Most parents can align on one thing: They want their kids to eat well and enjoy their food. That means a healthy relationship with food: listening to hunger and satiety cues, learning to accept and love different foods, and eating for enjoyment—not just fuel.
Unfortunately, everything from friends at the table to frustrating conversations about homework can get in the way. And though very young children are intuitive eaters, things change when kids hit preschool age. “Kids start to eat for external reasons, such as boredom or because their friends are eating,” says Lesley Langille, lead counseling dietitian at The Centre for Family Nutrition in Calgary. “We see these patterns continue as kids turn to teens with more emotional eating.”
That’s where mindful eating comes in—and it can be a game changer.
“Mindful eating is the act of paying attention to the food you eat, during each moment of eating it, and without any judgment,” says Amy Gorin, an inclusive plant-based dietitian in Stamford, Connecticut, and owner of Plant Based With Amy. “It emphasizes the awareness of your senses in relation to the food you are eating.”
Kids who eat mindfully are basically paying more attention to what they’re putting in their mouths. That means they’ll be more in touch with how food makes them feel and take more pleasure in their meals, Langille says. That leads to a healthier relationship with food, she adds, helping them make better choices overall, including being less likely to overeat.
Mindful eating can also help out those picky eaters. Dietician Edwena Kennedy, owner of My Little Eater, says that focusing on the experience of eating helps choosy children be more in tune with the smell, feel, look, and taste of food. “That process of familiarizing yourself with a food on a more sensory and meaningful level—over time—is what takes away the anxiety and ‘newness’ of a food,” she says.
And growing brains will appreciate the nutritional TLC. Childhood is a critical time for brain growth and development, and rapidly growing brains need a wide variety of nutrients—about 45, actually. Children’s gut health, which can impact everything from their immune system to their mental health, also depends on a rich and varied diet.
To lay the groundwork for a lifetime of happy and healthy eating, try these techniques to teach your kids to become mindful eaters.
Pose a lot of questions
Getting kids to eat mindfully involves having them use their senses and really take note of what they’re eating. To encourage this, Kennedy says to ask your child what their observations are about the food around them. “For example, you can ask ‘What color is the broccoli?’ or ‘What does the mango feel like to you ... slippery or bumpy?’” she says.
She adds that modeling your own observations helps as well: “‘Mine feels super slippery ... reminds me of a bar of soap!’ or ‘This sauce tastes tangy to me.’” You could even make a “wrong” observation so resistant kids can correct you. “You can say ‘I wonder if these blueberries are salty or sweet ... I think salty!’” Kennedy says.
Remember: The goal here is not to pressure kids to eat, but to help them discover how to describe food and even how food makes them feel. So instead of accepting a “yuck” from kids, help them describe what makes it yucky. (Too crunchy? Too wet? Too green?) “This helps kids learn what they like and don’t like about different foods,” Langille says. “For example, my cautious eater finds the peel of some apples ‘squeaky.’”
Excite their eyes
Kids will pay more attention to food that’s presented in a special way instead of simply thrown on a plate—and you don’t need to make perfect little art projects out of every meal. (Although if that floats your boat, go for it.)
“It's simple changes that look new and appealing to kids,” Langille says. “For example, serve your usual meal in a muffin tin, or put some food in a colorful silicone muffin liner and set that on a plate.”
Fun-shaped veggies and fruit made with cookie cutters can excite kids, too. Or, try building things like a tower of cucumber slices to engage their eyes as well as their fingers. Letting them play with their food—a little—can bring new experiences to mealtime.
Create a distraction-free table
Devices and toys at the table can distract kids from their hunger cues, as well as the tastes and flavors of food. That can cause them to mindlessly shove their meals into their mouths, which puts them at risk for over- or under eating, Kennedy says.
Granted, this can be hard for parents to implement. Kennedy recommends a positive spin so it doesn’t feel like punishment. “Tell your child that this is their time to tell you all about what they did in school today and they have your full attention,” she says.
Without distractions, kids will be better able to tune into their fullness levels. “Trusting that they know their body best and teaching them that they know their body best, without outside influence, is the key to raising a mindful, intuitive, and healthy eater,” Kennedy says.
Set a serene scene
To help encourage mindful eating, Langille says kids should enjoy coming to the table. And sometimes it just takes a bit of a zhuzh to make it happen.
“Whether it’s music or dinnertime candles, setting a fun environment helps take the pressure off consuming the food and focuses the attention on the enjoyment that food and mealtimes can bring,” she says. If you choose music, Gorin notes that calming music (like classical) can help set a mindful mood.
Get them involved in the prep
Whenever you can, enlist your little ones to lend a hand in meal prep and cooking, even if they’re barely old enough to see over the counter. “Getting kids involved helps them learn where food comes from and important kitchen skills,” Langille says. “But it also helps builds their confidence in liking and accepting new foods.”
Langille suggests things like unpacking the groceries, peeling the stickers off veggies, or picking a recipe from a cookbook. You can even make meal prep a little educational. “Practice measuring out ingredients, and talk about the science of how ingredients interact together—baking is, after all, a science!” Gorin says.
All this positive interaction in the kitchen exposes children to foods in a new, enjoyable way. Says Kennedy: “The number of times parents tell me that their kids will eat the same foods they prep in the kitchen that they used to refuse at the table is insane.”