emotional eating: three children sitting together eating lunch

As parents we need to understand the complex relationship between food and emotions so that we can help our children develop healthy relationships with food. But in order to do this, we first need to understand our own relationship to food.

The emotional and social connection we have to food

Food can impact us in so many ways – and we make food choices for a number of different reasons, not just in response to hunger. What is clear is that there is a strong emotional and social connection to food. In my experience, I find that many parents have the knowledge of what food to feed to their child for optimal health, but their child’s nutrition choices don’t always reflect this knowledge.

In reality, food isn’t just about understanding what we should eat, it’s also about appreciating the connection between nutrition, our thoughts, emotions and social interactions because emotions or feelings are an extremely strong trigger for food choices.

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How emotions affect our food choices

From a young age, food becomes connected to a variety of emotions and social interactions. Whether sad, happy, celebrating, commemorating, lonely or angry, food is often used to cope with these emotions and circumstances. This relationship can start well before we are even in control of our own diet, influenced by the choices our parents make for us.

Primitively, humans do a lot of things to either seek pleasure or avoid pain, and eating is no different. On a basic level, we can experience “pain” in the form of hunger and we seek pleasure in the form of sustenance (food and drink). Now, consider what happens when emotions get involved: we try to avoid emotional pain and, because we’ve learnt that food or drink can provide pleasure, we start to use these for reasons beyond just hunger.

Using food for reasons other than hunger

We often find ourselves stuck in a bit of a pleasure trap when it comes to food, especially the types of food that trigger the reward centers in the brain. This is not to say that we shouldn’t help our children develop a personal connection to food – that would be impossible. Let’s be honest, it’s nice to have a celebratory meal and sometimes it’s just nice to eat something tasty, irrespective of how (un)healthy it is. The question here is are they making a conscious choice to behave in that way or are they acting on impulse driven by an emotion or habit that’s sparked by a certain environment they find themselves in?

Helping your child develop a more mindful relationship to food will allow them to make conscious decisions, and in future observe the triggers that lead to food choices that they know are not supporting them with their health.

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What is mindful eating?

Mindfulness means paying full attention to something – with no distractions, staying in the moment and noticing our thoughts and how we feel (both physically and emotionally). Being mindful means taking our time when eating and being relaxed.

Encourage children to use the 5 senses and practice small mindful bites:

Encourage your child to remain present and in the moment by drawing upon their five senses to take small, intention bites.

See: What do you notice? What colour is it? What shape is it? What stands out?

Feel: When you hold it in your hand, what does it feel like? Is it soft or hard? Squishy or rough?

Hear: Does it make any sounds? What about if you squeeze it between your fingers? (You can also revisit sound during taste)

Smell: How would you describe the smell?

Taste: Put the food in your mouth. Before you chew, what is the first thing you taste? Is it salty or sweet? Sour or savoury? As you start to chew, chew slowly and before you swallow, think about the change in flavour, texture and sounds. Does it change the longer you chew?

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Getting your child to practice mindful eating:

Mindful eating is more than just a few mindful bites. Encourage your child to slow down while they eat and begin to understand the mind-body connection a little bit more. Explain that all foods carry certain nutrients and vitamins that will make them strong and healthy. These nutrients fuel their energy tanks for the day and help them play and learn.

Lastly, supporting your child in recognising when their tummy is full or when they’re hungry helps to prevent extremes with eating and creates a healthy, positive relationship with food.

Mindful eating advice for the whole family: 

  1. Mindful eating can be practiced during snack and family meal times.
  2. Practice mindful eating by limiting screen time. Put phones, iPads and computers away.
  3. Cook and eat together.
  4. Teach your child to sit down on a chair.
  5. Teach your child to slow down.
  6. Teach your child to savour their food.

As they learn to be more mindful eaters they will embrace food, love their bodies and live in the moment.