I recently learned an unexpectedly good lesson on mindful eating and parenting!
My father and stepmother came over for dinner and as usual, my stepmother brought something to bake with our kids: cupcakes! It was a joy to watch the kids with their Grammy. They mixed and poured, waited excitedly for the cupcakes to cook and cool, then decorated them. It was clearly the highlight of the day – both for my kids and my stepmom.
Normally, in a situation where there’s a sugary fun food, I serve the kids a moderate amount and tuck the rest away for later. However, on this night, I was totally engaged in conversation with the adults and not paying attention to the free-for-all cupcake-eating party on the porch. When my daughter finally informed me that her brother had eaten five cupcakes, I jolted to attention, feeling the distress I often feel when I see my kids over-doing it with food.
Although I’ve long since re-established a joyful, balanced relationship with food myself, when it comes to my children, I’m still sometimes affected by the old, fear-based thinking that was a part of my eat-repent-repeat cycle. Because of my past experiences, it’s especially important to me to help my children learn to navigate the rough waters of our diet-obsessed, food-abundant society in a way that allows them to instinctively balance their needs for nourishment with their needs for enjoyment. I want desperately for them not to fall into the frustrating cycles with food and their bodies that I did. Although I’m still uncertain at times about how exactly to do this and concerned I’m not “doing it right,” the lessons I’ve learned in my own journey with mindful eating help in myriad ways.
Back to the cupcakes…
Fortunately, after my daughter alerted me about her brother eating five cupcakes, I remembered to pause. I took mental note of my emotional reaction and observed it with curiosity. Interesting how simply the thought of my child enjoying a lot of cupcakes could cause me to feel distress. What’s going on here? Because I’m in the habit of checking in with myself in moments of even moderate discomfort, I could quickly identify the trigger. First, of course, I have typical parental desires to ensure my children learn to enjoy healthful foods and that they avoid using food to cope in self-defeating ways. This desire understandably created an instant red flag at the thought of eating so many cupcakes all at once. But more than that, I was also experiencing an old, habitual emotional reaction from past days of restrictive eating when sugar was the enemy and I thought that food intake had to be rigidly controlled or else! I went on high alert automatically and out of proportion to the actual circumstances.
Because I had paused briefly to objectively observe the situation (child eating lots of cupcakes) and my inner state (fear and anxiety), I was able to quickly shift gears, regain perspective, and intentionally choose my response rather than reacting automatically. As I walked toward my son on the porch, I saw him grinning from ear to ear, fingertips and face covered with frosting. He said playfully, “I didn’t eat five whole cupcakes, Mom! I just ate the tops of them!” With this present moment awareness, I fully experienced his delight. Instead of scolding, I said something like “You’re a boy after my own heart. I love the frosting best, too! I think five cupcake tops is enough for tonight, don’t you?”
No “good” or “bad” judgments directed at my son or the cupcakes. Just recognition of the simple joy children experience when eating really pleasurable foods—and a practical decision to put the rest of the cupcakes away so we could all enjoy some the next day.
My son giggled as I sent him off to wash up.
In that moment, I was grateful to have been able to connect with one of the lessons I’ve learned through mindfulness: When you feel an uncomfortable emotion (about food or anything else), let that discomfort be your trigger to PAUSE. In that pause, try to identify what’s creating the emotional reaction. Observe whatever you notice with objectivity. Use the space between trigger and the next potential reaction to gather perspective and intentionally choose whether and how to respond.
A little while later, as he lay in bed, my little guy started complaining about his belly hurting. When I wondered aloud with him whether too much frosting might have something to do with his tummy ache, he nodded in agreement. We had a short conversation about how having too much of anything (even vegetables!) can leave us feeling yucky and unable to do the things we like to do. That was the end of it.
Since then, the cupcake-eating-sick-tummy episode has proven to be an unexpected asset in my parenting around food. When my son asks for more food than I think would comfortably fit in his stomach, as he often does, I’ll reconnect him to the feeling he had after eating too many cupcakes. “Remember how your belly felt sick after all those cupcakes? Do you think a third serving of mac and cheese might make you feel that same way? Sometimes it takes a little while for our belly to tell our brain we’re full. Why don’t you hop in the bath and if you still really want more mac and cheese when you’re done, you can have some then.” Most of the time, with a little reminder about how certain types and amounts of food make him feel and a nudge to redirect his attention before choosing more, he moves on to something else and forgets about it.
The extended lesson from the cupcake episode has been a good reminder about another valuable tenet of mindful eating that I believe is helpful both in my own relationship with food and in the way I parent my children around eating. Instead of focusing on external rules about what and how much to eat, each of us (even young children) need to be given the space and support to experiment with a variety of foods with curiosity to see how they affect us. Then, we need to learn how to use that personal experience to guide our future decisions. The way I see it, my son’s sick tummy taught him a more effective lesson about the consequences of overeating cupcakes than I ever could have taught him with a mouthful of preventive rules and scolding. My job in this case was simply to help him connect his actions to his eventual experience of discomfort so he can use that information to make a more effective decision the next time.
While this particular situation with food and my children went as well as I could have asked for, it doesn’t always go this smoothly. We’ve had our fair share of conflict over what and when and how much my kids eat. I still sometimes fall into the trap of counterproductive messaging (“Finish your vegetables before you can have dessert!”). And there are aspects of guiding my children around eating that I just don’t yet know how best to handle. But, with mindfulness as my parenting partner, I feel like I have a universal strategy I can consistently rely on no matter what situation or decision appears, with eating and everything else.
In each moment of uncertainty or angst, my goal is not to know all the answers, but to pause and check in with myself, ask What’s going on here? and then What does this moment call for? The rest takes care of itself.