By Casey Seidenberg
My children have consumed more candy this summer than I care to admit. There is a little shop near the beach we visit that sells candy and ice cream. My boys used their babysitting money to secure the brightly colored spoils I never buy, and man did they have at it. I watched, horrified; yet I allowed it to happen knowing it was just a few weeks of the year and trusting they would be disappointed when their money ran out and they had nothing to show for it. I simultaneously made dentist appointments.
I also declared that once home we’d embrace the healthful habits that were so easily forgotten over the summer. I know I am not the only parent who, post-vacation, vows to get their kids to bed earlier, promises to curb screen time or pledges to cut down on ice cream. So, like many of you, we are about to embark on a back-to-school reboot.
As part of our reboot I intend to teach my kids about mindful eating. Nothing too “adult” that will squander their attention or too “out there” that will trigger eye-rolling, but rather simple reminders to actually taste, chew and enjoy the food they are consuming.
Observing them shovel candy this summer made me think about how many people eat food without actually enjoying it. When I asked my boys whether they tasted that pack of Skittles they just inhaled, they quickly said, “Of course we did, Mom.”
So I decided to conduct an experiment. I bought a pack of Skittles (a first!) and asked them to inhale a few pieces the way they normally do. Then I asked them to take an individual Skittle, smell it and chew it slowly, tasting every flavor of every bite. They were amazed at the difference in their enjoyment. Of course, I would have preferred to conduct this experiment with strawberries, but I figured the candy lesson would more effectively imprint in their minds.
While chatting about mindful eating, the boys realized that the anticipation of food is almost as exciting to them as actually eating it. They actively awaited that afternoon jaunt to the candy store and the thrill of picking out the day’s purchase.
We all know this feeling. It is similar to the anticipation of a vacation that can be as much fun as the trip itself. Think about how much more joy we would get out of life if we savored these anticipatory moments instead of letting them zip by. For instance, if we could just pause for a moment before eating and pay attention to whatever deliciousness is in front of us, we might feel more satisfied.
According to Pavel G. Somov’s “Eating the Moment,” we eat for three main reasons:
1. Physical hunger: a true need to sustain the body.
2. Psychological hunger: “the need to be entertained, comforted, or distracted.”
3. Habit: both the concept that we eat at certain times regardless of hunger, and the response to “certain environmental stimuli that have been repeatedly linked with the act of eating” such as TV commercials that trigger us to eat.
Mindless eating, such as eating for entertainment or distraction or to fulfill cravings, is a known contributor to obesity. When people eat too quickly and do not chew, or eat when they aren’t truly hungry, their satiety markers are blocked and they overeat. My children are not obese, but I want to introduce positive eating habits now that will lead them into a healthy adulthood.
What does mindful eating look like for children? It is the simple things:
• Take a moment before eating to say thanks for the food or to take a breath.
• Ask your children how hungry they are before a meal so they begin to develop an awareness of true hunger vs. habitual or emotional eating.
• Allow children to serve themselves so they learn to regulate their portions.
• Eat without distraction, which means not in front of the TV or computer, or in the car. If the mind is distracted during eating, critical signs signaling satiety might not reach the brain.
• Ask your children how their food tastes, reminding them to taste and enjoy it.
• Encourage your children to thoroughly chew their food, as chewing contributes to satiety, which can prevent overeating.
• Teach children to put their fork down between bites so they eat more slowly, allowing their bodies to feel full.
• Allow enough time to eat so the meal is not rushed.
• Children should eat with caring adults in a happy setting. Parents, try not to nag about vegetables, criticize your child for the amount of food they are eating or lecture about something negative during dinner.
I loved this quote from the Center for Mindful Eating Web site: “Mindful eating has an intent that at the end of the meal the person will feel physically better AFTER eating than before.” How many times do we adults feel worse after overeating or consuming items that are not good for us? Let’s help our kids learn that food influences how we feel.
I never thought I’d be happy that summer is winding down, but as I see my boys frowning at their empty piggy banks (seems that candy costs more than they thought) and falling into bed with a book at a reasonable hour, I wonder if there isn’t something to getting back to school. Routine and rules are certainly meant to be broken, but they sure feel good when in place again.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, August 21, 2014.