Mindful eating

In the 45 minutes duration of my son’s soccer lesson recently, I witnessed mini packets of shapes, rice wheels, grain waves, potato stix, biscuits with lollies stuck to them, cupcakes, juice poppers all being enjoyed by younger siblings. It was between 9.45am and 10.30am. No children asked for food at any point. All were offered it by parents incessantly. All went on to do other things such as scootering, running, climbing a tree, while eating the snacks.

I therefore wanted to write about an observation I’ve made recently, in an effort to put it out there, that we largely have the way we feed our kids – and ourselves – a little wrong. I’m certainly not saying that you do or I don’t or anyone’s “guilty”, because we can’t be guilty if we don’t even realise something’s wrong – that’s the thing with this problem, it’s mindless.

I am here to suggest that we are all swimming in a pool of mindless eating, so here’s a post on the observation, the negative effects, and of course, what to do about it.

Snacks were born from marketers seeing an opportunity to amplify a problem and resolve it by offering something to buy as the solution. There was indeed a problem. We couldn’t last until the next meal. We were hungry all the time. Bingo. Make small profitable, stable shelf life packets to respond to this so called societal hunger crisis. Snacks gave birth to eating on the go. Snacks took us away from sitting to a table to enjoy a beautiful big meal, because come meal time, who’s hungry anyway? We’ve eaten too many darn snacks!!! Snacks were built out of the rise of grain and sugar based meals from the 1970s, because you just can’t last until the next meal with 2 pieces of bread and a tiny couple of bits of things on the inside or a few sugary flakes or puffs. You get hungry. You need something more. What a genius economic business growth strategy, right? Now I’ve got nothing against people making money, no. At the expense of health though? Children’s health? Then, yes, in that case I do take issue.

My research mission: Trying not to look creepy, I tasked myself with sitting at a playground bench and watching parents with their kids. Within minutes, no matter what time of the morning, you’ll start to hear ‘want a banana? want some biscuits? how about a ginger bread man? here have a rice wheel, c’mon! here’s a sandwich sweetie, just take a little bite’… You’ll start to see parents feeding and suggesting food while kids are half way up play equipment. You’ll observe that the child probably had food furthest from their mind as they were in the middle of pretending to be on a rocket ship. You’ll see drink bottles being flung about mid-ladder. You’ll see cupcakes loaded with fake coloured toppings being brought out at 10am after a big run around, when a big drink of water was all that was needed. I’ve never once in the weeks of observing, ever heard a child say they were hungry to their parent. I’m not saying that a child won’t be hungry ever between meals, not at all – in fact many kids are constantly hungry which is why I wrote THAT PIECE to help. I’m simply saying that in hours of watching and observing, I’ve not yet heard one say it and stop playing to come to their parent seeking food.

We have to stop pestering our kids to eat and most importantly,

we have to stop them eating while they are busy doing something else. While we’re at it, we have

to stop doing it too! 


Two questions therefore we need to ask ourselves

1. Do we create mindless eating – eating around the clock, at any hour, without thinking about the food we’re eating or stopping to enjoy it.

2. Are we taking away a child’s natural instinct to be able to communicate to us, when they are hungry or thirsty.

3. Are we feeding ourselves / our kids the wrong foods that they only last an hour before the next pang of hunger strikes? And, is there anything truly wrong with a hunger pang in the first place? 

We are instilling a fear of hunger when it should be a feeling that is welcomed. It’s an important conversation our body has with us, when we give it the chance to speak. Should we not be teaching our kids to listen to their bodies?

The reasons we want to feed our kids in this mindless way are well meaning. We never want to have an upset child and always want to provide for our child. Whenever food was around back in our hunter gatherer days, we’d feed our children as much as we could. We can relax now though. We can grab food easily and when needed and that’s something to be extremely grateful for, when some in the world cannot. We are going to be just fine even if we come to feel peckish. I feel sad thinking about the poor kids who really don’t have much food and feel hungry all the time. I wish we could be feeding them instead of overfeeding our own!

Good big meals, teaching to stop and eat and enjoy is how the French do it – there might be a little afternoon tea, but that’s it. It’s way cheaper, way healthier because you avoid literally hundreds of additives and weird numbers if what you’re ‘losing’ is processed snacks. It’s way more sustainable because you avoid so many plastic packets and it allows little bodies immune building time, by having times where they’re not digesting food.

Or, if you find you’re a family that prefers smaller meals and a couple of small snacks in between, then let them be real food.

This is a wake up call to see if we might be over feeding unnecessary foods to our children – both because they might not be hungry and possibly also because many of the foods in question are processed snacks that there is zero need nor benefit from.

If your little one is always hungry try reading this post for ideas or if they’re super fussy and disinterested, then this chocolate shake should sort that out as an addition to the breakky table or for a pause on the bench at the park.

If you have hyperglycemia, type 2 diabetes or other blood sugar related issues, then of course, more regular eating is essential, however you can improve your condition or your child’s with an experienced practitioner’s advice and council and even reverse those issues, sometimes completely. If you have a child under 2, they’re small and have small tummies and little tide over snacks are important between meals, but just one mid morning and one mid afternoon are fine. Incessant eating means lots of time spent digesting and not enough time replenishing the immune system.

If you’ve realised: Oh CRAP, this is me: Do not panic. Today is the day you can change it. I am a recovered mindless eater and still have to catch myself. The other day in the kitchen, I caught myself doing squats while eating a piece of dark chocolate. True story. Some might say that’s actually productive cancellation theory. I say, mindless eating.

So, what to do?

Step 1: Do you eat mindfully? If not, start today. Implement a policy at home and out, where none of you eat ‘on the go’ ie, moving. No walking, driving, TV watching, I pad browsing while eating. If you have to stop and do nothing else every time you eat, chances are you’re going to realise that eating is not a priority and you’d rather be doing something else. Eat at meal times.

Step 2: When you eat. Concentrate on it and get your kids to aswell. The taste, texture, the sensation it gives you and when you are starting to feel full or lose pleasure from the food. Our minds lose pleasure from a food that we’ve had enough of. This is particularly dangerous with processed foods, as they mess with these natural messages and we can risk never being told we’re full – especially from trans fats, chemically made salt and fake sweeteners.

Step 3: Between meals, never suggest food to your child and if they ask for food, try saying ‘lunch is in a little bit’ if you’re less than an hour away from lunch. If they’re super hungry, have a few cheese squares, celery sticks or crackers with jam and nut butter at the ready to stave off the hunger until meal time but keep it to a minimum to encourage them to eat their main meals. Stop buying processed packet snacks. There’s absolutely no need for them. Cancel one a week and go easy on yourself at first, but phase them out. Shop with the chemical maze app by your side and learn what’s in them. You’ll be horrified by what we’ve been spun over the past decades and empowered to take control back of YOU deciding what your kids are nourished with, not marketers. It’s not your fault. Most of us totally fell for them, including myself until 12 years ago. Pop tarts for breakfast anyone?

Step 4: Up the nutrient density of your meals. Can you add a little butter to your veg, a stock based sauce to your meat, coconut cream or cream to your soups, stews or curries? Read this post to get more ideas. Slow and steady burning energy from nutrient dense foods, means calmer, more relaxed kids. Now, who doesn’t want a piece of that action!?!?!

Step 5: Don’t call processed foods, treats. Your kids will thank you for this a million times over once they’re grown ups. Read my article on redefining treats here. or check out my book on the subject, including 68 recipes here. 

Step 6: Clear your own food issues. Secret eating, constant browsing of fridge, reward treats that aren’t real treats (see step 5 link)… You won’t be able to be the example you want to be for your kids until your own issues are gone. Man, I had some issues. Secret eating, browsing non stop for food. I grew up not eating very mindfully, so I had a heck of a lot of work to do there. It can be and needs to be done.

I’d be keen to here your thoughts. Your journey, a realisation, a success story in cutting out processed foods? Mindful eating is a life skill and it’s up to us to teach it, even if that means learning it first ourselves.

If you fancy getting deeper into food and thriving kids – everything from psychology, to deficiencies, fussy eating and more, the next round of my THRIVE e course is open for registration so hop over and check it out here.

Real Food. Happy Bodies.

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Comments 50

  1. Hi Alexx,
    Well written and great advice.
    One thing I’d like to add is that while my kids eat real foods 95% of the time, I find my son is very good with eating large meals and never asks for snacks. My daughter on the other hand will have a large breakfast (all nutrient dense, say eggs, veg sticks, 1/2 of my protein smoothie, etc etc) and around 1.5h later will still ask for a snack, almost every day! I think some kids have a very fast metabolism!
    This is why I still spend time making nutrient dense snacks like nut flour muffins and banana breads and coconut oil ‘chocolates’!

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      Hi Maria, Thanks for leaving a note. Totally agree re the snacks front for the perpetually hungry ones… there are snacks and there are snacks and some nutrient dense goodies will be just the thing xx

  2. Couldn’t agree more! I have a 3yr old and a 1 yr old.
    We seem to do 4 main meals though instead of 3 but i suppose one could be called morning or afternon tea depending on the day. It is usually some fruit and cheese. x

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      So do we. 3 meals and an afternoon tea type thing 🙂 1 year old tummies probably need a little more regular eating because of their tiny tummies. Although, I’m remembering my little one at 1 and his tummy was anything but tiny 😉 !!

  3. Thanks for a great article, Alexx. I’m afraid I used to fall in to the category of the mindless feeding of my child 🙁 Then I cleaned up our diet, got rid of the over processed rubbish that is things like rice wheels, muesli bars and potato stix and had my second child. She hasn’t had much of the rubbish at all and the two girls are very different with their eating. My eldest is ALWAYS telling me she’s hungry, seeing what she can eat. My youngest rarely asks for snacks between meals. Both eat a wide variety of healthy, home made, protein rich meals, full of good fats, etc. I’ve never really thought about why the difference between them could be, but your article makes me think it’s that early mindless feeding! I have always been a mindless eater and one of the biggest lessons I am conscious about passing on to my children is to not be like me in that regard.

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      How interesting between the 2! I’m a recovering mindless eater too and I agree, it’s so great we can nip it in he bud and not pass it on 🙂

  4. Great article thanks Alexx. This will help me with a lot of my own issues. I’m going to put myself in the deep end and admit to eating my breakfast while reading it, oops!! Won’t be doing that anymore. I have a 3 1/2 and 2 1/2 year old and find it hard to determine whether they are genuinely hungry or not. If they have asked for a snack and I ask if they are hungry I think they have already clued onto that fact that if they say yes they will get the food.

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      Thanks Janelle and so excited it spoke to you. I’d say just don’t make it ritualistic to bring food out all the time and just see if they volunteer hunger. Something I do with my little guy is say ‘ok sweetie, let’s do a craft project and then have a snack’ and often we do a craft project and he doesn’t bring it up again and then it’s a meal time anyway, but sometimes, we’ll get set up and then he’ll ask me again and I’ll know he’s actually hungry. That seems to work for us 🙂

  5. When I was a young mum I was terribly guilty of buying all that rubbish for my children’s lunch boxes. I was just so busy, working and helping out on the farm.
    However, in the holidays we would always make healthy foods to eat and I would always talk to my children about foods that are good and those not so good.
    They are all very aware of good foods in their adulthood and all eat well, generally not snacking in between meals.
    Thanks for your great articles, I’m off to read some more. I’ve just had a mid morning snack of brown rice crackers with home made labne, smoked salmon, tomato and sprouts.
    I had a smoothie for breakfast and need something before lunch to keep me going!

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  6. Alexx I LOVE that you do squats and eat chocolate. Seriously! I do leg stretches while brushing my teeth and no longer will I feel odd about that.
    I agree totally and relate to the notion that snacking in between meals is totally unnecessary. Sitting and eating mindfully is the project I will undertake under your inspiration – so a big thanks to you!

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      We’re all weirdos in some way, rest assured. I ate my salad and pate extra mindfully today at lunch as you can imagine! 🙂

  7. My family food and shopping, in order is fiercely additive free, fresh and organic. To me it’s simple, you just ignore 80% of the supermarket aisles and shop in a variety of food shops but to most, it seems shop in one place and pack their shopping trolleys with packet food and snacks. I come up against this all the time and especially around extended family. I buy good quality crackers, mash up avocado, cut up variety of cheeses and fruit and there is his very tasty and nutritious snack. A snack that can be processed by the body and does good things for it. We don’t exlude sweets by any means; I make mine with nuts and dark chocolate or buy the good stuff from bakeries. The biggest problem I have is everyone keeps buying the cheapest sweets and gives them to my child. I get so offended because to me it’s garbage and that’s where they belong. Why do people buy the crap stuff for kids and keep the better stuff for adults (in some cases). It’s a topsey turvey world!

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      It is odd that difference between what kids eat / adults eat. It all stems from the invention of the children’s menu in hotels I reckon. Why do kids need things different to us? All interesting stuff!

      1. It just so happens we stayed at a hotel last night and I ordered an entree and big main to share with my son instead of kids menu. I was so glad to discover your blog, when people talk about healthier food often additives and toxins are ignored but you directly discuss these topics. Very informative blog. Thank you!

      2. I’m in the US and I really dislike the kid’s menus. The portions are huge (just like the adult servings) and most of the choices are bland, boring, and largely fried. I generally just share my plate with my daughter, which gives us each a more reasonable portion. I love the look of shock on server’s faces when they see her asking for more shrimp, or salmon, or scarfing down Brussles sprouts!

        I’ve been cutting out processed foods recently as a budgeting measure, but hadn’t thought specifically about the health impact. Now I will be doubling my efforts!

  8. Hi Alexx, great article and very timely for my little family.
    For myself, I stopped snacking a couple of months ago and I cope fine. I was wondering though if it was ok to stop giving the kids (6, 5, 3, 1) snacks as I had this deep seated belief that ‘little bellies needed filling more often’ (not sure where or how that belief came about but it is certainly entrenched). Our household has been processed food free for 18 months so snacks are healthy anyway. It is great to hear that snacks are not necessary and it is ok for children to adopt a three meal a day scenario (of course allowing for individuals). I am curious though about whether it is ok to allow our children to eat as much as they like. My eldest son (6) will eat and eat and eat, especially at dinner. I will roast veggies and meat and at the end after a huge plate he will stand in the kitchen finishing off all of the potato, sweet potato, pumpkin (roasted generously in coconut oil, duck fat or ghee etc) and steamed greens like spinach, broccoli etc. He just wont stop. For breakfast he would have an apple, banana, porridge (with nuts/seeds etc) then I send him to school with a boiled egg, veggie sticks (carrot/cucumber etc) and sandwhich on homemade bread (Cyndi O’Meara’s bible bread) with chicken, cheese, lettuce and an apple. He eats far more than my husband. It’s crazy. Do I just let it go? I don’t know what to do!

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      Hi Nicole. Thanks for your note. I’d say for the 6, 5 and 3 you could definitely discourage any more snacking that one small nutrient dense thing in between meals, but for the little one, 6 times a day of something, whether it’s milk or meal is important as bubs’ tummies are tiny and need more regular nourishment. Growing boys eat truckloads. Do not panic. As long as it’s good stuff, low sugar, low grain, then it’s fuel for their growth (and girls of course too) and as long as weight isn’t an issue, then let him at it I say. If you’re truly concerned, why not pop off to a good nutritionist for a check up and chat? My 14 ways to nourish you up post could be helpful too which I popped in this post as a link 🙂

  9. Hi Alexx, what a wonderful post and a powerful reminder. A little while a go I read a book called French Kids Don’t Throw Food – or something along those lines and the message I took from it was definitely the ‘snack’ message. Since then, I do not go to the park laden down with lunch boxes, drink bottles etc…we have a good filling meal and then that’s it until the next one…if anyone’s desperate, they will ask for a piece of fruit. Not only is it so much better for us to form these good habits, it’s also a whole lot less work for us mums!

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      Thanks so much Kristin ( i always want to automatically call you mamacino!) French Kids Eat Everything. Great book. So glad it spoke to you and I agree – not having to pack a billion things for the morning out is freeing. Kids learn pretty quick to ‘eat now or forever deal with your hunger’ x

  10. Thank you for posting your observation Alexx. I was meant to read this today. My food behavior is definitely my biggest hurdle in terms of healthy family eating. There have been major shifts in my approach to shopping and cooking family meals this year, but mindful eating certainly poses a personal challenge. Excellent food for thought <3

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      Erin I’m so glad it spoke to you and am super excited for you and your family about the amazing changes you’re making. You can totally do it! x

  11. Well written. It all applies absolutely to everyone, but you gave some really good examples about kids. I changed to what you’re calling “mindful eating” and I can eat full cream, plenty of meat and never have to worry about weight anymore. It takes about 6 months to feel comfortable with losing all the sugar from your diet, but it’s definitely worth it and it’s a much more consistent way of eating and living your life.

  12. Such a fabulous post and wisdom for all of us. Thank you. Echoes my sentiments in my book When Hungry, Eat. Always great to be reminded of how we inadvertently create habits and patterns that we pass on to our kids. Thanks again.

  13. Wonderful article, thank you. My fix journey over the last 18 months has been huge. We were all mindless eaters of terrible processed foods. We are now totally free of crap. The only thing I haven’t been able to get my 5yo to change is snacking while watching a movie. It’s that simple bad though? It’s always something healthy. Sometimes it’s a bowl of almonds!

  14. Hi Alexx – wise words! I couldn’t agree more. I often get the sense from other mums that I’m mean or boring because when we’re out and about with them I don’t bring a bag full of packaged snacks & juice boxes. We always bring our own bottles of water, and somthing nutritious – nuts, cheese, avocado, in case they are truly hungry. One thing I try to do is have an early dinner because the kids are ravenous by the time they get home from school. The latest we start to eat on weeknights is 5pm – usually it’s earlier. So in winter I try to have something on the go in the slow cooker that’s ready to eat when we get home, or leftovers ready to heat in the oven or on the stovetop as soon as we’re home. Then later on they can have some cheese, yoghurt etc if they’re still hungry. In the warmer months it’s easy to have a salad prepared & ready to serve – of course with protein & good fats like avocado. My mum always told us to wait until lunch or dinner, we coped & weren’t malnourished – quite the opposite. i’m very lucky that my mum raised us on wholefoods. These days you’re almost made to feel neglectful by making children wait until mealtimes or if you’re not chasing them around making sure they always have plenty of snacks on hand. I know I’m not, I put a lot of time, thought and care into the food I provide for my children.

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      it is very odd to think that we are made to feel neglectful or that we’re depriving our kids, by having a whole foods approach to those who don’t. They’re just not ready yet for the big picture. They will be one day – stay ‘crazy’ and proud until then! 🙂

  15. I know I’m not the only mom to disagree with this because I watch other kids react the same way as my son. My 3 year old will ‘forget’ to eat and then spiral into a meltdown because he’s hungry. If he didn’t snack he would be pretty miserable (and so would I). I only give him organic healthy snacks- and sometimes not so healthy but never corn-syrup type snacks). I pretty much have to put out food for him to eat while he’s playing to ward off a hunger meltdown. Any thoughts?

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      Hi Hope. You don’t have to disagree I don’t think, because it’s about a)what we’re feeding our kids and how to feed them better stuff (which you’re already doing. awesome) and b) how we can bring more structure in so that they don’t develop unhealthy food habits / attitudes and we can definitely all agree that’s . I totally hear your problem and a couple of friends have been the same in the past. What’s really worked for them is when they get to the park, they do a little morning tea ritual where the child doesn’t get to start playing, until they’ve had their whole food snack. Then, after the big play time it’s water only and then home or onto lunch. If we take charge and bring some structure in and really try and get the most nutrients into those 3 main meals to keep snacking to a minimum, then we’ll hopefully minimise the mom’s like you experiencing the melt downs and create healthier eating habits into the future. You’re obviously doing a great job already on what he eats and I hope that extra tip helps with the meltdowns. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. This was first and foremost a post to get a conversation going and it’s awesome to see people’s challenges as well as successes with what we’re all doing. Have a great weekend 🙂

  16. Hi Alexx,

    Thank you for your article. A dear friend sent it to me and I loved it! I had a question. I find myself snacking a lot while I prepare or cook food, especially my daughter’s meals. I have thought that may be that too is setting a bad habit. I know where I get it from, my Dad does the very same thing. Now I know this is a big weight gain problem, mindlessly snacking while preparing food. So can you offer a tip? I know I know, “Just don’t do it” but sometimes that is easier said than done especially when I too am hungry and again want to get away from that feeling.

    Thank you in advance

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      Hi Heather,

      We all do it. It is a habit to break that takes time and I have no silver bullet I’m afraid. You could put an essential oil hand cream on perhaps that won’t taste nice to remind you not to pick and pick. You’re super welcome and glad you enjoyed the piece! 🙂

  17. Hi Alexx,
    So funny that I found this post today after a visit from my mother in-law. I have no problem instilling regular mealtimes, minimal snacking, and no processed foods for my 1 1/2 year old but my mother in-law is desperate to feed her as much crap as she can. It is a constant battle to intervene. Who feeds a 1 year old baby tiramisu??? And all this as she recounts stories of taking her son to the paediatric dentist due to “bad baby teeth”, and making 3 meals a night because her sons wouldn’t eat anything other than meat and potatos 🙁
    She made me feel so mean for not allowing my child the cakes she brought over 10 minutes before dinner time.
    I know I am more than slightly mindful (OBSESSED) with only filling my daughter’s tummy with nutritionally useful food, but what do you do about the weirdos who insist on shoving crap in children’s mouths and don’t listen to you when you say “that’s enough”??

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      Ah yes, the grandparent. My little guy snacks way more at mum’s too. I made it very clear though to all grandparents that no additives or sugar laden foods are allowed or they simply won’t get to hang out as much. My obsession and insistence, actually brought whole foods out to the wider family and it’s been awesome. Took a lot of work though and sounds like your partner should do the talking. That’s our rule here – if we’ve got a problem with ‘your’ / my parent, then the partner who’s the child of that parent, has to tackle it. Could you guys all watch something like ‘hungry for change’ together? Let me finish by saying You are NOT mean. You’re a god send to that little one of yours, Alexx 🙂

  18. The amount of snacking that goes on amazes me, especially as a parent of a son who was diagnosed withe type 1 diabetes at 17 months. Because of his diabetes, my son is on a regular schedule regarding meals and can only have limited snacks between meals. It is frustrating when he is surrounded by other kids snacking who seem to snack nonstop. Thankfully my son is accustomed to having to eat differently from those around him.

    I noticed that you suggested that diabetes might be reversed with the help of a nutritionist, and would like to politely point out that while that might be true for type 2 diabetes, the same is not the case for type 1 (previously called juvenile diabetes), as it is an irreversible auto-immune disease–my son will be insulin-dependent for the rest of his life, no matter how careful we are with his diet. Misunderstandings about the possibilities of reversing this disease can be very frustrating for those of us who cope with this disease on a day-to-day basis.

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      Hi Kara, Thanks so much for your comment and lovely note! I immediately change the post to type 2 diabetes, specifically. Thanks so much for that and yes, the last thing any parent needs is even for a second to think there’s a cure for something when there isn’t. Your little man is so lucky to have a mum who cares about his nutrition so much, have a great weekend, Alexx.

  19. Great food for thought. Totally made me think about the way I eat (too busy to chill, eating at my computer), the way I offer my kids food between meals (what I offer is fine, but perhaps I do offer too often!).
    I too am shocked at what people feed their kids, and even daycare snacks.
    This is something everyone should read.

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      Am so glad it struck a chord with you Danielle. It’s not about guilt, it’s about introspection and a bit of change if we need to. Still something I’m working on myself too 🙂

  20. I love this article, it is so true. I was Horrified when my 8 year old started playing netball this year and at half time the coach pulled out lollies…. WT!!! Really, what are we teaching these kids, that they need a sugar hit to be able to perform or keep going!! all they need is water… and maybe a bit of fruit.
    That’s all my 5 siblings and I got as kids.
    As for dinner, a plate of meat and veg did the trick for dinner.
    Thanks for this read xx

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  21. Really great article Alexx. I absolutely loved the book ‘French Kids Eat Everything’. It really resonated with me about our cultural obsession with the mindless food consumption. Thanks again for a great read 🙂

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  22. I just wanted to make another comment after reading the feedbacks on this very interesting topic: sometimes mindless eating is emotional eating. Many of us do it I think: feel sad- chocolate, feel stressed- coffee (with chocolate), you get the idea. I noticed that kids do this too. Sometimes when my daughter asks for a snack like 30 mins after breakfast it’s always when we are either at a new playground, with a new person or doing something she is not entirely comfortable with. It took me a while to figure this out. Some kids have a shy/sensitive personality that gets comforted by food! something to be very aware of.

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  23. Interesting article Alexx, my girl is still on the boob but I’m conscious of the food issues facing our kids- most notably the painful process of getting kids to eat their meals & stay at the table when they’d rather be playing etc. any advice/tactics for this? Also have you come across the concept of teaching kids body autonomy? Read a great post about it the other day.

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