Thinking About Eating: A mindful family meal has many benefits.

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Being a parent and trying to squeeze in time to teach your kids how to eat well is a real challenge. With both parents often working outside of the home, not by choice but because they have to, we all feel stretched too thin.

Putting together a home-cooked, balanced meal, especially during the week, seems as likely as the kids replacing the toilet paper roll. We need to accept that we are doing the best we can. A little self-compassion here is really important.

So instead of setting unrealistic expectations for yourself, the goal here is “good enough” eating. Mindful eating—eating with awareness rather than on autopilot — offers an opportunity to learn skills that are helpful in other parts of our lives and our kids’ lives: self-awareness, self-compassion and self-regulation.

These values are well worth incorporating into your family’s life, but it’s imperative that you take it slow, and know it’s not about perfection. The main thrust of mindful eating is to be present, pausing to appreciate the food.

You might have noticed that when you really pay attention to your food, the experience is richer and more satisfying. When you recognize how hungry you are, and how full you are becoming, you are able to stop at the perfect point. You don’t go past satisfaction, and your body feels better and more energized, not logy and stuffed. Bodies don’t like feeling stuffed.

One of the beautiful things about mindful eating with families is that we can always start over. In this way, we are teaching our kids about perseverance. We’ll do better next time. We can wolf down our cereal, then drink our juice calmly, tasting and savoring the flavors. I’ll bet even the Dalai Lama occasionally reads the paper while he drinks his tea. We will always have another opportunity: an important life lesson.

Here are some kid-friendly suggestions to incorporate mindful eating into your family’s life.

Teach your kids to rate their hunger on a scale of 1 to 10. Be dramatic, even silly. “1” is famished. “10” is “can’t move/Thanksgiving full.” In our family, we even add decimals to make it more interesting. My son may say, “I’m a 4.2,” and I know it’s time to start the grill. You don’t want anyone getting to “3” because they’ll be too hungry to eat slowly and appreciate the meal. Ideally, staying between 4 and 7 is ideal. Being too hungry is a setup for eating convenient, processed food in a fast and furious way. There are many hunger scales online; just do a Google search. Or ask your kids to make their own. The hunger scale has been incredibly helpful in teaching my clients to eat mindfully. (If you email me at [email protected], I will send you the one I use.)

Make mealtime relaxed and pleasant. Anxiety impairs indigestion. The body shuts down all non-vital operations when we are in fight-or-flight. This means that we can have the healthiest food on our plate, but if we eat it in an atmosphere of distress, we do not absorb the nutrients properly. Mealtime is not the time to bring up annoying politics at the office or to discipline the kids. Make it a safe haven.

Take a few deep breaths before starting to eat. This signals to the body that all is well. Breathing into the abdomen can help us any time and is a great way to teach kids how to reduce anxiety. Show them how to put their hand on their belly and expand it like a balloon. Or you can have them lie down and put a stuffed animal on their bellies. Show them how to make it go up and down. This is my go-to for anxiety reduction, and you can do it anywhere.

Turn off screens. Eating with the distraction of screens increases food intake by 40 percent. We cannot catch up on emails and recognize our internal cues of fullness at the same time. So make mealtimes special, and separate them from the demands of the outside world.

Teach your kids that everyone experiences hunger differently. Some people get headachy, some have stomach rumbles and some get lightheaded. It’s important that they can learn to tune into their individual hunger signals. Then they can also learn to recognize satisfaction/fullness signals.

Bring in the gratitude. I get mocked for this by my teen, but I do it anyway. Look at your plate and think about all the people it took to bring these foods to you. Wonder aloud about where it’s grown (“Does pineapple grow in Syracuse?”) Think about the service people, truck drivers, stock people, even label designers that were involved in bringing the food to you. And then offer thanks, or “grace” as it is called in some circles. Gratitude is the highest attitude correlated to happiness. Even if you sneak this in once in a while, you will see a big return on your investment. When my son was a preschooler, he embarrassed me in the produce aisle at Wegmans, loudly exclaiming, “Aren’t we lucky to have such beautiful food to eat!”

No diet talk. As a psychotherapist specializing in eating and food issues, I can tell you how harmful diet talk is for kids. It’s easy to say, “I shouldn’t have this last piece of bread” given the rampant weight-loss messages we are exposed to. But if we express dissatisfaction with our bodies, this gives the message that hating our thighs, hips or stomachs is a normal thing. Diet talk takes the focus away from the gifts and talents our kids have to offer.

Not only does dieting almost always fail, but it leaves behind shaken confidence and feelings of shame. Focus instead on what your child does or what qualities you admire about her, rather than how cute she looks in her jeans.

Get creative. Your family has its own style and sense of humor. Try to incorporate this into family snacks and meals. It doesn’t have to be perfect. One of my favorite mindfulness exercises is to savor my very first sip of coffee. I make a big deal about how delicious it is. The second sip pales in comparison. My son rolls his eyes, but kids do notice what their parents do. Even if you have to go through the drive-through, you can eat those fries with attention and appreciation. Slow down. It’s a whole different experience.

Your family’s mindful eating practice will evolve and change as your kids grow. You will see what works best for your family. Be playful and patient. There’s no way to do it wrong.

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