Yes, You Have to Wait for Dinner

Feeding one’s family can often turn into a food fight or at least a source of conflict. Supermarkets are lined with cookies, sweetened beverages, and candy.  Any parent knows that walking through a grocery store can be a challenge to say the least. Children often ask for sugary snacks and they want them now. Waiting to eat until a more routine meal or selecting nutrient dense foods take a fair amount of self-control.   It is challenge for ourselves as adults but it also challenging to teach children and youth to eat nutritious foods, limit the amount of snacking, and exhibit self-control. This article will help you learn some tips about how to encourage self-control when feeding your children and youth.

Recently, terms like self-control, self-regulation and grit have become popular.  The question is what do these terms mean and how does it relate to eating? Self-control is defined as voluntary actions in which individuals engage to advance personally valued longer term goals despite conflicting urges that are more potent in the moment (Duckworth & Steinberg, 2015).  Eating patterns are a great example of this. Do I eat the warm chocolate chip cookies now because they will taste good or do I wait until lunch and eat a regularly planned meal? Self-Regulation refers to both unconscious and conscious processes that affect the ability to control responses (Child Trends, 2010).  Both of these terms illustrate an important habit when selecting one’s own diet and the meals and diets of children and youth. 

 The terms self-control and self-regulation are associated with the mindfulness movement.  The question arises, can applying mindfulness concepts, specifically mindful feeding, help parents teach their children self-control and self-regulation as it relates to eating.   If so, how do parents add mindful feeding as an effective tool to their parenting toolbox? Mindfulness is defined as the ability to bring one’s attention to experiences in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way (Kabat-Zinn, 1990).  Likewise, mindful feeding is defined as having a high mental and emotional presence while feeding your child (Meers, 2013). Research indicates that parents who practice mindful feeding tend to have diets lower in added sugar intake and consumer more fruit and vegetables (Emley, Taylor, & Eizemna, 2016)   Other positive outcomes of mindful eating is the potential to increase parent-child bonding due to shared family mealtimes and a decreased reliance on food to regulate children’s emotions.

Therefore, mindfulness and mindful feeding can be applied to eating behaviors as one brings attention to the way one’s bodies feels.   Don’t let that key phrase, “attention to the way our bodies feel”, pass you by. It is crucial to mindfulness. You have to take a moment to figure out what you’re feeling.  Often, hunger is mistaken for many other body clues like thirst, boredom, stress, pain, and more. The next step is to act with self-control or self-regulation.

As a parent you have the responsibility of modeling self-control and self-regulation to your children.  Children benefit from this modeling by learning when to eat, how much to eat, and how often to consume certain types of food.  These lessons will result in exponential benefits as they mature and become adults themselves. A parent that models self-control and self-regulation can practice mindful feeding by adopting these simple tips:

Model self-control and self-regulation by… Practice mindful feeding by…
Knowledge is power.  Learn portion sizes and their visual equivalents. (i.e.- a small cell phone equals about 3 oz of chicken) Teaching your child portion sizes and their visual equivalents (i.e.- a ping pong ball equals about 2 tablespoons of peanut butter)
Stopping to think about your feelings.  Are you actually hungry? Asking questions to determine if your child is thirsty/tired/bored/upset/etc..
Avoiding buffets, but if you are at a buffet make only one trip.  Don’t overfill your plate – rely on your knowledge of portion sizes Seeing what is offered at the table or down the buffet line.  Make one trip of healthy choices and correct portions.
Eating mindfully and slowly.  This should take at least 20 minutes – the amount of time for your stomach to signal your brain that you are full. Teaching fast eaters to slow down by setting a timer for 20 minutes or have them use the opposite hand to eat.
During mealtimes, turn off the TV and be mindful of your meal. Sitting together to treasure the family time while you are mindful of your meal.
Resisting pressure from your friends and family to eat unhealthy foods.  Instead, ask them to help keep you accountable. Giving permission to not eat all the food on their plate.  This does not mean they get to eat junk food later. 
Limiting meals at fast food restaurants or by making the wisest choices.  Also, don’t “up size” your order.

Not eating one’s emotions.  Learn to talk through your emotions instead of eating chocolate, cookies or ice cream to cope with a difficult experience.   

Teaching them how to make wise choices at fast food restaurants – grilled options, fruit or salad (w/o dressing), and milk or water

Eating when you are hungry and not as a way to cope with a challenging situation or issue.  


Use the note card below to increase your awareness of your child’s likes and dislikes and help them learn to be mindful of the food they eat.


Bandy, T. & Moore, K.A., (2010).  Assessing self-regulation: A guide for out-of-school time program practitioners.  Research-to-Results Brief, Washington, DC:  Child Trends. 

Duckworth, A. & Steinberg, L. (2015).  Unpacking self-control. Child Development Perspective. 9(1): 32–37. http:

Emley, E. A., Taylor, M. B., Musher-Eizeman, D.R. (2016). Mindful feeding and child dietary health.  Eating Behaviors, 24, 89-94.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness, New York, NY:  Hyperion.

Meers. M. (2013). The assessment of mindful food parenting and its relation to parental feeding practices and child food intake.  (Unpublished doctoral dissertation) Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University.


Michelle Krehbiel, PhD, University of Nebraska- Lincoln Extension

Kimber Sarver, 4-H Youth Development Agent UF/IFAS Extension, Miami-Dade County