If you’re like most parents, when you realize that your child has achieved an unhealthy weight, you look to make sweeping changes to their diet. You rush to create rules about foods — no sugar, no sweets, no processed foods, no sodas, fewer juices, no chips — with the purest and best intentions not thinking about the effects of going cold turkey may have on your child. And in that moment of your clarity, without knowing it, you have taken the pleasure of eating from your children and you have made the healthy foods you aim to introduce the focal point of a rebellion.
Start Slow and Introduce Mindfulness
Mindfulness is described as paying attention on purpose and being in the present moment with acceptance. This approach can help you work together with your child to curb obesity and create a new, healthier relationship with the foods that they eat. This goes hand-in-hand with research in the journal Heliyon which suggests that mindfulness could be used as a therapeutic technique to foster awareness that could encourage healthy eating and weight loss in children.
“Adults, and especially children, are primed towards eating more,” said senior author Kevin Niswender, M.D., Ph.D., in an interview with Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “This is great from an evolutionary perspective … but in today’s world, full of readily available, highly advertised, energy dense foods, it is putting children at risk of obesity.”
With childhood obesity numbers doubled in youths and quadrupled with adolescents, how do we help our children express mindfulness when eating?
- Accept that our children’s eating habits are just that — habits. Our children didn’t become overweight or obese overnight. It took years of poor eating habits. Reversing those habits won’t come in one day, one week, or one month. It’s going to take a commitment from you and your child to making good food choices daily.
- Don’t focus on the negative. Use positive reinforcement to create change. Saying things like, “You’ve been eating the wrong way” or “We’re not going to be junking out anymore,“ will cause the child, who may already have self-acceptance issues, to further feel rejected. Instead, say things like, “We’re going to cut back on eating potato chips and try out these delicious veggie chips. Have you ever had them before?” By making the experience positive, you’ll get a less hesitant buy-in.
- Structure mealtimes. Help your child see that grazing on snacks sets them up for making unhealthy choices. Instead, set mealtimes and snack times and allow your child to help you cook or prep. This gives you the chance to teach about food labels, portion and serving sizes, nutritional value, and the importance of eating well-balanced meals as opposed to snacking throughout the day.
- Don’t force feed. Some parents inadvertently have encouraged obesity by instituting the longstanding rule of having to finish all of your food. Allow your child to decide when they are full. If your child has a problem with overeating, use smaller plates and portion sizes.
- Chew slowly. Encourage your children to chew their food slowly — 20 to 30 times — before swallowing. Studies show that chewing slowly helps with digestion, nutrient intake, and weight loss.
- Turn off TVs and devices. Meal times should be distraction-free zones. Use this time to talk about what’s on your plates, how your child likes it, to encourage them to try new foods, and to discuss what’s healthy in the meal and how it helps the body.
- Get them involved in the shopping. Pull out your circulars and show your child how to pair foods and create balanced meals that are healthy and nutrient-rich. Encourage them to choose one or two new foods that they want to try out each shopping trip. Then take them to the grocery store and let them place the foods into the cart to complete the experience. You can also take your child to the local farmers’ market and show them how to choose produce, or start your own garden and teach them the benefits of growing their own foods.
- Be the change. It’s easy to tell kids to change their diets. It’s better to show them. Join them on the journey and they’re more likely to shed their reluctance. Show them the unhealthy foods that you love that you’re willing to eliminate from your diet.
- Food is not a reward. Every parent has dangled the food reward in the eyes of their child for finishing meals, earning good grades, or as behavior modifications or incentives. “If you eat your vegies, I’ll give you a snack.” In the mind of your child, this causes your child to attach pain to healthy foods and pleasure to unhealthy foods. In order to avoid that association, set a goal for their eating (i.e. trying five new healthy foods in a month) and then reward consistent progress with a fun activity like going to see a movie, buying a toy they’ve wanted, or a game they’re excited about. Make the transition from unhealthy to healthy eating as fun as possible.
- Keep it simple, and don’t worry. It’s going to take time for your child to embrace healthy eating. Don’t make too many rules and if they don’t like something, relax. Ask them why they don’t like it and encourage them to seek out a healthy substitute that they may enjoy. This creates more mindfulness in the child. They learn that they have control over the foods they eat and that there are healthy alternatives to the one’s they don’t like.