You may give them your love but not your thoughts
For they have their own thoughts
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet – On Children
In the delightful 2014 film, Chef, there’s a scene in which a parent, Carl (the Chef in this story),is walking through an open market with his precocious 10 year old son, Percy. This bright young boy asks for kettle corn. Carl is a bit distracted with picking just the right produce to create an impressive dinner for an important food critic expected at his restaurant that very evening, but still tries introduce Percy to a better choice of snack. Dad picks up an orange and extols the beauty and freshness of the fruit. In the next frame, we see Carl and Percy walking out of the market with a bag of kettle corn.
Of course, you saw that coming. (By the way, although Chef is a terrific film about family and food, it also features colorful language – so it’s family-friendly viewing if your kids are teenage and older!)
Mindful Eating events and programs are springing up around the country, mainly catering to (no pun intended) adults, who sense the need to slow down, appreciate life’s simple gifts, and become an active part of the change towards a healthier, more sustainable world. Indeed, Mindful Eating has gained great traction through the efforts of nonprofits focused on social justice, local and organic food movements, and spiritual well being.
While Mindful Eating may call to you as an adult, is it possible to bring the benefits of this beautiful practice to your children. Mindful Eating is a cultivated practice, not one built on natural tendencies. Yet, if we look back at our own past, into customs of one or two generations back in our own family histories, most of us can recollect times of Mindful Eating, that featured true enjoyment of preparing food and eating together, sharing stories, and deep love.
Nature and nurture can actually work against Mindful Eating. When we are hungry, we eat to refuel our energy, as most humans have done all over the world for millennia. In our modern world, some of the food we eat carries meaning, based on our learned associations.
Mindful Eating gives both you and your children important life values, and can be successfully integrated into your lifestyle in ways that can be transformative in your lives and for future generations.
How exactly? Take the SAGE approach:
Mindful Eating programs often teach adults to put down their forks between mouthfuls to really feel and taste the food they’re eating. Children already know what they taste and feel and make their comments known at the table – not always sounding the way we think “Mindfulness” should sound, but mindful nonetheless!
Your children’s reactions to the food on their plate offer you an opportunity to practice Mindfulness and Mindful Eating. It starts with non-judgment. Learn to simply hear their comments without offering an immediate response. Instead turn your attention to your own plate. Pull off a leaf of the infamous Brussels sprout or unloved spinach from your plate. Just one leaf. Be fully aware of its taste and texture. Put down your fork and chew. Your children see what you are doing, even if they say nothing but “ewww!” Mindfulness is a practice free of the need for immediate results. Just enjoy. They are watching. Enjoy meal after meal, day after day; over time they will enjoy, too.
The same idea holds true if their reactions are positive, but these situations offer an opportunity to share your savoring of the crispness of the salad, the rich tomatoey-ness of the pasta. Sometimes there will be a response, sometimes not. No worries. You have started a tradition of savoring.
This is a part of Mindful Eating that doesn’t involves tasting or chewing, but is nonetheless equally important. In generations past, children learned from an early age the arts of preparing meals. Your younger children are probably quite eager to help wash and prepare vegetables, mix ingredients and stir pots with careful supervision. Teens and preteens can be great helpers in more complex tasks of mincing ingredients, spreading layers of a lasagna or casserole and with proper tools and protection, taking food out of an oven or off a grill. All of these tasks are important life skills to teach your kids. Montessori preschools teach cutting fruit and vegetables to build fine motor skills and life skills,
Food preparation can also teach mindfulness. The colors, textures and aromas of food change as we process our food, whether by cutting, mixing or cooking. Slow down enough to experience with your child the changes that take place as you prepare each part of your meal. Even the busiest families, who often order meals can have opportunities for Active Contribution: once or twice a month you can bake bread or make yogurt from scratch – both easy, fun ways to contribute to the family’s food, while learning scientific concepts.
The sense of gratitude for the food we eat has come a long way from simply saying Grace before meals. Farm to table dining, agro-tourism and even the trips to the local farmers’ market build true appreciation for the great effort that goes into getting the food that nourishes our bodies and spirits.
Other opportunities abound for building your children’s sense of gratitude. If you have a yard or even a patio, work with your child to grow something to eat. Just growing your own culinary herbs indoors from seeds is an amazing experience for kids – and makes a surprising difference in your food budget and quality!
Children enjoys outings to go fruit or berry picking; if a local farm offers this activity be sure to make it a priority for a weekend day trip. Also, visit fields where farm workers are harvesting produce. But remember, Mindfulness is compassionate non-judgment. The lectures kids heard in bygone years (Children in Africa are starving…finish your plate!) haven’t really resulted in a strong tradition of healthy attitudes about food in our society. Instead, observe peacefully, releasing blame or guilt, simply appreciating the work of others that feeds your family. Your children can sense this, so trust in your intentions and visit again, as often as you can.
Although food is a source of pleasure and happiness it is above all our nutrition. The bureaucracy may require teaching kids about the food pyramid, or whatever geometric shape fits their current learning standards, but you can explore further with your children.
Each food item they love has some nutritional quality – even kettle corn! Your caring, well researched, compassionate and non-judgmental approach can make Mindful eating habits an easy choice for your children. Your own preferences for less-than-healthy choices – as a child or adult – is an place to start. Investigate and identify how some of your choices – chocolate, coffee, French Fries, etc. – are deeply connected with positive experiences. Simply observe without judging, and be truly compassionate toward yourself.
Now look at one not-so-healthy food your child loves. Again try to go back to positive experiences connected with that food. Remember also to remain non-judgmental about negative reactions you’ve seen negative reactions – hyperactivity, lack of focus, low energy. These are signs that your child is suffering, and needs your compassion. Gradually replace those foods with healthy, delicious alternative that trigger the same positive feelings. As gradually as needed to make the change as easy and conflict-free as possible.
Mindful eating with children is a journey, not a destination. The time it takes to build a strong foundation of conscious choices, appreciation and healthy enjoyment of good food in your child’s life is well worth the effort.
And that’s the takeaway from Chef you may really appreciate. Without giving away too much, it’s enough to say that the film inspires us to bond with our kids through the love of good food and Mindful Eating.