How to Raise A Mindful Eater: Review Post!

I recently had the pleasure of reading this brand new book from Maryann Jacobsen, who was nice enough to send me a free copy so I could share my thoughts about it with you. I really enjoyed it, and I can't wait to tell you more awesome details about it, so let's dive in to my How to Raise A Mindful Eater Review.

How to Raise A Mindful Eater:

8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food

Practicality

SUPER easy to use.
Each of the 8 Principles has a great summary of actionable ways to implement them.

Evidence-base

Maryann cites a wide variety of evidence-based sources to give credibility to the ideas shared in the book.

Price

It's only $11 on Amazon right now! A great book, at a great price.

Summary: This book has a ton of wonderful insights and info to help you approach healthy eating with your children in a way that's not pushy. We want to raise healthy eaters, but many of the ways we attempt to do that have the opposite effect! This book is really well laid out and gives a great overview of mindful and intuitive eating before delving into each of the 8 principles. Each principle ends with a concise summary to help you implement the ideas with your family in real life too, so you'll understand what to say, what to do, and why it matters!

The Good Stuff
  • Easy to read
  • Very well organized
  • Written by a mom with a M.S. and R.D.
  • Well-researched, quality info, and also practical to use in real life
The Not-as-good Stuff
  • There are a couple helpful charts, but in general, this book doesn't have many visual elements to it. That shouldn't be much of an issue for most people though!

Currently under $11!

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I talk a lot about mindset - about ditching the diet mentality that doesn't even work, in favor of a kinder, more practical, more intuitive approach. This is something I feel really strongly about, and something I think is super important for us adults.

But as adults, those of us who are parents also have little eyes watching our every move. Most of us really hope that our kids won't follow in our footsteps with certain food-related things - like sneaking food, eating to manage emotions, and things like that.

We want them to grow up having a POSITIVE relationship with food! One where food is viewed neutrally - not as "good" or "bad." One where eating is an enjoyable and pleasant experience, not one marred with anxiety and rules. 

But how on earth do we raise our kids in such a way?​

Who this book is for

Anyone who wants to raise kids to have a healthy relationship with food!

I honestly feel like this is SO much more important than just having kids who will eat “healthy foods.” Yes, I know, we want them to like broccoli. But it’s about so much more than JUST the broccoli!

And this may sound counter-intuitive, since the book is very obviously geared toward people with kids, but since I currently work with weight loss clients (ie: adults), I can tell you that this book would also be a really great resource for people looking to repair their own relationships with food!

The problem(s) it solves

Picky eating, refusing to eat, mealtime battles, huge appetites, small appetites, obsession with sweets, and stressful family meals are all things that can be helped by the principles in this book.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you and your kids were able to sit down to a pleasant meal, enjoy your food, enjoy each other’s company, and not have any squabbles over what or how much anyone is eating? That’s what this book aims to help you achieve.

While it’d be ideal to instill these principles at a very young age, that doesn’t usually happen. (Heck, the book just came out, so not many parents have read it yet!) So older kids, and adults, can absolutely use these principles to learn a healthy and balanced approach to food and eating, even if it’s not how they were raised when they were tiny. If you’re seeing challenging food issues in your house, this book can help you get them back onto a healthy and positive course.

Let’s Take A Peek Inside!

Before she delves into the actual principles, Maryann gives a really great overview of mindful and intuitive eating in general. They differ from our more common way of looking of nutrition and eating, which is more calorie and nutrient driven, something she calls The Food Framework.

Essentially, the way we tend to automatically think about food boils down to WHAT we’re eating. It’s been drilled into us that health comes from dieting, reducing fat, adding veggies, or avoiding sugar, etc etc. But in order to actually finally gain the positive food relationship we’re seeking (for ourselves and our kids), it’s actually more beneficial to focus on the HOW of eating, rather than the what - The Mindful Framework.

There are so many nuggets of wisdom in this beginning section. I found myself literally saying “YES!” out loud, and I was only on page 3. I think this short quote covers it pretty well though:

“In short, there has been no real long-term change to people’s health related behavior. It’s not because people are lazy, lack willpower, or tasty food is too tempting. It’s that we never healed our relationship with food, the real instigator behind the way people eat.”

So what are these 8 amazing principles?

I'm so glad you asked! Here are the 8 principles of How to Raise A Mindful Eater:

  1. Plan, Prioritize, and Structure Meals
  2. Allow Hunger and Fullness to Guide Eating
  3. Neutralize the Power of Goodies
  4. Make Nutrition a Rewarding Part of Eating
  5. Put Pleasure at the Center of Your Table
  6. Teach Body Appreciation
  7. Deal with Stress Effectively
  8. Connect with Your Kids

Pin it!

Principles 1 and 2 - Planning and body cues

Planning and structuring meals, while also letting hunger and fullness cues guide eating… hmm, sound familiar? These concepts are the mainstays of how we work with our own adult clients too.

For the adults, the tough thing to re-learn is how to listen in to those hunger and fullness signals, since many of us started ignoring them years ago! For children, they’re pretty well tuned in to those things already. We just need to help facilitate their listening skills, and help them get into a structured, though still flexible, routine.

A concept she discusses in these chapters - Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility - is one that was presented in her other book, Fearless Feeding, as well. (My review of that book is here if you’re interested!) This Division of Responsibility states that the parent is in charge of what is served, when, and where. The child is responsible for whether they eat, and how much they eat.

In practice, that looks like mom deciding today’s snack will be carrots, hummus, and cheese, at around 3:30pm, served at the table. Mom provides the snack, and kiddo is able to choose to eat it or not, and if so, how much he will eat.

“Structuring meals and snacks at a designated place, without in-between meal eating, is incredibly valuable. Children learn to view food as a priority, and are more likely to become mindful eaters. With a regular rhythm of meals and snacks, they feel secure about food. They don’t associate food with everyday activities because most meals and snacks are eaten in a designated place, like the kitchen table. Best of all, children are able to tune into their hunger and get the right amount of food for their body type.”

Having structure to the day’s meal and snacks times helps to avoid all-day grazing, something many families struggle with. Actually being able to build up some hunger before their meals tends to also mean they eat well at the meals, which avoids some common mealtime difficulties!

One thing I really love about this section is how she encourages parents to help the kids tune in to their hunger and fullness cues by rephrasing some common things we say to kids around mealtime.

For example, instead of “Are you done?”, you can encourage some tuning in by changing it to “Is your belly full, or are you still hungry?”

I’ve started re-phrasing some of these things around mealtime with my own son, and I like that I’m starting to help him tune in to his belly feelings. He’s very good at telling me “eat” or “all done,” but now we’re actively working on connecting it to how he’s feeling. I love that!

Principle 3 - Neutralizing the power of goodies

I know that so many parents are afraid of their kids becoming obsessed with sugary stuff. My own son freaks out with excitement if he sees a piece of cake too! The common response to this is to limit it, or worse, not allow it at all. Kids are going to like sweet, tasty things. It’s normal, and completely expected. Heck, we like them too!

But that’s part of what scares us, isn’t it? If we feel out of control around sweets, we want so badly to prevent that same issue in them. The problem is that our gut reaction is to limit sweet stuff as much as humanly possible. But that approach can actually backfire, making the forbidden stuff even more tempting, and prompting older kids to find ways to sneak it to get around the restrictive rules…. Not what we’re going for!

Ever wonder why kids seem so drawn to sweets? I really enjoyed Maryann’s discussion of why kids seem hard-wired to want and crave sweets even more than we do:

“As children reach toddlerhood, growth declines in terms of the body but increases when it comes to metabolic needs of the brain… Researchers from Northwestern University discovered that glucose uptake peaks during the slow period of growth between toddlerhood and puberty in order for the brain to fully develop. The brain relies heavily on glucose, which is why a child’s brain uses up twice as much glucose as an adult brain does. Brain glucose requirements peak at about five years of age (almost half of daily energy intake goes to the brain!), years before adult brain size is reached. This may be why young kids tend to go for the starchy foods first and why preference for sweets tends to increase after the baby and young toddler phase.”

Did you catch that? At around age 5, HALF of a kiddo’s daily energy intake is needed by their brain for its growth and development. The brain runs on glucose, hence kids’ desire and preference for carbs and sweets. Interesting, huh?

Now, obviously, they can get carbs from a variety of sources, and it’s a great idea to vary those sources. But developing a balanced and moderate approach to sweets can help to keep these items as part of the variety, without making them out to be more special than they are.

Won’t the kid just eat nothing but sweets then?

Well, the idea isn’t to just give them free reign either. As parents, we are in charge of what is served or offered food-wise. Thus, we can exert some control over this situation by only offering sweets occasionally. She calls this a Flexible Goodies Policy (FGP). Again, there is balance to be sought, and each family is different. She gives a few examples of different approaches that can work, like planning to have desserts on certain days, or with certain snacks, etc. It’s a really great chapter and I love how it keeps going back to the idea of a neutral approach to sweets. There’s also an awesome section on troubleshooting this notoriously tricky topic!

Principle 4 - Make nutrition a rewarding part of eating

This chapter discusses the ways our best intentions can sometimes backfire on us. We want so badly to tell kids how good something is for them, how healthy it is, so that they’ll know it’s a good thing to eat. But how often does that work well for most of us? Not often, right?

We eat things because they taste good. Kids are no different.

If they don’t like the taste of something, telling them it’s good for them doesn’t make the taste better. It just inadvertently tells them that healthy stuff is stuff that doesn’t taste good, making them less likely to even try other stuff when they’re told it’s healthy. Hmm. Not our intention!

Similarly, telling them something they DO like is “bad” for them, isn’t a great approach either. So what do we do instead?

It’s not that teaching them about nutrition is a bad thing. It’s just that sometimes the messages aren’t having the intended effect, or perhaps we’re giving too much detail before they need or care to hear it. Giving the message WHILE they’re eating can also be part of what makes the message ineffective.

Maryann gives a nice guideline of how to present nutrition-related information to kids based on their ages, and what they’re able to understand and apply. It seems that as kids grow, they’re better able to understand nutritional concepts, and how nutritious food fuels the activities we love.

Young kids are happy just to be exposed to various foods, learning little bits about them along the way and saving the nutrition education for later. So bring them grocery shopping with you. Bring them out to dinner to experience foods that are different than what you cook at home. Expose them to various experiences, and when they get curious, then feel free to tell some details in a positive way.

Principle 5 - Put pleasure at the center of your table

The whole first half of this book is great, but I think I love the second half even more. The last 4 principles deal more with things that are very closely tied to how we eat, but don’t really have to do with food per se. Take principle 5 for example. At first glance, yeah it sounds like it’s about food and eating. Except it really has more to do with atmosphere.

Imagine being at the most uncomfortable dinner party ever… your spouse’s weird great-uncle is discussing politics and shouting about some conspiracy theory, there are kids fighting over toys, a dog runs around picking at the food on the table before everyone is even seated, some distant relative is questioning your life choices…. I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t enjoy your food much, even if it was your favorite dish.

That’s what principle 5 is about… calming the atmosphere at the dinner table (or breakfast, or lunch) so that everyone can actually enjoy their meal and each other.

“A strong inverse relationship between eating enjoyment and picky eating has been found, meaning that the more food is enjoyed, the less picky the kids are. Controlled eating atmospheres filled with pressure and restriction, researchers believe, can hinder a child’s eating.” 

If mealtimes have become something you dread, this chapter is for you! I know that so many families spend a lot of their meal times coaxing their kids to eat “one more bite” of this, or “try this, you’ll like it”, or “if you don’t eat this you can’t have that other thing you like.”

Try to look at the scene from your child’s point of view if you can. If meals are a time they feel nitpicked to death, the experience becomes some they dread too, and their eating can suffer as a result.

There are some great ideas in this chapter to help grow a happier atmosphere around the family dinner table. I especially like the suggestion of incorporating gratitude before meals and little pre-eating rituals like that.

Principle 6 - Teach body appreciation

The body acceptance principle is a big one! Admittedly, this chapter isn’t one that’s all that applicable in my house at the moment… a 19 month old doesn’t really have any idea about bodies, or accepting and appreciating them or not. He just eats, and plays. But we all know that down the line, kids start to notice bodies. They start to notice when someone is bigger or smaller than them. They hear someone else (or sadly, themselves) called “fat” or made fun of for being so. It’s pretty hard to escape the reality that the world around us is a very superficial one, focused disproportionately on looks and weight. It’s unfortunately only a matter of time before kids notice this and start to internalize it.

“The Food Framework goes something like this: if you don’t like the way your body looks, you can change it with limiting food. This is why body dissatisfaction in both children and adults leads to unhealthy weight control practices.” 

Basically, once people start to internalize an idea that their body is less than ideal, they want to change it by limiting food – aka dieting. Being unhappy with our bodies is what starts us down the path of doing drastic things to try to lose weight or otherwise control our eating. So while eating is a piece of the puzzle, it’s not the real issue. The underlying body dissatisfaction is!

Maryann discusses how we can start instilling body acceptance into kids from their early years. What I like about her approach is that she doesn’t just say “don’t talk about weight.” Avoiding a focus on weight is important, sure. But kids aren’t dumb either. If they come to us with a concern related to weight, and we blow it off, that’s not helpful either.

I honestly wish I could just quote this whole chapter, because SO MUCH of it applies to us as adults. So many of us are unhappy with our bodies, and I talk a lot about how we need to try to change that internal conversation to be a more positive one. We take care of the people we love, and that needs to include ourselves.

“The definition of body appreciation, according to Tracy Tylka is “holding favorable opinions toward the body regardless of its appearance, accepting the body along with its deviations from societal beauty ideals, respecting the body by attending to its needs and engaging in healthy behaviors, and protecting the body by rejecting unrealistic media appearance ideals.” Body appreciation is about having a deep and respectful relationship with your body. Although society encourages an aesthetic view, parents can help kids view their bodies more holistically.”

There are some seriously awesome wisdom nuggets in here you guys! Appreciating the body for what it can do, being skeptical of media portrayals of bodies and ideals, and being aware of the vast array of healthy bodies out there are all big pieces that go into this.

Principle 7 and 8 - Stress and Connection

Again, these chapters deal more with the stuff that carries on underneath the food parts we tend to think are most important. But tell me… when you’re under a lot of stress, do you eat well? If you’re anything like most people I’ve ever talked to, the answer to that is no.

Stress does a whole host of things to us, and when we’re wrapped up in it, our eating tends to suffer. We tend to think of stress as just “work stuff,” and therefore not something that kids would have to worry about. But kids feel stress too. They are very aware, and they notice your stress and can internalize it themselves. Being cooped up in school all day with no outlet to run around and blow off steam means they get stressed themselves too. And a kid who isn’t sleeping well? That’s a big form of stress!

“This is the best place to start – sleep, physical activity, and regular balanced meals – what I call the trifecta of self-care. Families that work hard to keep these three lifestyle factors in line have a head start in managing stress.” 

You can’t control how well your kid sleeps, but you can control when bedtime is so they have the best chance of getting a full night’s rest. You can’t control what foods on their plate they actually eat, but you can control what is served and available. You can’t control what they do at school, but you can give them time to get some playful activity in at home. All of these things help to reduce stress in kids.

One of the topics presented in the stress chapter that I thought might have fit better in the connection chapter was something called emotion coaching. I am SO glad this was put into the book, because I think it’s a really key point, again not just for kids, but for US!

Difficult emotions are the driver behind many non-ideal behaviors. In kids, this manifests as “acting out” and it may look like the kid is just SUPER pissed that tonight’s dinner contains cauliflower. But it’s not actually about the cauliflower at all… usually there is something underneath that they are having a tough time dealing with, and they’re not very good yet at regulating those emotion, so it comes out of difficult behaviors.

Adults do this too. When you’re angry at something, you feel like throwing stuff, right? Like, “My boss is such a jerk I could just throw this stapler right at his face!” Difference between adults and kids is that we have enough self control and self regulation to not actually throw the stapler even though we want to. Kids haven’t quite gotten this concept yet, so they throw stuff and otherwise exert their tough emotions on others.

How to deal with it? Active listening, naming the emotion they’re dealing with, and validating the emotion are big pieces of the puzzle. Basically, show them you understand what they’re feeling, and that even though it’s totally okay to feel that way, it’s not okay to behave this way in response. Find other outlets for their anger or sadness. Tell them it’s okay to cry, to let it out, to be sad sometimes. Show them you’re there for them. Connect.

Connection is such a big piece of the general parenting puzzle. It’s so easy to get caught up in all the demands of daily life – work, running errands, chores, etc. Sometimes we miss out on just spending some quality time together and really connecting!

Having close family relationships is so important for kids for so many reasons. If their don’t feel that close connection, they can seek it in other ways… either through food (which is most pertinent to this post), or through other maladaptive behaviors later in life – drugs, alcohol, etc. Now, neither I or the book is saying your kids will grow up to be addicted to food or drugs if you don’t cuddle them enough! But close connection is always a benefit, and putting time into nurturing that connection is always a positive thing.  

“This positive relationship impacts healthy habits, too. In one study, taking data from project EAT (Eating and Activity in Teens), family functioning – communication, closeness, problem solving, and level of behavioral support – was shown to fuel healthy habits.”

Troubleshooting and other resources

Everything sounds great in theory, right? But what about when you try to put it into practice and it doesn’t go swimmingly right off the bat? Maryann includes a nice section at the end of the book for addressing common challenges that can pop up when trying to implement these principles in your own family. If you’re trying to move toward this style of feeding and parenting from a different way of doing things before, there can be some resistance from the kids!

So fear not, she covers this with some great questions you can use to get to the bottom of whatever difficulty you’re experiencing so you can problem-solve it yourself. It’s broken down into the 8 principles so you can find the questions that pertain to the one you’re having a tough time with.

There’s also a big section at the end of the book with some great additional resources you can look into for further reading on the topics she covers in the book. There are books and websites on mindfulness, intuitive eating, self care, body acceptance, and many others. I’m looking forward to checking some of them out!

Let’s Wrap This Up

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fairly quick read and was very well laid out, so I know exactly where to go if I have questions or need to refer back to it at some point. I think the troubleshooting section will come in handy down the road too!

This book provides such a great foundation for raising a child to have a positive relationship with food. Maryann could probably easily re-word some of the chapters and sell a new version for adults too! Many of us have a funky food relationship that we’ve developed over the years, and we could use these very same principles to repair that relationship for ourselves. Really, who can’t use some more self care, body acceptance, and peace with food?

So if you’re wanting to get your child off on the right foot, or you think your child is showing signs of already having some interesting food hang-ups, this book will be a wonderful resource for you. If you get it, let me know what you think of it! I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did!

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