I love watching children. They have so many natural behaviors that can teach adults how to love food -- but not too much -- and how to fit physical activity into our day. Here are some of the important lessons we can learn from observing children:
Eat when you're hungry. From the time they're born, babies and young children know when and how much they need to eat -- and they cry to let everyone else know, too. As they grow, this important instinct can be un-learned due to environmental, social, and emotional influences. By the time we're adults, we may have picked up the habit of eating for reasons other than hunger: mealtimes, reward, stress, anger, boredom, deprivation, and countless other triggers. By recognizing the difference between needing to eat and wanting to eat, adults can re-learn when and how much to eat, too.
Stop eating when you're full. An infant will turn their head away when they've had enough to eat, and a toddler will throw a plate of food on the floor when they're done. As adults, we clean our plates because "there are starving children" somewhere or just because something tastes good. I'm not suggesting that we start throwing our plates on the floor again, but we need to remember that food is abundant so there's no need to eat it all now.
Being too hungry makes you grouchy. Being hungry, tired, or frustrated are sure to make a child crabby -- and affect adults the same way. As parents, we do our best to make sure we are prepared with nutritious, delicious food to feed our children when they're hungry. We should plan ahead to care for ourselves that way, too.
Snacks are good. Most kids naturally prefer to eat smaller meals with snacks in between according to their hunger signals. That pattern of eating keeps their energy up and their metabolism stoked all day. Adults who need to fire up their energy and metabolism might benefit from this pattern, too.
Play with your food. Most kids love to examine, smell, and touch their food. Since eating is a total sensory experience, they get the most from every morsel. This childlike approach of eating mindfully will allow you to appreciate the aroma, appearance and flavors more -- especially if you aren't driving, watching TV, or standing in front of the refrigerator. You'll probably eat less food while enjoying it more.
All foods fit. Though parents sometimes worry about sugar and junk food, "fun" foods are part of a healthy diet. In fact, overly restrictive food rules usually lead to rebellious eating anyway -- just think about the last time you weren't "allowed" to eat something. Children and adults both eat healthier when they enjoy these less nutritious foods in moderation.
You can learn to like new foods. Healthy eating is an acquired taste; it can take up to 10 tries of a new food before a child will incorporate it into their diet. Good nutrition is essential, so providing a variety of appealing, healthful foods will benefit the whole family. In our house, we had a two-bite rule when my kids were young. Assuming everyone at the table was hungry, everyone needed to taste two small bites of everything we served. If they still didn't like it, we didn't force or bribe them to eat it -- but they still needed to try it again the next time we had it. Since that was "the rule," there were no battles at the table and the kids often surprised themselves by liking something they thought they wouldn't. As young adults, they both enjoy a wide variety of foods.
Be a picky eater. The corollary to the lesson above is that kids won't easily eat something they don't like. As adults we sometimes eat cold French fries, stale cookies, or overly-salty chili just because it's there. Be a little pickier! Think of how much less food you'd eat if you didn't settle for food that tasted just so-so.
There's more to a party than cake and ice cream. Invite a child to a party and they'll want to know what they're going to get to do. Invite an adult and they'll wonder what food will be served. You don't have to avoid parties to eat healthfully. Just focus on the real purpose of social events -- to be social -- and let food be the icing on the cake.
Eating with your family is fun. Since babies and toddlers must be fed by their caregivers, they naturally love eating with other people. Family mealtime is your opportunity to model healthy habits, and more importantly, bond and connect with one another.
It's boring to just sit around. Toddlers seem to be in perpetual motion as they constantly explore their world. Young kids love to run in the grass, play on the playground, and challenge themselves and each other with increasingly more complex activities. For kids, movement is for fun -- not for burning calories. Of course, as they get older, television, computers and electronic games compete for their attention. To encourage activity and exploration, limit "screen time" -- this applies to adults, too!
Follow the leader. Face it, kids watch and often imitate everything adults do. If they observe us eating a variety of foods and enjoying physical activity, then they'll learn to take good care of their bodies. Similarly, if they don't hear us making comments like "I look so fat in this," or "I was bad at dinner so I have to spend an extra hour on the treadmill," then they are less likely to suffer from poor self-esteem or a negative attitude about exercise.
Sleep is good. After a full day, children need a good night's sleep to prepare for all of the adventures that tomorrow will hold. Wouldn't we all benefit from a consistent bedtime to make sure we get our rest, too?
Live in the moment. Kids are masters at living in the present. They don't waste a lot of energy worrying about what has already happened or what might happen tomorrow. They are fully engaged in small pursuits like discovering where the ants are going, chasing the dog, or seeing how deep they can dig with a plastic shovel. We, on the other hand, continue to scurry around, chasing after our dreams, all the while digging ourselves deeper and deeper.
We can learn a lot from children!
Michelle May, M.D. is the founder of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Workshops and Facilitator Training Program.
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