Picking and Choosing: Mindful Eating for Kids and Families

Feeding my fabulously finicky toddler has been a challenge, to say the least. The more she resists my efforts, the more frustrated I become. Our positions quickly get fixed into the classic power struggle: me the desperate mother, filled with a craving to feed, and she the indifferent Noodles, please! toddler. Buddhism is actually filled with teachings on mindful eating, but there isn’t much on the nitty-gritty of raising a mindful eater, so I decided to ask some folks for help.

I found three great people to talk to:

Dr. Harvey Karp: Dr. Karp is the best-selling author of The Happiest Baby/Toddler on the Block (Bantam Books, 2004). He is a professor of pediatrics at UCLA School of Medicine and travels extensively talking (lovingly) about kids.

Nina Planck: Nina wrote the critically acclaimed Real Food (Bloomsbury USA, 2007), and her most recent book is Real Food for Mother and Baby (Bloomsbury, 2009). Both are gems.

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Osho: Before Ryushin moved into Mount Tremper’s Zen Mountain Monastery in 1991 to become a monastic/priest/teacher, he was a pediatrician and a psychiatrist.

I asked them all the same three questions, and this is what they had to say (in 1,000 words or less!):

What is the best way to raise a mindful eater—someone who appreciates food but is not obsessed with it?

Number one, every child is different. Food and drink are important triggers of our internal reward center or dopamine opiate center, as are friendship and touching. So for some kids eating is a huge part of the reward center and for other kids it just doesn’t mean that much to them. Number two, there’s some intrinsic sense of what the body needs, early on. That gets overridden later when kids get into this very finicky period, usually anywhere from 15 to 30 months. Kids get really rigid. They want things they can hold with their fingers, things that are white, which is why cheese and pizza and pasta and bread become real favorites at that point in time. And the third basic understanding is that there are battles you can win as a parent and battles that you can’t win. For example, candy. You don’t want to give her candy, you don’t give her candy. You can win that every single time. Eating broccoli is a different issue. If she really wants to, she’s going to win that one. But ultimately, if you can outwait them, they’re probably going to come around to your diet without you having to plead and beg and negotiate.

By example. It’s the only answer you can give. Your toddler is psychic. And don’t talk about it. Just serve the food and eat.

I believe you could train your toddler to sit in his chair, never drop his spoon, and eat all his food, but you’d have to smack him every time he drops his spoon or leaves food on his plate, and then you’d have a terrified, tortured individual. You wouldn’t have a mindful eater.