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Mindful Eating: Lessons from Kindergarten

In order to digest your food properly, your body must be in parasympathetic mode, or in a state of non-stress. Kindergartners at Kennedy Elementary in Somerville, MA know this. Well, they might not know the science behind it or the technical term yet, but during lunch they participate in 6 minutes of silence they call “mindful eating”. When asked why they like “mindful eating”, the children replied, “because it’s quiet”, “I can enjoy my food better”, “I get peace and quiet”, and because “it’s calmly”.

Kindergartener teacher Ms. Scrima and other Kennedy teachers have been implementing mindfulness in the cafeteria and their classrooms since 2016. They are proud to have a lunchtime that looks and sounds quite a bit different from the chaotic cafeteria rush other grades and schools experience. While the students sit at the lunch table silently checking in with themselves, their digestive systems are also benefitting. Physiologically, only until our bodies are in ‘rest mode’ can the brain trigger the release of digestive enzymes, which churn our food into absorbable nutrients. If we are constantly in a state of stress when eating, our food will not be broken down properly leading to and nutrient deficiencies and digestive ailments (heartburn, bloating, acid reflux, burping, and even the development of food sensitivities and leaky gut syndrome).

Think about why traditional cultures say grace before a meal, or sit on the floor to eat…these are all ways of turning the “rest switch” on. By getting our students to turn the rest switch on, we are helping their lunchtime truly become a moment for nourishment. By properly refueling their minds and bodies, they can continue learning in the classroom at optimal performance!

What does it mean to eat mindfully? Relaxing before diving into a meal greatly improves digestion, but beyond physiological benefits, bringing mindfulness into your daily diet enhances flavors and appreciation of what is on your plate. This can lead to less wasted nutrients, less over eating, and even raised awareness of where the food came from and how it was prepared.

To eat mindfully is to eat with intention and attention.

I never thought I would enjoy a raisin. Not even a little. But during a mindfulness exercise in an Environmental Consumerism class in college, my feelings changed. After staring at this thing for 5 minutes and observing every thing about it; smelling it, holding it, bringing it to my lips, and finally tasting it…I actually started to feel guilty I had neglected raisins all this time. With a new-found respect for this food and appreciation for all the factors involved in bringing it from the soil to my plate, there was no way I was throwing that wrinkly little thing away.

In the cafeteria, mindful eating can be a promising approach to inspire children to try new foods and minimize daily waste. It can also encourage students to reduce frantic eating that could lead to chronic snacking, overeating, or other emotional eating.

Ready to get started? Here’s the raisin activity to try this week!

If you are are teacher interested in incorporating mindfulness into your classroom activities, visit the Kennedy Mindfulness Team’s webpage, and follow their 7-week mindfulness program.

You can also start with these steps*:

  • Eat with chopsticks.

  • Eat with your non-dominant hand.

  • Chew your food 30 to 50 times per bite.

  • Eat without TV, newspaper or computer.

  • Eat sitting down.

  • Put the proper portions of food on your plate and try to make the meal last at least 20 minutes.

*Credit: Stephanie Vangsness, RD, LDN, CNSD, Brigham and Women's Hospital, "Mastering the Mindful Meal".

Do you have other ways you practice mindful eating? How else do you think mindful eating can benefit our children in schools, or our families at home?

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