• Casey Thomas-Hardesty

5 Ways to Reduce Stress at Mealtime and Improve Your Gut Health

Mushrooms and thyme in a basket. Representing food for digestion and gut health

There's an overwhelming agreement that your health is more than just what you put on your plate. How you eat, your feelings around eating, your body's responses to certain foods, how you move throughout the day, and so many other factors play a role in health through nutrition. A nutrient dense diet is just one piece of the puzzle. 

One other piece...Stress.

Role of Stress on Digestion

Stress can have profound impacts on digestion, gut health, and more. When we are under physical or emotional stress, cortisol is released to help our body prepare for fight or flight. That's perfect for isolated instances like running across a bear on your walk through the woods. Problems arise when this stress becomes chronic - think combination of a new baby, over exercising, balancing work and family life, relationship changes, etc. A consistent influx of cortisol can inhibit our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and reset) and reduce our ability to properly digest and absorb our food.

Have you ever heard the phrase "It begins in your gut" or "leaky gut"? We are beginning to see that this is true for so many things:

- Autoimmune disease

- Thyroid health

- Adrenal health

- Immune function

- Even pain science!

How Can We Realistically Reduce Stress at Mealtime

I remember being in my nutritional therapy program and discussing reducing stress prior to eating. The suggestions ranged from calming breaths before a meal to putting down your fork every few bites, savoring your food, and slowing down the process. Those are great suggestions, but have you ever tried to do that with little kids at mealtime?  

So what can you realistically do to reduce stress at family mealtime? Here are five of my go-to tried and true options for real life.

1. Get rid of the electronics - Put away the iPads, phones, and Kindles and turn off the TV. Multitasking is counterproductive in work as well as eating. Let your body focus on the meal in front of you and the people around you.

2. Don't stress over getting your kids to eat everything on their plate - My philosophy is that it is my job to decide what food goes on the plate (nutrient dense, within budget, etc), and it is their job to decide what to eat and how much. To reduce potential food waste, start out with smaller portions and let them ask for more if they want. I usually try to introduce new foods or textures in doses. For example, don't try to introduce three new vegetables or preparation techniques at once.

3. Meal plan - This might seem like an odd choice to make the list, but like a budget can be freeing for your finances, a meal plan helps to take the stress out of mealtime. Even if you don't actually prep the ingredients ahead of time, knowing what meals to make and having the ingredients on hand can really help reduce the stress before the meal even begins.

4. Take 5-10 calming breaths before your meal - If you have young kids, you may not be able to slow down throughout the entire meal, but taking a few breaths before you eat can help gear your brain up for digestion.

5. Chew your food - The act of chewing helps break down food and release enzymes for easier digestion. I know sometimes you might be eating with one hand while standing and holding a baby, but when you can, thoroughly chewing your food can really improve your digestion.


Obviously, we could go through so many more options, but the idea is to start small and see what works for you and your family. Have you tried any of these 5 easy tips for your family? What worked for you and what doesn't?

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