Teaching healthy eating habits by bringing the principles of mindful eating into the classroom at snack time may be the ultimate way for teachers to help their students build a lifelong habit of being kind to the body by engaging the mind.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 17% of American children and adolescents aged 2-19 are obese, making the promotion of healthy eating habits an important priority for parents and teachers alike. One way to support healthy eating habits is by helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food, and an effective approach for opening the conversation is through the concept of mindful eating.
Mindful eating involves focusing one’s full attention on the act of eating by eliminating distractions, chewing slowly, and using all the senses to enjoy one’s food. A growing body of scientific literature is providing a solid evidence base for mindful eating as way to control weight through sensory awareness and making healthy food choices.
In her 2009 book, Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship to Food, pediatrician and Zen teacher, Jan Chozen Bays states, “… much of our lives are caught up in the past and future at the expense of the present moment…” She goes on to make the point that if we cannot be present in the moment, then we can never “…love ourselves as we actually are,” establishing a firm link between self-acceptance and healthy behavior choices.
By slowing down while eating and devoting one’s full attention to the act of eating, anyone of any age can become aware of the pleasant, fulfilling, and uniquely enjoyable nature of eating. Mindful eating carries additional educational value because it incorporates systems thinking by requiring a person to reflect upon how individual choices affect and are affected by the larger ecological, agricultural, economic and socio-political infrastructure. Additionally, the ideal of non-judgment, which is inherent to the concept of mindfulness in general, can translate into other areas of life beyond eating and food choices. For a creative teacher, this provides an open doorway to any number of teachable moments that may or may not be directly related to healthy eating habits.
The lesson plan described below is titled “Snack Attack,”and presents a simple way for teachers to help kids in grades 3-5 learn healthy eating habits by associating the concepts of mindful eating with snack time. This lesson plan was created by the Healthy Kids Challenge, a nationally recognized, award-winning, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping schools and community programs support nutrition education. The Balance My Day lesson plans promoted through Healthy Kids Challenge meet the CDC’s Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT) standards. A link to the original lesson plan is included in the list of sources.
- Begin by discussing with students how snacking, when healthy choices are made, can curb hunger between meals. Describe the opposite scenario of how snacking can lead to overeating or “mindless eating” if the snacker fails to pay attention while snacking.
- Make a list of ways people don’t pay attention when they eat, such as: Watching TV; reading; playing video games or engaging in other activities while eating; taking snack portions directly from a large box, bag or dish; and eating out of boredom, sadness or nervousness instead of true hunger.
- Ask if anyone in the group has ever eaten something so fast they didn’t realize when they weren’t hungry any more, and just kept eating. Explain the importance of eating slowly by sharing that it can take 20 minutes for the signals of satiety or satisfaction to reach the brain.
- Ask the group to brainstorm actions they could take instead of engaging in the unhealthy snacking behaviors described above. Include alternatives like: Choosing a set time for a snack; turning off the TV or video games during snack time; finding other things to do instead of eating (hobby, active play); put a snack portion in a special (small) dish or plate and put the large box away before beginning to eat; eat slowly and pay attention to the flavors of the food and the feelings you are having (learn to recognize when you are full).
- Provide scenarios of unhealthy snacking situations and ask students what they could do instead. Encourage kids to pick at least one healthy snack habit and start using it daily.
- An additional idea for locking in the lesson above might involve serving a healthy snack in the classroom while walking students through the process of eating slowly and using each sense to experience the appearance, aroma, texture, and taste of the food while reflecting upon the larger systems and choices that brought the food to them.
Practicing mindful eating helps children learn to be kind to their bodies by building healthy eating habits. Teachers and parents can reinforce the healthy eating habits they are teaching by being role models for mindful eating — at snack time, at meal time, and all the time.