I’m fortunate that I get to teach parents and their children about healthy eating. I always tell grown-ups that they are role models for their children, but I also remind them that kids are teachers, too. Sound surprising? From toddler to tween, children display healthy eating habits that many adults forget to follow.
When adults take the time to watch their little ones more closely, they are pleasantly surprised with what they learn. Here are four things children do that just may change your eating habits — for the better.
You may have done away with your Star Wars thermos, but it’s wise to mimic the items that go into a child’s school bag. Plan your own day with these three things in tow:
Lunch: If you pack a nutritious lunch, you can save money by avoiding the food court, and will be less likely to skip the meal since it is ready-made and within reach. A homemade lunch gives you greater control over the contents and portion size, so you are less likely to overeat.
Snacks: Although you don’t get to play at recess, you can still tote portable healthy snacks (think string cheese or an apple) to stave off between-meal hunger. Kids tend to eat every three or four hours to keep their energy level stable and their mind focused on their work — that’s a great plan for you, too.
Water: Carrying a reusable water bottle can steer you away from sugar-laden soda and juice, and keep you hydrated all day long. Even being slightly dehydrated can affect memory, concentration and cognition, which can be alleviated by sipping water throughout the day.
For kids, one bite of a “bad” food is never followed by a second bite. Adults are less discerning! How many times have you sipped flat soda or munched on stale popcorn just because it was in front of you?
For picky kids, a “yucky” food doesn’t get a second chance. Maybe they are on to something. Follow their lead and recapture the juvenile innocence of declining foods you simply don’t enjoy. There are better ways to get your calories than with stale popcorn.
On the other hand, kids derive great pleasure from the foods they do like. Consider how children eat birthday cake: They don’t count calories or feel any guilt — they just revel in the intoxicating sweetness. If cake is a rare treat, it’s even more special.
And it’s not just sweet treats that kids savor. Have you ever watched toddlers experiment with new food? They don’t just experience the taste. They engage with all of their senses, exploring how the food feels, what it looks like and how it smells. Something as simple as a green bean becomes a captivating object to inspect, analyze and enjoy.
Toddlers ably capture a nutrition concept that dietitians spend months teaching their clients: mindful eating. This means slowing down, experiencing the flavor of each bite, and really taking the time to see, smell and taste food without any outside distractions.
Adults eat differently. It’s common for them to gobble down a meal and not take time to enjoy it. Have you ever reached for the next bite of your sandwich, only to realize that you’d finished it already? How did that happen?
Eating while distracted by work, texts or TV takes attention away from your meal. When you don’t focus on your food, you’re more likely to overeat, which can lead to weight gain over time. So put down your smartphone, close your laptop and mindfully savor every delicious mouthful, just like a child does. And save the indulgences for special occasions.
Kids have an innate ability to regulate their food intake. They eat when they feel hungry and stop when they have had enough. But as you get older, you begin to ignore internal hunger cues and pay more attention to external cues that drive appetite.
Let’s say you’ve just eaten a full meal, but you walk by a bakery and inhale the tantalizing scent of fresh-baked cinnamon buns. If you buy one, you’re responding to temptation, not hunger. External cues like the sight or smell of food can lead you to eat when you’re not hungry. You are also likely to give in to emotional eating, which means you eat when you’re stressed, angry or bored, rather than hungry.
Reconnect with your inner child. Base meals and snacks on physical cues of hunger, rather than emotional or external cues. When you are almost full, stop eating and ward off that feeling of being over-stuffed and bloated.
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”