Here’s the spoiler, one of the best ways to live in the here and now, is to eat!

The WHY we should slow down is really interesting. Digestion begins in the mouth; saliva contains enzymes that help break down food particles before entering the digestive tract. The longer food is exposed to saliva through chewing, the easier it moves through your intestines and the less gas it creates. This will kick start the digestive process and allow proper absorption of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, which is essential for optimal health. 

When it comes to kids, we want them to slow down because we want them to develop healthy eating habits. Yes, we want them to eat less refined carbs and sugar, more fruits and vegetables, and whole grains, but they also need to develop a healthy relationship with food.  We need to teach them to eat mindfully, to pay attention to the food they eat and to how it affects our bodies physically and mentally, so they can find more joy in eating. It will also increase the likelihood they will become familiar with what feelings of hunger and fullness actually feels like.

So how do we do this exactly?

Teach them about Hunger

Our kids need to understand why he or she is eating. There are 3 different triggers for eating – hunger, appetite, and emotion. A fun exercise to try with kids is before sitting down to a meal, ask your child how hungry they are on a scale of 1 to 10 and together try to figure out which trigger is making them want to eat.

Let them be Active Contributors

This part of mindful eating doesn’t involve tasting or chewing but is nonetheless equally important. In generations past, children learned from an early age the arts of preparing meals. Your younger children are probably eager to help wash and prepare vegetables (oil brushes are tons of fun!), mix ingredients and stir pots, with careful supervision of course. Teens and preteens can be great helpers in more complex tasks of mincing ingredients, spreading layers of lasagna or casserole and with proper tools and protection, taking food out of an oven or off a grill. All of these tasks are essential life skills to teach your kids. And a side benefit is when kids take part in preparing their meal, they are more apt to try new foods!

No More Food Rules
Teaching your kids mindful eating means putting an end to any food rules you currently have. Forget about having to take a few bites of veggies before they can have dessert, requiring they clean their plate, or to have a bit of everything before they can leave the table. Chances are both you and your children will feel more relaxed at mealtimes when you’re not engaging in power struggles around food or trying to control every bite they put in their mouths.

Know Who Makes Food Decisions
Your job as a parent is to decide what to offer and when and where to provide it. Your home is not a restaurant where your child can choose anything they want off of the menu, and you are definitely not a short order cook. At meals and snack times you can offer healthy foods for your kids to choose from and eat. Their job as kids is to decide if they are going to eat the food you’re offering. And how much. It’s that simple.

Turn off Distractions
Yes, this definitely means turning off the TV and checking your phones at the kitchen door.  If you’re distracted, they will be too.  Also, take check of how your kids are eating their meals.  We know you’re running back and forth from soccer practice to dance rehearsals, but try and make sure to get at least three family meals in a week, if not more.  It doesn’t have to be a Friday night or Sunday night event. 

Teach them Gratitude
This doesn’t mean you have to say Grace at the table, but you should take a moment to take a breath and say thank you for your food and everyone involved in growing, preparing and bringing the food to your plate before each meal. Expressing gratitude at mealtime reconnects us to our roots and the earth’s great ability to sustain and nourish us.

Serve Meals Family Style
Serve the food in the middle of the table, and allow them to serve themselves. This will enable them to become familiar with appropriate serving sizes and also empowers them to make their own choices.  Plus it’s less work for you!

Engage all 5 Senses
We want them to engage all five of their senses when eating foods.  Here is a mindfulness activity adapted from SMArt Kids Practice Mindful Eating.  Have them put one piece of food in their mouth and play scientist.

  1. Look – what colors and shapes do you see?
  2. Listen – does your food make a sound when you eat it?
  3. Touch – is it smooth, bumpy or rough?
  4. Smell – what does your food smell like?
  5. Taste – when the food is on your tongue, notice how it feels in your mouth. Do you taste anything yet? Start to chew, does the flavor change? How many different flavors are there and do you taste salty, sweet, sour, or bitterness?

Recognize a Full Belly
Assess hunger mid-meal to see if you are full, almost full, or ready to stop. You don’t have to finish your meal, ever. This is where you listen to your body and let it decide if you’ve had enough. Did you know it takes the brain approximately 20 minutes to know that you have had enough food?

Lastly, remember you are their teacher and role model.  Mindful eating is beneficial for everyone, not just kids. They are watching everything you do. When you sit down to eat and are fully present, with no electronics or other distractions, enjoying your food and eating a healthy, balanced meal, your kids will learn to follow your example.