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7 ways to teach mindful eating to children

Francesca Abalasei
Written by

Francesca Abalasei

Medically reviewed by

Fiona Moncrieff

8 min read
Last updated May 2024

Jump to: Involve kids throughout | Encourage self-regulation | Use their sensesLimit distractions | Make meal times a time to spend with the family | Eat slowly | Be a role model | Take home message

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Here are 7 ways to teach children mindful eating:

  1. Involve kids throughout the cooking process
  2. Encourage self-regulation
  3. Use your senses
  4. Limit distractions
  5. Make meal times a time to spend with the family
  6. Eat slowly
  7. Be a role model

We’re all born intuitive eaters – we know how to use our senses when choosing the food we need.

We were born able to listen to our hunger and fullness cues to determine when we should start and stop eating. One way to preserve those instincts is mindful eating.

Mindful eating is a practice that helps us be more present while we eat – noticing thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. When we say ‘mindful eating’, we mean paying attention to what we’re eating in the moment.

This practice can help prevent children from over-indulging and emotional eating when they get older. Studies have also shown that children who get through this habit early on are less likely to become overweight when older.

The research is clear – when we’re distracted, stressed, emotional, or tired, we eat more. This is because paying attention to our fullness signals is harder when we’re focused on something else.

If you want more tools to build a healthy relationship for your children, head to our free resources here.

Why is it important?

Paying more attention to the food we’re eating can help us to:

  • Recognise feelings of hunger and fullness
  • Slow down when eating
  • Better digest food
  • And thoroughly enjoy our food

The whole family can benefit from learning to eat mindfully, especially as many of us are eating on autopilot due to busy schedules and family life.

So given that toddlers already have a natural skill to eat mindfully, it’s important to nurture that as they grow. Let’s look into how we can do that:

1) Involve kids throughout the cooking process

Give kids more responsibility for food so they can understand and appreciate it.

You can encourage their involvement throughout the process: meal planning, food shopping, prepping meals, cooking, and, if you’re lucky, clearing up!

This can make your child aware of the effort to prepare a healthy meal, increasing food appreciation and enjoyment.

So how about asking your children to get involved in small ways this week, such as asking them to:

  • Choose one recipe for a meal this week
  • Give them an item to find in the supermarket
  • Wash or chop fresh ingredients
  • Toss the salad
  • Sprinkle spices or cheese in a recipe
  • Stir the pan
  • Set the table

Children will look up to you as an example of how to behave around food in many ways. You can even end the meal by asking how they liked their food or how they would like to get involved more next time.

If your child goes to school, you can get them to prepare and pack their lunch box with you, which is a perfect opportunity to teach them more about balanced eating.

2) Encourage self-regulation

Self-regulation is when we understand and manage our behaviour and reactions to our circumstances.

An important part of self-regulation and mindful eating is tuning in with your hunger and fullness cues. Our Second Nature hunger scale is helpful for this and can be used by all ages.

Try to assess your hunger and fullness cues openly and honestly with your children, which can help them to do the same and to pay attention to how they feel when eating.

Below is an image of the hunger scale.

Aim to be between 3 and 6 on the scale most often. If you feel below a 3, a snack can help keep you going.

If you are around a 4, perhaps some water can tide you over til your next meal, if not too far off. If you are regularly above 7, consider reassessing your portion sizes.

If your child says they’re hungry, ask them to rate their hunger level using this scale. You can do this throughout the meal and bring the mealtime to a close when they are comfortably full, at about a level 6 on the scale.

However, children may find it tricky to place themselves on the scale, so it can help to ask how they are feeling. For example:

  • 1 on the scale: Feeling dizzy or unwell.
  • 2 on the scale: Feeling irritable (“hangry”), stomach feeling empty and rumbling a lot
  • 3 on the scale – Low energy, trouble focusing, stomach rumbling
  • 4 on the scale – Excited to eat
  • 5 on the scale – Neutral
  • 6 on the scale – Comfortable and light
  • 7 on the scale – A little too full
  • 8 on the scale – Belly is feeling heavy
  • 9 on the scale – Stuffed and uncomfortable
  • 10 on the scale – Feeling sick

This helps children to be more aware of how they feel, paying attention to the present moment. This way, they can mindfully manage their mealtimes themselves.

This can help avoid over-eating or eating out of emotions such as boredom, tiredness, or frustration.

3) Use their senses

When kids are aware of the sensory pleasures of food, they’re more likely to feel satisfied.

Try a fun activity around using the senses at mealtimes:

  • Sight – how does the food look? It’s colour, shape, size etc.
  • Touch – how does it feel in the hands? Soft, smooth, firm, crumbly? Hard, rough, squishy? Note the textures.
  • Smell – how do these smells make you feel? Smell the food and think about its flavours and aromas
  • Sound – does it make any sounds when you pick it up?
  • Taste – what is the first thing you taste? Is it salty, sour, or sweet? How many different flavours can you taste?

Taste the food by chewing slowly, at least 20 times. Whilst chewing, bring in other senses – can you still smell it? How does it feel in the mouth? Can you hear it too? What if you close your eyes? Does anything change?

Considering these questions will help them to connect to their food and appreciate it through all their senses.

4) Limit distractions

To help with mindful eating, try to remove distractions to our senses to create a positive eating environment.

This can be done by eating with the TV off or not allowing phones, tablets, or toys at the dinner table.

You can also model these habits by putting your phone away when sitting at the table or keeping your phone in your pocket whilst cooking. This can help children to avoid eating too quickly too.

5) Make meal times a time to spend with the family

Sitting together as a family at meal times can have considerable benefits to a child’s eating experience, so try timing your meals and snacks so that you eat at the same time as your child.

This can make them feel safe around food, enjoy eating in familiar company, and positively associate food with bonding. This is another opportunity to model mindful eating behaviours your child can pick up from you.

To make the meal enjoyable, think about certain conversations you can have at the dinner table relating to the mindful eating experience.

This could be sharing gratitude about the food processor you did together to create positive feelings around eating and cooking.

You could also ask thought-provoking questions such as:

  • ‘What is your favourite part of this meal?’
  • ‘Does it remind you of anything?’
  • Or ‘how does this food make you feel?’

Eating as a family can also save you time with having to prepare two mealtimes, one for you and one for your child. To help with this, check out our family-friendly recipes here.

6) Eat slowly

Eating slowly helps digestion, metabolism, and nutrient absorption. This is also key for portion control. It allows you to taste your food and enjoy it.

Some ideas to help eat slowly as a family could be:

  1. Use counting games to get kids to chew more
  2. Pause every few minutes and re-focus on this article’s food and mindful eating tips.
  3. Setting a time frame for eating. This way, your children know this is a set time at the table they can take their time with without rushing their food to go and play, check their phones, or watch TV.
  4. As a family, put your forks or spoons down between each bite for 20 seconds and chew every bite about 20 times. Try to eat this way for 20 minutes. This 20:20:20 strategy can help you tune in with your fullness cues and taste food more.

7) Be a role model

All in all, this article highlights how your actions and attitudes around food matter as a parent. Applying mindful eating principles can help reduce the likelihood of emotional, mindless, disordered or overeating for all the family members.

However, we know that the above is not always possible. It’s important not to aim for perfection.

One small step is to try one of the above exercises at the weekend. Depending on what works you can slowly add them to more meals throughout the week.

This can maximise your children’s mindfulness and relationship with food for a more enjoyable and healthy environment for you and your family.

If you are struggling with your own relationship with food and want to break free from negative thinking patterns, such as seeing food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or emotional eating check out our programme here.

We can help you incorporate mindful eating into your habits so that you can see food as nourishment.

Take home message

Mindful eating is a form of mindfulness about being more aware of what, when and how you eat.

Although mindful eating might be a new concept to you, children are born with an innate awareness of food which can be helpful to encourage them as they grow up.

Mindful eating can benefit the whole family because it encourages healthy relationships with food and teaches us to feel satisfied without overeating.

Involving kids in cooking, food shopping, and meal planning helps us to enjoy and appreciate food together.

When you sit down together for a meal, encourage your kids to talk about their eating. Discuss the colour, taste, smell, and texture of food. The more creative you are with your observations, the more they will start noticing and observing their food.

Your mindful eating principles will support your efforts in teaching this skill to your children.

Remember, it’s important to stay flexible. Be kind to yourself and your child if mindful eating isn’t always possible or goes to plan.

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