Every mom has experienced this: A wayward goldfish that fell off your daughter’s plate makes it into your mouth. Or maybe the remnants of a “gourmet” lunch of chicken nuggets oddly call your name during the little one’s naptime. Or maybe the kiddo is eating so slowly and you’re late for the Gymboree class, so you help her out by taking half her PB&J and washing it down with some apple juice.
It’s not like we actually want these foods, and in some cases we’re not even especially happy our kids are eating them (but that’s another story for another day). So why do so many of us do this time and again?
Its called the “if it’s there, you’ll eat it” phenomenon.
Author and food psychologist Brian Wansink, who wrote the book “Mindless Eating,” has done many studies on this topic. One study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, involved two groups of moviegoers who ordered popcorn. One group received a small bucket of three-day-old stale popcorn. The other group had a large bucket of three-day-old stale popcorn. Despite both groups having stale popcorn, the group with the large bucket ate 34% more popcorn than those with the small bucket. They ate more simply because it was there.
“If it’s there, you’ll eat it.”
A fix for this particular issue is to practice what I call “location organization.” This can be done in a few ways.
1. Eat a substantial meal before serving your kids so you’re nice and full.
2. Buffer the toddler food with fruits and veggies for you (and them) to graze on.
3. Immediately throw out your kids’ leftovers, or cover and put them in the fridge or pantry to give to them later. Getting it out of your purview can prevent the mindless grazing.
And there are other reasons moms eat their kids leftovers — boredom, stress, lack of sleep, mindlessness. Feel familiar? Let’s address these issues — and ways to fight them:
I can be honest here, right? I love my kids dearly and treasure my time with them. But when they were young, I was bored a lot of the time. Instead of playing Barbies and making meals and cleaning up after meals, I wanted to be taking classes, hanging out with good friends, or reading. When we’re bored, we’re more likely to use food as a surrogate for what is lacking in our lives.
Action item: Start a meet-up focused on a passion or hobby you’ve been wanting to explore. Listen to a book during carpools or on your way to work. Take a class on the weekend. Take the kids somewhere YOU want to go. It’s often about balance and self-care.
When we’re stressed, as moms often are, we reach for and eat foods instinctively rather than using our prefrontal cortex and executive functioning to make sound decisions. So, while we’re in a low- or high-level stress response (wiping the baby’s butt, pouring juice for the toddler, and helping the 6-year-old with her homework), we are tapped out and simply cannot use our planning and other skills. We go for the low-hanging fruit with respect to food, and, sadly, that is usually not fruit!
Action item: When you get everyone settled, take 5–10 deep breaths to let your body get into a relaxation response. Use the “stop, look, and listen” approach. Stop in the moment before grabbing food, look around you, and understand what is going on. Are the kids fighting? Are you bored? Distracted? Did you just hear some bad news? And then listen. Listen to your body — is it telling you that you’re hungry, or can you be aware that this craving to eat right now stems from what is going around you and the emotional state you’re in?
Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can inform so many other systems in our bodies. It can affect our hunger hormones, make us vulnerable, and give us less emotional and cognitive bandwidth to get through the stress of our day. It can cause us to feel we need “energy,” i.e., simple cards or carb cravings when, in fact, we need a nap. This can cause us to be much more likely to grab the goldfish than take the extra time to cut up some red peppers.
Action item: You may not be able to get the amount of sleep you need, given the situation in your home and the ages of your kids. But you can work on sleep hygiene and rituals to prepare you for sleep, help you get into a relaxation response, and improve the quality of the sleep you are getting. Create slumber routines like a warm bath, a few drops of lavender essential oil on your pillow, a mug of hot tea. Avoid screen time for an hour before bed.
We are a distracted nation. We eat on the go, in our cars, quickly, sometimes furtively, and standing up. When we are mindless, we also don’t always take the time to slow down, pre-plan our meals, and have good natural eating rhythm.
Action item: To become a more mindful eater, take 5-10 deep breaths before taking a bite. Put down your fork or spoon between bites. Aim to chew 10 times per bite before swallowing. And own the decision to eat and take out as many distractions as possible while eating.
Over to you. What leads you to eat the leftovers, even when you’re not hungry? Which of the solutions resonates with you the most?