Play With Your Food: Teaching Kids the Fun of Mindful Eating
David McPhee, Ph.D.
Does it bother you that fat kids are bullied or rejected every day and lead shorter, sicker lives than children of average weight? If you're a parent and want to help, you have to understand the problem first.
· Compulsive eating in children arises from too much wealth and a too little mindfulness.
Parents counsel and explain but don't model or moderation. We put kids on diets, but we don't teach them the joy of eating that can be found in paying attention. In our society only sommeliers and chefs savor and thoroughly describe what they are tasting and experiencing.
We also set up food as part of a reward system. "Eat your peas and you can have desert" teaches kids "Yes, peas are disagreeable and unpleasant, but to get you to eat them I will gratify you with food full of fats and sugars."
Why not attend to the pea? Create a story of its planting and growth, and how it was protected and nurtured by nature and farmer alike. Enjoy its shape and color. Play with your food a bit and see how many peas will balance on the blade of a table knife. Tell the story of the princess and the pea, or of Jack and his Beanstalk (close enough.) Don't teach that peas are ugly but necessary. Food should never be associated with reward or punishment.
I once counseled aides at an eldercare center to be sure to offer residents their glasses before eating so they could see the food clearly, then discuss the food admiringly to see what memories this might trigger. While they are learning to respect and delight in ordinary food, it's OK for kids to smell it carefully and even touch it gently, and experiment with various utensils and unexpected combinations.
Most childhood obesity comes from compulsive eating by kids who confuse food with love or at least relief, together with poor teaching and the abundance of cheap, concentrated food.
Is Letting a Kid Get Obese a Form of Child Abuse?
How do you feel when you look at this picture? Are you angry with the parents? Child Protective Services in Ohio recently removed a youngster from his parents just because he was enormously fat. They said letting a kid get so big was child abuse. Do you agree? Does it make you worry about your kids, or about yourself?
Parents want everything good for their children and love to see them learn and grow. Few parents really know how to teach their kids to eat with attention and joy, mostly because they don't know how themselves.
Nurturing and teaching are the key responsibilities of parenting, and they often go together. Nurturing means providing healthy food that promotes growth and well-being. It also means avoiding using food as a bribe or love-substitute, or withholding food as a punishment. Kids in supermarkets whine for candy. Parents say "If you're good, you can have one piece." Perhaps if they are extremely good, they can have the whole bag.
Goodness in a child's mind means only one thing: complying with the parental will, usually by being quiet and unobtrusive. If you are "good" you will receive highly concentrated simple and complex sugars and fats, which nature designed to feel good in the mouth and brain.
Later, if we are lonely or bored and want love from outside ourselves, our hearts remember to connect love and comfort with sugars and fats, so we watch reruns with a soda and a bag of chips.
Sadly, we don't really taste the Coke or the Doritos. The comfort they provide is primitive, oral, and can never be fully satisfied.
If only we could learn to savor a single chip. Turn off the TV. Hold the chip, notice its texture. Enjoy its colors and how it is translucent to bright light. Smell it slowly, becoming aware of the complexities there. Snap it in half and listen to the sound. Put the half on your tongue and notice again. But wait, the sensations are likely to shift. Slowly chew and then swallow, mentally following the chip all the way down. Describe the experience to yourself, and select words that might communicate the experience to others.
Sound silly? Maybe, but I remember a monk leading a group of students though an exercise like that as we held and touched and sniffed the big red apples he'd brought us. For nearly an hour. When he finally let us take a bite, it was apple ecstasy for me. I'll never forget that apple from 40 years ago.
Maybe you've taken wine tasking courses. They follow most of the steps I suggested for the potato chip, and they have certainly enhanced my appreciation. Sadly, I often go through the attention exercise only with the first sight and smell and and sip, then drink the rest of the glass mindlessly.
There are games parents can use to teach kids mindful eating, far better than lectures about "slow down and enjoy your food," but the best teaching is through example.
Dieting rarely works long term. It's about restricting and limiting ourselves temporarily, usually so we can be thinner and feel more attractive. It makes our favorite foods our enemy. When we've learned that food is a substitute for love, food-as-enemy is a recipe for craziness. Mindful eating can lead to moderate eating with great pleasure, and we can model it for our kids.
I published this article in an earlier version here in 2012. David McPhee, Ph.D.