Out of the Mouths of Babes
A Dozen Ways Children Teach Us to Eat Mindfully
Children are born with the ability to eat instinctively, fully tuned in to internal cues of hunger and fullness.
Parents are usually the main facilitators of life lessons for their children, but in some arenas it’s best to let the kids do the teaching. Their natural eating behaviors, for example, exemplify smart choices for us all. Here are some surprising rules of thumb:
Eat when you are hungry. From birth, babies know when and how much they need to eat and cry to let us know. As youngsters grow this vital instinct can be unlearned, so that by the time they are adults, most have learned to eat for other reasons besides hunger. By recognizing the difference between needing to eat and wanting to eat, adults can also relearn when and how much to eat.
Stop eating when you are full. Infants turn their head away when they have had enough to eat and toddlers throw food on the floor when they’re done. But as adults, we clean our plates because we were admonished as youngsters about starving children, feel a social obligation or something just tastes good.
Being hungry makes you grouchy. Being hungry, tired or frustrated makes a child crabby and affects adults in the same way. Take care of your mealtime needs instead of taking out your crankiness on those around you.
Snacks are good. Kids naturally prefer to eat smaller meals with snacks in-between whenever they get hungry. That pattern of eating keeps their metabolism stoked all day; adults’ too.
All foods fit. Children are born with a natural preference for sweet foods and quickly learn to enjoy fatty foods. Such fun comfort foods can be part of a healthy diet. In fact, studies show that overly restrictive food rules can cause children to feel guilty or ashamed and lead to rebellious eating. Everyone eats healthier when they learn to enjoy less nutritious foods in moderation without deprivation.
Be a picky eater. Kids won’t easily eat something they don’t like. Consider how much less you’d eat if you didn’t settle for food that only tastes so-so.
You can learn to like new foods. Healthy eating is an acquired taste, so provide a variety of appealing, healthful foods at the family table. If children observe us eating a variety of healthful foods, then they will learn to as well. It can take up to 10 different occasions of two-bite exposures to a new food, but kids often surprise themselves by liking something they never thought they would.
Make the most of your food. Eating is a total sensory experience for children as they examine, smell and touch each morsel. You’ll appreciate food aromas, appearance and flavors more if you aren’t driving, watching television, working on a computer, reading or standing over the sink.
Eating with your family is fun. Babies and toddlers naturally love eating with other people. Family mealtime is a golden opportunity to model good habits and conversational skills and connect with each other. With older children, play high-low around the dinner table where each family member takes a turn sharing the best and worst parts of their day.
There is more to a party than cake and ice cream. Invite children to a party and they’ll want to know what they are going to get to do; invite adults and they’ll wonder what food will be served. Instead of avoiding food-based get togethers, focus on the social aspects of the event.
Sleep is good. Children need a good night’s sleep to prepare for the adventures that tomorrow will bring. Everyone benefits from a consistent bedtime and good rest.
Live in the moment. Kids are masters at living in the present; they don’t waste a lot of energy worrying about what has already happened or what might happen tomorrow. They are fully engaged in small, enjoyable pursuits. Adults will do well to reconsider the true joys of life and we can learn a lot from children.
Michelle May is a medical doctor, founder of the Am I Hungry? mindful eating program ( ) and the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. Her mission is to help individuals break free from mindless and emotional eating to live a more vibrant, healthy life.