Mindful eating habits in the young can extend a lifetime of immunity and good health, making mealtimes a profound experience for you and your child.
It begins from the day the child is born–worries of hitting weight milestones, nutrition as the baby grows, to the quantity and quality of food they consume. Young parents constantly stress over meeting their child’s nutritional needs in the formative years.
Not only do they worry about getting their children to eat healthily, as parents, they are also competing with ‘junk’ food that features in the child’s demands. With high amounts of fat and sugar, fast foods create cravings that children didn’t have before. Even the occasional binge on a big bar of chocolate creates instant changes in a child’s behavior. After the initial sugar rush, the drop in blood sugar makes them sluggish and tired.
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As a founder and teacher of a Waldorf kindergarten for over 16 years, I have seen many children pass through phases of eating habits and preferences. Slowly but surely, we have had the fussiest of children looking forward to mealtimes and eating the healthy food we have prepared together.
Mindful eating habits in the young can extend a lifetime of immunity and good health, making mealtimes a profound experience for you and your child. In this article, I will take you through the Waldorf approach of food and how we adapted it to suit Indian culture.
Mindful eating begins with you.
With both parents working, preparing food for the family every day isn’t always easy. Even stay-at-home parents may want to get away from the kitchen as soon as possible to spend more time with their children or tackle other chores.
Let’s glance through some everyday scenarios where mindfulness can help improve our children’s eating habits and patterns.
1. Design a mindful meal plan and simple practices for your child.
Our bodies recognise the foods that are sourced locally and within our vicinity. Foreign and exotic foods have their drawbacks. Not only are they foreign to our body but are also picked when unripe, ripened artificially, or have additives to keep them fresh so we can buy them miles away from their source.
Include foods that are grown organically and locally whenever possible. Ideally, avoid foods sprayed with pesticides, genetically-modified foods or meat from animals that have been treated with growth hormones. Try a variety of produce which is in season for a balanced diet. For example, watermelons are good for our body in summers only and apples in winter.
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We want to get as many types of foods as possible. More than quantity, we focus on the quality of food. Plenty of colourful vegetables, fruits and nuts will keep our bodies healthy and strong. A seasonal menu that includes fruits, vegetables, dairy, nuts, oils, seeds, and vegetarian sources of protein is at the heart of our school mealtimes. This builds a healthy curiosity for different food types, boosts their immunity and encourages overall growth.
As a thumb rule, if grandma doesn’t recognise it, it’s probably not the best food. A novel way to approach food is to name all the ingredients, helping you identify the undesirable components in the long run.
As a Waldorf preschool in an Indian setting, we derive our philosophy from our roots and Ayurvedic literature. At InBloom, we prepare fresh and nutritious snacks each day. We design a weekly rhythm that plays a role in helping children recognise the days of the week, depending on the foods they partake. It’s not unusual to hear a child say that today is ‘juice day’ or ‘chapati day’ as opposed to Tuesday or Wednesday!
Remember, if it is going to sit on your shelf for months without getting spoilt, it’s probably not good for your body as it has preservatives and other chemicals. Processed food, noodles, and pasta fail to meet the recommended fiber intake. Moreover, using processed cheese or adding too much butter, chocolates and chips, add unhealthy fat to the little bodies.
At InBloom, we create a healthy food plan for the children. The parents contribute by taking turns to send lunch for the entire class. Our weekly food plan takes on the tenets of Navdanya, which introduces a diversity of grains to a child’s growing appetite.
Children’s meals are centered around whole foods that are packed with nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber. Also, ‘fruit time’ is an important part of our school day. Children bring in seasonal fruits that we all wash, peel, cut, and share every day.
Since we can’t avoid the magic of coloured wrappers all the time, we make it a habit to read labels. Often, foods masquerading as “healthy” and “for stronger bones” will have too much sugar in them.
2. Encouraging curiosity at mealtimes, not fussiness
We do not force children to eat. Instead, we create these simple everyday practices to encourage them to imitate our actions and those of their peers.
- Children and teachers eat together – Every thali looks the same. Little ones learn best through imitation, and if they see us enjoy different foods, they will too.
- Allowing a child’s curiosity to bloom by encouraging them to try every item, even if it’s in smaller quantities.
- Fruits as friends. Let your child pick a fruit every day that they can discover and learn about through colours, textures, shapes, smells, and seasons. During fruit time at InBloom, children are often overheard, saying, “I love slicing apples”, “I can count the grapes in my bowl”, “I like yellow pineapple, teacher, please give me another piece.”
3. Involve children in meal preparations
Think back to our younger days when we shelled peas with grandma or watched the rice being cleaned. These experiences form an integral part of our repertoire as well as our fond memories.
In our urban setting, children think that vegetables come from a shop or rice comes in bags. It is important to expose them to where we get our foods from so they can appreciate the effort that goes into putting a meal together.
At InBloom, we include children in the process of preparing food from field to table.
- We have child-friendly customised countertops allowing them to observe and participate in the preparation.
- We encourage children to participate in age-appropriate tasks. While older children can chop carrots, the younger ones can shell peas, all to be added to our soup.
- Make things from scratch. We grind our idli batter. There are no preservatives or artificial colours or hidden sugar, and what’s more, children love the story of the idlis coming together from farm to table.
- Guide and enjoy the sequences of cooking with children. They see and understand how we knead the dough, make smaller balls, and finally roll out the chapatis.
- Gently guide children with hand-held devices such as peelers, graters, sieves, grinding stones, mortar and pestle, and so on.
“I was surprised to hear that kids were given peelers and knives in school. I am proud to see my five-year-old grandson cut perfect slices of an apple and work carefully,” relates Latha, grandma of a child at InBloom.
As children help, they learn a lot along the way; they add new words to their vocabulary, get ideas for play, understand seasonal foods and even develop their motor skills as they help in chopping, grinding, peeling, and bustling around the kitchen.
Apart from this, when children complete real work, they have a powerful sense of accomplishment that helps build their sense of self.
4. Focus on the ‘HOW’ of mealtimes
The practice of gathering around the table to eat is wonderful. But demanding schedules and beeping gadgets form greater obstacles in the simple act of dining that we took for granted as children.
Whatever the challenge, small mindful practices as a family can help nudge children towards healthier eating habits and preferences.
“I hardly ever let my older daughter eat on her own as a baby. I was worried she would not eat enough and become thin. So, often, I would first feed her and eat only after the whole family had finished,” said Maya, stay-at-home mom to two daughters.
5. Mealtimes should be a time of calm, togetherness, and joy.
Set specific times for snacks and meals. Regular schedules help the child’s digestive system know when it is time to eat a meal. Allowing children to snack too often makes them lose their internal hunger cues.
- Encourage children to help set the table. Remind them that the table should be clutter-free. No toys, books, pencils, games or gadgets of any sort.
- Try to use your hands while eating as it is part of our tradition; foods taste better, and it helps improve fine motor coordination.
- Eat Together, even if it’s one meal a day. Gathering around the table to eat creates a sense of community and togetherness, whether it is with your family or at school with classmates and teachers.
- Make a genuine effort to eat together as a family without any screens, and maybe even prepare a part of the meal together. Fewer distractions help children to focus on the colours, textures, and tastes of the food.
- Talk less, eat more, stay relaxed. We don’t need to multitask while eating.
- Practice a simple ritual of giving thanks for the food that we eat.
- Encourage children to help clear the table when you have finished the meal.
Whatever simple acts you choose, bringing your family for a quiet time of togetherness over a meal can nourish the minds and souls of the members individually and collectively.
A child who comes home after a swim is more likely to have a larger meal. Make sure that children get plenty of physical activity (between 3-5 km in a full day), whether it is playing in the park or indoor play. Further, make sure little children get 11-12 hours of sleep, as this helps set the mood for the day.
Habits are not formed immediately, but little changes will surely put our children on the path of healthy eating. At InBloom, every mealtime is a celebration. It can be in your homes too.
To know more about our recipes or easy cooking task lists for young children, write to email@example.com or visit www.inbloom.in for a treasure trove of ideas and simple practices.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)