Mindful eating isn’t just for adults – Catherine Morgan discovers how it could benefit her young speed eater.

The following is extracted from a Young Lives article in the Summer 2022 issue of Optimum Nutrition.

It’s hugely satisfying to see my boys tuck into a meal that I have lovingly prepared — or cobbled together.

But admittedly, any tendency towards speed eating has more to do with a desire to join friends outside than it is a nod to their mum’s cooking prowess.

Child 2 in particular is the classic ‘inhaler’. We’ve barely sat down and he’s already half way to the kitchen with an empty plate, often too busy, too preoccupied and/or too fidgety to truly appreciate the dining experience.

To be fair, he’s only six, and hasn’t yet mastered the art of slowing down.

But it has got me thinking about the practice of ‘mindful eating’ and how it could help cultivate healthier eating habits.

Mindful vs mindless eating

Emma Randall, a mindful eating and nutrition consultant, says that mindful eating simply means being fully present with the food you’re eating in any given moment — so really noticing the food, savouring the flavour, and paying attention to the process.

“The problem with mindless eating is we just don’t engage the brain,” she says. “There’s a huge disconnect [between the head and body] and the body gets ignored in terms of nutritional needs but also in terms of how much it wants to eat or whether it even wants to eat.

“[Mindful eating] is about being present with food, but also about thinking before you eat. What do you want to eat? How much are you going to eat? Do you need to eat?”

TV dinners

Digital devices haven’t helped either. We’ve all been there: a film on the TV, a bumper bag of crisps or a family-sized chocolate bar within close reach…and before you know it, there’s nothing left — and there’s no one else in the room to blame.

For both adults and children, this kind of distracted, thoughtless eating, can contribute to overeating and weight gain because we’re disconnected from our natural hunger and fullness cues.

We’re also likely to feel less satisfied, simply because we’ve paid no attention to what we’re eating.

It’s not all bad news. Jane Ogden, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Surrey and author of The Good Parenting Food Guide, suggests that it’s possible for parents to utilise mindless eating — particularly if a child is a picky eater and won’t eat healthily.

“If this is the case, then give them a bowl of chopped-up fruit or vegetables when they are watching the TV or throw some grapes into the back of the car.

“These will be eaten without them realising and will start to help them broaden what they like to eat.”

But she also agrees that a more mindful approach can help prevent overeating and encourage children to develop a good relationship with food.

And her recommendations are simply: eat at a table, eat when sitting down, eat meals not snacks, eat as a family, eat off a plate, and don’t eat in front of the TV.

Future foundations

Encouraging healthy eating habits in our young can have lifelong benefits — since adult eating behaviours are often shaped by childhood experiences.

Randall says: “[Adults] will either eat exactly as they ate as a child, i.e. if they’re a plate clearer in childhood, they’ll probably be a plate clearer in adulthood, or they’ll react — so if mum said biscuits were bad, they’ll leave home and do the opposite and eat as many biscuits as they want…and I’ve seen a lot of that reactive eating.”

Indigestion and speed eating

Going back to my speed eater, Randall says I probably shouldn’t worry too much because he’ll likely slow down as he gets older.

“He’s just an excited kid by the sound of it, and eating a meal is probably just a bit mundane…a bit of an obstacle that’s in the way of all the other things he wants to do. So long as he isn’t suffering with indigestion.”

Whilst there are no obvious signs of digestive troubles, I do wonder if Child 2’s body is working overtime to process the fully intact food that has barely touched the sides going down.

Kate Delmar-Morgan, a nutritional therapy practitioner, says this is where mindful eating could help — by supporting the digestion of food and the nutrients we obtain from it.

“By slowing the eating and chewing well, the food is properly broken down, allowing the enzymes to work on the food so that the nutrients become available to the body,” she says.

“The effects of speed eating are the same for both adults and children, so it makes sense to try and slow this process down for everyone!”

Slow and steady

To help decelerate Child 2’s eating rate, Randall gives me some helpful tips, which I put into practice at our next meal.

The main take-home message is to get children thinking about eating; so she suggests leading with questions such as ‘Can you taste a bit of [insert ingredient] in that?’, ‘What’s your favourite part?’ and ‘How do you think we could improve the meal?’.

Rating things out of 10 can also be a good way to prompt children, she says — so ask questions such as ‘Out of 10, how much did you enjoy that food?’, ‘Out of 10, how hungry are you?’ and ‘Out of 10, how full are you after that meal?’.

Surprisingly, the boys were quite receptive to my barrage of questions; and we even spent some time with our eyes closed focusing on the taste, smell, and sound of our food.

And whilst I can’t say that we’ll always dedicate so much time and attention to the eating experience, it was certainly a useful exercise to help connect the boys (and me) to food, body, and mind.

It also helped to slow the pace for Child 2 — a win-win.

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