We hear a lot about slowing down and being more mindful in the adult world. We want to be more mindful of our thoughts, our senses, of the food we eat and how it affects our bodies. It’s quite funny to me because mindfulness is one of those concepts that we are actually innately born with, unlearn and then have to re-teach ourselves in the adult years. You see, babies and young toddlers are actually the most mindful of us all. If you observe young babies, you see how connected they are to their senses and the experiences around them. They look, smell, touch and taste food before they eat it. They take their time. They eat when they’re hungry and only when they’re hungry…and it’s easy for them to stop when they’re full. They fully enjoy an experience or are quite aware when something doesn’t bring them joy and avoid it. Toddlers are even quick to make comments about how they experience and enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a food! It may not be exactly how we think mindfulness should be…but you better believe it’s mindfulness still, no doubt!
And then somewhere along the way, we lose these skills. Some may think this happens naturally, but I rather think we unteach mindfulness to our toddlers and preschoolers. Unintentionally of course, but nonetheless, sometimes our (and society’s) lack of mindfulness around food is bound to have an effect on them.
So how do we reverse this?
Well, a big part of it starts with awareness of our own actions, but there is a lot you can do to teach, or rather preserve, mindful eating practices starting right at toddlerhood and beyond.
Have a designated meal time…at the table
Let’s start with the golden theory of feeding…the division of responsibility. As you may have heard me preach many times, we decide what food to serve, when to serve it, and a part that many people tend to forget…we decide where to serve it.
Ideally, this really means sitting down at a table. Does it have to be every single time? Well…no. I’m not going to pretend that we don’t eat meals around the kitchen island or in the living room sometimes, but the key is keeping it the exception, not the norm. Aim for once a day at least and start to make it a habit.
During meal (and yes… snack time), it’s important to take a break from other activities and designate a specific and sacred time for eating and nourishing and connecting. I know we don’t often think of meals this way…but here you are…step #1 to start working on for many of us. If we teach our kids that meals and snacks are eaten with at least one another family member, sitting down, with our full attention drawn to the “event” that is mealtime, we start instilling a new idea about food. It’s not something that mom or dad shoves down our throats when we’re not looking, or eaten in sporadic bites here and there as we play with toys. It’s really a communal time for bonding (and of course, nourishment) and yes, even enjoyment. It deserves our full attention. Which brings me my next point.
Avoid distractions at the table
This means no TV, phones, tablets, or toys…and no deliberate distractions from us that’s intended to have them eat differently from how they already are.
Distraction-free eating allows kids to learn to focus on what’s in front of them and what they’re experiencing vs. mindlessly eating too much, too fast, too little or eating without noticing at all. Ever seen a child leave the table, only to come back 15 minutes later claiming they’re hungry? Or ever see a parent shovel food into their child’s mouth when they weren’t paying attention, risking overeating and a failed learning experience where tasting actually occurred? Think about most adults even. What happens when you place a bag of potato chips in front of you while watching TV? How much were you actually aware of eating…and don’t you feel surprised when your hand hits the bottom of the bag and you realize you ate it all?
It’s best to let toddlers and preschoolers eat as much as they want. Going back to the division of responsibility, while parents choose what, when and where food is served…children should have all the control in determining if they want to eat and how much they want to eat. Although sometimes it seems worrisome or confusing seeing how little or a lot a toddler may eat meal to meal, day to day, trusting that they know their body best and teaching them that they know their body best is the key to raising a mindful, intuitive and healthy eater. Using distraction methods like the tv, iPad, or playing games with the intention of sneaking bites in is best avoided.
Besides letting them determine the quantity of food eaten with no influence from us, you can help babies and toddlers direct all awareness to the feeding experience by giving them utensils and/or let them eat on their own with their hands (don’t stress about the mess or manners…those will get better with time). Allow them to have full control of the experience, be conscious of every move they make picking up a piece of food and bringing it to their mouth. Let them control the pace of the meal, the speed at which they eat and chew. If they need to be slowed down, the utensils help here. If they are used to eating too fast, try and eliminate the distractions and focus on conversation.
Talk about, explore, and observe what they are eating
When eating, it’s a great practice on so many fronts to encourage your child to talk about the foods they’re eating. What colour is it? What shape? Does it feel squishy in their hands? What about when they bite it with their teeth? Does it smell like anything familiar? How long can the flavour last in their mouth? The more you can get creative with your questions and observations, the better you become at noticing and observing all aspects of a food. And when that happens, you better believe you will not only start reversing picky eating but you will also come to appreciate and savour the food in front of you.
Practice making observations yourself and savouring the crispness of the salad, the rich tomatoey flavour of the pasta sauce, the chewiness of the meat. Take a piece of spinach or a tomato off your plate and be fully and completely aware of its taste and texture. Put your fork down, close your eyes even, and chew. Then make your comments out loud. Your toddler will totally see what you’re doing, learn and may even mimic you by doing the same with a food of their choice. Sometimes there will be a response, sometimes not. No worries. You just start the tradition of savoring.
And there’s no right or wrong here. As much as we don’t want to hear “it’s yucky”, it’s good to practice non-judgmental observations and accept what you and your toddler notice and think about the food. It’s good to practice simply listening to your child’s comments instead of rushing in to offer an immediate response. When your child refuses to eat something, ask them why. When they know it’s totally fine that they don’t like something and fully trust that you won’t make them eat it, they can start learning to think about “what was it that I actually didn’t like about this?” Help them figure out…was it taste, smell, texture, or temperature?
Believe it or not, this is actually one of the many expert strategies I teach in my Feeding Toddlers online course that helps overcome picky eating too! There’s a whole lesson on food exploration and things you can say and ask to entice your toddler to really get to know their food on a more nitty gritty level, familiarize themselves with the unknown, and overcome their phobia of certain foods!
Talk about how their bellies feel
I also recommend talking to them about how their bellies feel. When your toddler is in tune with their belly feels before and after a meal, they can start to understand what “hunger” and “full” really mean, recognize it in the future and respond accordingly. This helps teach your toddler how to regulate their intake and avoid over, under or emotional eating. Many times, kids are given snacks on demand and they confuse the feeling of being bored or tired with “hunger”. They may ask for a snack because it’s there or want to feel better or its an especially appealing snack…and if they aren’t throwing a tantrum to get one…they may use the term “hungry” to get one. We give in and offer them food outside of set meals and snack times and in turn, they never really learn what the feeling of hunger truly is since they’re bellies are always semi-full! This also means they don’t finish their meals at mealtimes because it’s…well…sort of but not full…and they know they can ask for a snack 30 minutes later and get one when they realize there is still room.
So instead of going through all this, or even automatically asking them to finish two more bites of food before they can end a meal, remind them that the next eating opportunity isn’t for a while so they need to check in with their tummy and see if they need to fit anymore bites in. Is it full? Does it feel like they can’t fit anymore? How many bites do they think they need to feel full? Try a bite or two and then reassess. Young kids really can do all this…we just need to give them the chance! Over time, they will remember what they learned previously about their feelings about hunger (left the table too early or had to wait for snack time to eat) and fullness (ate too much or ate when wasn’t actually hungry)…and will start to regulate their appetites for meals and snacks better!
Avoid rewarding behaviour with food
“You can have dessert only if you eat your vegetables.”
This implies that your child has to eat something “gross” (because clearly, we’re positioning this as something you have to suffer through) to get to that delicious, joyous food (that is clearly positioned as a reward, or “the good stuff”). It also shows them that “being” good is rewarded with sweets or desserts, so that as they get older, any time they feel like they deserve something at the end of the day…they will go for food as their reward.
Rewarding behaviour with food also teaches kids to override their feelings of fullness just to get to the dessert at the end. Rather than tuning in with their body to determine if they’ve eaten enough for their body at that time, this can teach them to eat past the point of fullness just to get the dessert at the end.
It’s much better to offer dessert occasionally regardless of behaviour and even offer it as part of a meal vs. after a meal to help create a truly intuitive and mindful eating experience. There will be no rushing through a meal or wanting to end it early so they can skip to the dessert. They also can fully choose to eat what they feel is satisfying to them, in the order they want, and in the quantity they want. Often times you’ll find only a bite is taken from a dessert when it’s offered with the meal because your toddler actually chose to go for the chicken or the pasta or whatever other food is on the plate instead! Seriously! I know it’s hard to believe (and this is for sure a blog post to expand on for another day), but when you take away the power of desserts, it becomes easier for your toddler to eat mindfully vs. scarfing down a dessert because we’ve built it up in their heads as something that is “better than”.
Just remember…they are always watching and learning from us! Over time, when they see you practicing and teaching these things meal after meal, day after day…this will all become second nature!
For more in-depth tips, tricks, theories and and step-by-step strategies for how to raise healthy eaters, manage sweets and turn picky eating around, be sure to check out the Feeding Toddler online course!