Let’s face it: when it comes to kids and food, it’s a gamble. Some kids are willing to try just about anything, while others are so picky that they’ll barely eat anything at all beyond their favorite foods. Regardless of which type of kid you have, parents have their work cut out for them when it comes to making sure children get the right foods in the right portions.

There’s also the notion of mindful eating, which is something many adults even struggle to conquer.

Raising a mindful eater is possible, however, if you start at an early age.

“The benefit of mindful eating is that it’s our internal control of appetite regulation,” Blount Memorial registered dietitian Heather Pierce said. “The more in tune you are to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, the more likely you’ll have a healthy relationship with food and a healthy weight. The trouble is, as kids are exposed to convenience foods and distracted by TV or iPads, it becomes difficult for them to focus on mindful eating, which can lead to weight gain and poor eating habits. The first step you can take toward raising a mindful eater, then, is to remove those distractions. Set rules for mealtimes that include sitting down at a table and leaving computers, iPads and phones somewhere else. This will help them focus on feeding and paying attention to how full they feel.”

Learning those fullness and hunger cues are an important step, too. “To help kids figure out how hungry they are, use a hunger rating chart,” Pierce said. “These charts range from 1 to 10, with 1 being extreme hunger and 10 being absolutely stuffed. In between, though, are levels such as ‘perfectly comfortable’ and ‘very hungry or irritable.’ The goal for all of us — kids and adults — is to be at around a 5, which is ‘perfectly comfortable.’ If kids can identify where they are on the chart, it can help them know how much or little they actually want or need to eat.

“Also, it’s important to separate hunger from cravings. One way to do this is to offer children healthy options when they say they’re ‘starving.’ If they’re only hungry for cookies, you know it’s just a craving.”

Pierce says it’s also important to eat slowly. “It can take our bodies up to 20 minutes to feel satiety, so slowing down when we’re eating can make a big impact,” she said. “Some tricks here include getting kids to put down their forks between bites or use their non-dominant hand while eating. These can slow the entire process of eating down, which gives them more time for their fullness cues to kick in.

“Foods that are cut into smaller bites, too, tend to take longer to eat, so it may be worth cutting up meats, vegetables and whole foods for them before putting their plates on the table.” Finally, Pierce says, the old “clean your plate” adage needs to go.

“Telling kids that they have to clean their plates only teaches us to ignore those fullness cues, which can backfire when they grow up to be adults,” she said. “Don’t force him or her to eat everything on the plate. As parents, we decide what kids eat and when they eat it. Let them decide what they’ll accept and how much.”

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