My guest this week is Dr. Susan Albers, a New York Times best-selling author and clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns and mindfulness. Dr. Albers conducts mindful eating workshops across the country and internationally. She is the author of seven mindful eating books and has been a guest on the Dr. Oz Show, TODAY Show and NPR. Her tips, books and programs have been featured in numerous national publications such as O, the Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day Magazine, Health Magazine, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and the Wall Street Journal. Dr. Albers is also a contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.
In this episode, Dr. Albers and I discuss the positive ways mindful eating can impact your child’s health and wellbeing. Making small changes to everyday eating habits, creating access to the right foods and changing the way you speak about food in front of your children can have a positive impact. Learn more about mindful eating and Dr. Susan Albers here.
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What is Mindful Eating?
- Mindful eating is not a diet, it is centered around the behavior of eating and how you eat versus what you eat
- Helps you create better-eating behaviors and habits which naturally lead to a healthier lifestyle
- It is easy to use food not for hunger but to manage other feelings
- For children: boredom tends to lead to wandering to the kitchen and mindlessly eating or using food to unwind from stress
- The amount of food that children are eating can also go beyond what they need if they are mindlessly eating while distracted on their phone or watching TV
A Few Tips To Implement Mindful Eating
- Make the right foods convenient
- Place the foods that you want your children to eat at their eye-level and easy to reach within the refrigerator or pantry
- Keep a bowl of healthy snacks and fruits by the door for quick on-the-go access
- Language, get rid of the word “diet” and start using the word “mindful” around eating
- Slow down your mealtimes by eating slowly and consciously
Where To Start With Your Family
- To avoid overwhelm, tackle one thing at a time
- Ex: If your goal is to have your family sit together at mealtime or cut back on eating in the car, focus on that first
- Once that is accomplished, naturally, better habits will start to take place
- Work on reducing the stress level as an overall family
- Finding ways to lower stress in your family will aid in eliminating excess mindless eating habits in the family
- End of day rituals like walks or bike rides together as a family can help create a stress outlet
Where to learn more about Dr. Susan Albers
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
What is Mindful Eating? … 00:03:30
A Few Tips To Implement Mindful Eating … 00:18:27
Empowerment of Mindful Eating … 00:24:30
Where To Start With Your Family … 00:26:55
Episode Wrap Up … 00:29:10
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show — I am Dr. Nicole, and today we’re going to talk about mindful eating and the positive impacts that it can have on your children and your family. You know that I am a big proponent of nutrition and healthy eating for your kids and adults, but how we eat is just as important as what we eat — and a lot of people don’t realize that and aren’t thinking about that. So mindful eating is a way of eating that helps not only reduce stress overall, but it fosters a positive mindset around food and eating, which is really important for adults and for kids. And my good friend and colleague, Dr. Susan Albers is an expert in mindful eating and she’s going to share with us how to teach your kids the secret to eating well for they entire lives, which I think is awesome.
Susan is a best-selling author and a New York Times best selling author and a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and she specializes in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns and mindfulness. After obtaining a masters and doctoral degree from the University of Denver, Dr. Albers completed an APA internship at the University of Notre Dame and a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford in California. She conducts mindful eating workshops around the country and internationally. Dr. Albers is the author of seven mindful eating books, and has been a guest on Dr. Oz’s TV show, Today Show and NPR. She has also had her tips, books and programs featured in all kinds of publications like Family Circle, Prevention magazine, Oprah magazine and tons of others. She’s a contributor to The Huffington Post and Psychology Today and I am so excited to have her here to talk with us about this, welcome Susan!
Thank you so much, I am always excited to talk about the concept of mindful eating. One thing that wasn’t on my bio as well is that I have a family, I have two kids — so I know firsthand the challenges of how tough it is to get your whole family onboard with mindful eating, but it is possible.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I was hoping that you would mention that, because I think that that makes a big difference, specially that most of our audience is parents. And we get the challenges of that, right? You’re a parent, I’m a parent — we’re not just talking about this like, oh this is a great idea or something that would be good to do. We actually know what it’s like to try and implement these things with kids, which I think makes a big difference.
Yes, definitely — but it’s something for the whole family, as we said. It’s not just kids and families, everyone can benefit from mindful eating. That’s what I love about the concept, it doesn’t matter if you’re 8 or 80, you can benefit from mindful eating.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
And I love that, because what we’re going to talk about are things that really can be implemented as a family, should be implemented as a family — and so parents are not only going to see benefits for their kids, but also for themselves and just for, I think, the whole tone of things like family meals. And you know things around food can become so stressful especially in a family, and especially with kids. This is really aimed at reducing stress. And so I’m excited to dive in. Let’s start by talking about what is mindful eating? Because it may be a term or concept that some people have heard before, but some of our listeners might not even be familiar with it. So what is mindful eating?
Well, mindful eating — and you put it very well, is more about how to eat than what to eat. So as a psychologist, I talk to people every day about all the behaviors that we have around eating. One of the things that I put right out there — I said it’s not a diet. So if you are somebody who is a parent and just that ‘diet’ word makes you cringe, this is for you. Because this is not a diet, this is really a way of eating and behaviors around every single meal. It is also about awareness, and it’s really being much more… simply turning up that volume of awareness each and every time that you eat.
Because, as you know, as parents, we get so busy. We’re running here and running there, and we just kind of put food in our mouths trying to push the hunger off, but we really get into some of these ingrained mindless eating habits. And our kids do too, they follow right along with us and we get stuck, and we get into these patterns over time. So just to recap, not a diet — it’s more about how you eat than what you eat and the good news is when you start paying attention to some of these habits, making a few little easy tweaks, it makes all the difference.
And one of the things that I think really motivates me is that I work at the Cleveland clinic and I have a lot of people that come into my office — men, women and they are parents now and they’re just so stuck in their old eating habits. And they say to me, gosh — I wish I had these mindful eating skills when I was a kid, because it would have prevented a lot of these issues later in my life. So the good news is they are working on it as adults and they are teaching it to their kids. So it’s so convenient.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, it’s great and I think so much of what you and I talked about over the years, I think it would be so valuable if well had these things growing up, we would grow up to be adults who have much healthier relationships with food and eating and all of that — but we have an opportunity now to focus on that with our kids. I want to touch on something that you said, you know — that awareness piece. How you said that as adults, we often go through the day just mindlessly eating. Just grabbing something here or there — sometimes even eating and not even being aware of it. And I see this a lot in kids that I work with too, who just… maybe it’s just eating in front of the TV or grabbing things here and there. Just that lack of awareness around that. What are some of the impacts of that, when kids or adults are just mindlessly going through the day, eating without really thinking about it?
Well there are definitely two issues. So one is, if they are going through the day and they’re mindlessly eating and they’re just kind of rushing through their day. We’re all so busy — even kids, they’re just running all over the place. To soccer practice, to school and they just lose track of their hunger. So if they’re eating all day long and not really thinking about the choices that they’re making, all of a sudden, they just lose touch with ‘what does hunger feel like?’, and how to pay attention to that. And so they’re eating constantly and they don’t really experience that feeling of ‘What is it like to feel really hungry?”
So A: It’s that they lose track of it and B: I find that with a lot of kids is that they’re using food, not because of hunger, but to manage some other kind of feeling. And kids have so many different feelings that they’re trying to manage in a day. A big one for kids is boredom — that they’re bored and they just wander into the kitchen, I see this with my own kids, and they’re kind of wandering around, everybody gathers in the kitchen and all of a sudden you find them rummaging through things. And they’re not really hungry, but they’re just simply bored and are trying to find some distraction. Or they’re stressed. So many kids will come home from school, make a beeline to the kitchen, open up the refrigerator — and you see they’re eating and part of it maybe hunger, but really they’re just trying to unwind from the day, trying to figure out how to take all the stress and anxiety that they have and put it down.
What it becomes is that they are connecting their feelings with hunger and they become so intertwined. So mindful eating is really the antidote to that because it really teaches them to tune in and to ask themselves that question: Am I eating because I’m hungry or because I’m feeling something? Or Just boredom? And as a parent, one of the things that you can do to help them through it is 1: You have to role model it yourself. When you go to your kitchen, talking about why you are eating at that moment — “I’m going to have some of these carrots because I’m really hungry right now. Or “I haven’t eaten for a while, I’m having a snack”, and really making it clear, that connection verbally between being hungry and actually eating, which we don’t do do a lot.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
It’s true, as adults I don’t think that we think about that often for ourselves either. Why am I actually doing this? I would guess too — one of the things that I see is when kids or adults, when we’re more tuned in and aware of our eating patterns or thinking about “Why am I eating?”, it leads to making more health-supportive choices in terms of what we eat too. Do you find that by being more mindful and more aware of that, that there’s more space to think about “What do I really want to eat at this moment?”, as opposed to just grabbing the potato chips or whatever and then feeling bad about it later. I think the mindfulness gives us a little more space to think about that, to be a little more intentional — what do I really want to be eating right now?
Yeah, it’s taking a pause because often we’re just eating the food that is there around us, anything within arm’s reach — and instead, it’s taking that pause moment first to say: “How hungry am I, really? Am I really hungry, physically hungry?”, and “What is it that I want?” And you’re exactly right, the more that you tune in, the more discerning you become about what it is that you want. So if you want something, but you want something that is creamy and cold, and you hit the nail on the head with what it is that you really want and fulfill that hunger and your tastebuds, you are going to be right on it!
I have a workbook for teens, and one of the exercises in the workbook — there are simply three circles and the exercise is to take that pause, running your finger around each of those circles just to take that three-minute pause because our brains … actually we make a decision 3 seconds before we even become aware of it. So just doing that, slowing down for a minute to decide helps kids to really just tune in and ask themselves, what is it that I really, really want? And it can be as simple as that. I think one of the misconceptions about mindful eating is that it sounds like oh, you’d have to sit down and close your eyes and be very quiet and take a lot of time, sort of a zen moment…
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Meditate on it!
That’s really not what it is. I reassure people that everybody can do mindful eating. My 8 year old, he was sitting down at the table, and he had this little bowl of blueberries and he was just eating them as quickly as possible. And all of a sudden, he stops and he says, “You know what mommy? I am not eating these mindfully.” And he kind of exaggeratedly ate them one at a time, but we kind of laughed about it. He got it. He got the idea that we just can get into this pattern of shoveling in food without taking that pause moment to really enjoy it, savor it and make discerning choices about what it is that we’re eating. And it’s really like I said, it’s not the zen moment, but it’s about focus and trying to help your kids to focus in on what they’re eating — whether they’re selecting what to eat or they’re sitting at the kitchen table.
The number one intervention — I had a client this week who talked about not changing any of the types of foods that they were eating in the house, but the one rule is that everybody had to sit at the table. And it was amazing, the results that happened. You can eat any time, anything that you want — but the rule is that you have to actually be sitting at the table. And it dramatically changed the landscape because people were eating in the car, on the couch and particularly at night with the teens, we see them watching a lot of Netflix and different downloadable shows, and so they’re eating at the same time. And what research shows is that this is the #1 trigger of mindless eating. Sitting on a couch and eating. So just sitting on a table cuts down significantly on mindless eating. And it sounds easy, but it’s hard to get everybody to actually sit at a table.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
It is. It’s building some of those new routines, especially if you’ve been a family that hasn’t prioritized that, to sort of shift the focus to “We’re just going to do this one thing of sitting down.” Whether it’s together or sitting at the table while eating. It does bring this new awareness to it, but there’s so much good research to that and so many ways for kids, the benefits of sitting down for meals together and the benefit of reducing times during the day where we’re multitasking — and that’s part of what we’re talking about here too, right?
Being mindful about something means being focused on it and not sort of spitting our attention 15 different ways. And often, that’s what kids are doing. They’re playing their video game while they’re eating or they’re texting and eating while doing homework or whatever, and there is good research on being focused on one thing at a time, particularly for kids and teens and I think that eating is a great time to practice that. It’s great sitting down at the table to eat — we stay focused in on one thing, and there’s benefit to the brain for that too.
And one thing you can do to work on this as a family is to make a box or have a basket and put it somewhere in the kitchen, and everybody deposits their devices in that basket during these times. And you will see how much even we will struggle with that, to hear beeping — just to keep the focus. Research that recently came out showed that the majority of us often eat our meals with our phone, that that is our primary companion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it definitely distracts from our focus. And we’re teaching kids to disconnect from the experience of eating if their focus is here. So trying as hard as possible at least to put that phone aside during meals, just even for a few moments to focus. My motto is ‘When you eat, just eat.’ And that could be really tricky, but it’s’ a good start. Create that box, put it somewhere in your kitchen and have everybody put it in there before they start eating.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
It’s great and I’m a huge proponent of device-free meal times. I think it’s so important for kids and for families for so many reasons, so I love that suggestion. It occurs to me as we’re talking about this, that another area where this can be really helpful for kids — is kids who are really picky eaters or who struggle with being open to trying new things, or who really are rigid with their eating.
What I’ve seen, even in years of doing more feeding therapy or anxiety therapy around feeding issues with kids, even before I really knew what mindful eating was, that’s kind of what we need to focus on with them, is being very attentive and attuned to things like how things taste, how they smell, really focusing on the sensations of food, the experience of that to help reduce their fear around food and broaden their pallet for eating different things. So if you’re a parent out there listening and you’ve got a child who maybe is really rigid around food or restrictive or pick in their eating, this whole concept of mindful eating and this awareness around the food and how we’re eating, I think is a really pivotal concept for supporting kids with those issues.
Yeah. And I’ve noticed too, along with picky eaters but also kids who struggle with allergies or have a reaction to different kinds of food, that when they start implementing more of this mindfulness, they start to make the connection between — I had this food and my body did not feel good. I felt crummy afterwards, whereas before they would just think, “Oh, I was overly tired or stressed.” They start to make this interesting connection between what they eat and how they feel. And it’s so interesting to watch how this connection happen as they start to tune in to really picking out foods that they enjoy and foods that just don’t make them feel good.
I mean I’ve had people who have really sort of pieced apart and understood different allergies that they’ve had that they weren’t even aware of once they started implementing mindful eating. So for example, a client who had a dairy allergy and just kind of knew… had some GI issues, but really started to slow down and pay attention to “When I eat, this is how I feel”, and completely pinpointed the issue. And it doesn’t have to be allergies, but certain foods make us feel good and certain foods make us feel dragged down and crummy throughout the day.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
That’s a great point, and I think for kids too — if you’re a parent who has been trying to have your child stick to maybe a certain type of diet because testing has shown they have food allergies or sensitivities, kids can be resistive about that but what you’re saying, Susan, is that when kids can become more mindful, when they can eat more mindfully and tune in to how their body feels, that’s a powerful motivator, right? Now I’m not just avoiding dairy because my mom told me I can’t have the dairy, but because I’m recognizing that this doesn’t make me feel good, or that I can’t focus as well, or that I feel nauseous or whatever — that’s a powerful mechanism then, for kids to start to realize: This is why I am eating the way that I am and to motivate them to stick with that plan, as opposed to just doing it because some adult told me I have to.
Yeah, it’s just a really natural motivator and you will see kids over time, just being really much more in charge of their own choices because they recognize what makes them feel good and what doesn’t. I would say probably if you want to get started with helping your kids to make some of these choices, to help them to pick some healthier foods — it’s very simple, but making food convenient. We are creatures of convenience and kids are too.
So placing the foods that you want them to eat in a place that they can see and reach is huge. And it sounds simple, but it’s really not. And I’ll see my 8 year old open up the refrigerator — he can reach the bottom 3 shelves. Nothing on the top shelf. So I want him to eat those snacks or oranges, I put them right at eye-level and literally, he opens it up, he reaches in there and gets it himself. And also putting a bowl right next to your door before you leave, I’ve found this really helpful for my older child, because she will reach in there and she will put it in her backpack, that healthy snack because it’s there and it’s easy. It’s easy for her to reach.
And there was a study that was out of Cornell, and they looked at people’s kitchens and they found that people that had soda and cereal out on their counter, just sitting out actually weighed over 30 pounds more than people who did not. And people who had a fruit bowl in their kitchen, just hanging out in their kitchen actually weighed 13 pounds less. And part of the theory was because of convenience, it was just there, it was in sight. So in sight, in mind.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Love that. Such a simple thing that all of us can start doing right now is to open our refrigerator or our cupboard, take the view of where eye-level would be for our kids and move the things that we want them to be thinking about and choosing more in that area. I love that, that’s great. So we’ve got that, we’ve got having a basket or a place to deposit the devices to be able to focus more on eating as opposed to on electronics, we’ve talked about even just sitting down — having kids sit at the table to eat. Sure you can eat, but we’re not going to run around or sit on the couch or lie in our bed — we’re going to sit down to eat. Other tips or ideas, things that families can start to do or families can think about implementing to help their kids just be more mindful about eating?
I think one of the things is really starting to use that language of mindfulness. The words that we choose are very powerful. So #1 is get rid of that ‘diet’ word. It’s so hard because everyday we hear about these new diets, we’re chit chatting about diets and things, sort of putting that word aside. There is really interesting research that came out just recently that showed kids, teenagers who had been on a diet. They followed them over time. 15 years later, they found that the kids who had been on a diet when they were teenagers were actually struggling more with binge eating, dieting, disordered eating — and they were actually then teaching those habits to their kids. So what we know is that that sort of dieting paradigm is not helpful and it actually has effects down a lot. So #1, erase the word ‘diet’, and instead start to use the word ‘mindfulness’ and ‘mindful eating’ because what I’ll do is ask and check in with my kids, they’ll be snacking and I’ll hear them use that language, as I gave you the example of my son — he caught it, “Oh, I was eating mindlessly.”
And it’s not a shaming word, it’s not shaming or blaming because we don’t want to do that with kids. So using the language of “Are you being more aware? Tuning in? Asking yourself — how hungry am I?” But mostly it’s using that language, “are you eating mindlessly?” Or “Are you eating mindfully?”, are really helpful ways to have them start to talk to themselves about food and changing that relationship that they may have with food in a way that is both positive and wellness focused, because I hear my kids all the time — they’ll talk to other people about mindful eating as well. It’s a concept that we can talk about and share. My son was watching TV and he saw Scooby Doo on TV and Scooby Doo was eating really quickly, his Scooby Snacks. And he said, “Mommy! Scooby Doo is not eating mindfully!” Because he was just scared and the ghost was coming, so he was eating mindlessly — and I thought wow, he’s got this concept and is talking about food in this way of really understanding how behavior works.
So tip #2 then would be about slowing down on meal times. Really trying to put the brakes on, and this one can be tough. And I’m not saying that you have to have long, extended meals, but when you sit down as a parents, just trying to slow down your own pace because what research shows is that actually, we are really affected by the pace of the people around us. And so if you are eating slowly, you are much more likely to impact the entire table and impact that speed.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
That’s interesting because that’s something then that regardless of what the kids are doing, that a parent can control for themselves, is how fast am I eating? And just know that that then can have an impact on kids eating. And as we know, when we can slow ourselves and our kids down with eating, that helps from a health standpoint too. It improves our digestion, it helps us to manage the food better. So slowing down is helpful in a lot of ways then. And I was thinking as you were talking, because I know there are some parents listening who may be struggling with kids who really tend to crave or binge on a lot of sweet kinds of things, you know — the sugary stuff.
And this shift towards mindfulness and slowing down is so helpful for that because it releases us from that power struggles of — “Don’t eat that!” Or dictating what they can or can’t eat, just getting into fights over it and it’s more like “You can have this, and here is how we’re going to think about eating it.”, right? Like there’s a difference between having a cupcake or some chocolate or some ice-cream or something and eating that in a more mindful, slow and really enjoyable kind of way than just sitting there and suddenly our kid has scarfed down four cupcakes without really being aware of it. To me this focus on mindfulness around foods that they enjoy gives us a way to help them learn how to enjoy those things but without getting into the power struggles of how much they can or can’t have. Did you see that too?
Oh, absolutely. And exactly what you’re saying — you do not want to be the food police with your kids. You do not want to be the good cop/bad cop of telling them what to eat or what not to eat, and it becomes the power struggle. And also, it can become shaming in a way, and then kids who feel shamed, a lot of times they will hide food or they’ll eat it somewhere else, and exactly what you’re saying is, it’s okay to have treats. It’s okay to have foods, but learning to eat them in a mindful way and helping them to decide when to stop. So for example, I took my kids to get some ice-cream and both of them were eating and we were with some friends.
And we have this concept that you eat the entire ice-cream cone. Well, my son ate about maybe three-fourths of it and then stopped, and he said: “I’m done.” That was it. And the other adult was like, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe he just stopped at three fourths!”, because we’re so used to eating the entire thing. What I loved about the concept is that you can decide, you can eat as much of the ice-cream as you want, but to have this internal regulation of being able to decide, okay — I’ve had enough? Boy, that’s a skill that we can all learn. All of us can learn when to say when. And mindful eating is really about that. It’s having that ice-cream, eating it, enjoying it, savoring it, eating it slowly and then being so in tune with the moment that — okay, you’re done.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Such a powerful thing for us to tune into for ourselves, but also to teach our kids to do. I love that. What have you seen are some of the bigger challenges, or challenges that a family can face around trying to implement this stuff?
I would say for my clients and just people in general, a lot of families come in talking about their busyness level. Busyness is one that… it can take some time to form new habits around food and what I say is tackle one thing at a time. So if your real struggle is with… it can feel so overwhelming, and I think that’s one of the big obstacles, is that people feel overwhelmed and they’re like, “Okay, okay — I can’t do anything!” It’s to pick one behavior and really start to put all of your attention to that. So if you’re a family who struggles with eating in the car. You’re constantly eating in the car, from here to there. Maybe that’s the one behavior that you focus on and tackle.
And what’s interesting is that from that one behavior, you’re going to see it start to have this ripple effect that it helps all the other ones. So don’t get overwhelmed. Pick one thing, also it might be helping the kids to sit at the table, maybe you focus on that one first, then you’ll see that it helps all of these other things. The other biggest stumbling blocks, I think is stress and that connection that food comes with both soothing kids and feeling stress. I think so often, we’re feeling stress and we offer them food or we’re eating because we’re stressed and that can be a big stumbling block as well.
So addressing stress in the family in general is one step of mindful eating, because if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s hard to be pretty aware. So other stress-relieving mechanisms can add to your mindfulness — whether it’s taking a walk as a family, having some sort of exercise, having an unwinding ritual at the end of the day, anything that can help to reduce that stress level a little bit is going to be one step closer to mindfulness and then mindful eating.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Awesome. Fantastic. We could talk for so long about this, and I’m realizing that we’re coming towards the end of our time together and I want to make sure that you share with people where they can find more information from you about this, because we’ve just kind of gotten to the tip of the iceberg in terms of what mindful eating is, how to use it with your family, with your kids, so where can they go to get more information from you?
You can learn more about mindful eating on my website, eatingmindfully.com. You can also go to Amazon, where my latest resource is Eating Mindfully for Teens. And although it’s for teens, it’s also for tweens and young adults, the whole range. It’s a workbook and what I love about it and the feedback I get is a lot of parents will go through the workbook with their teens because it’s written in a way that’s easy and quick — very practical tips. I am all about practical and it has to be easy and things that you can really implement in your life. So throughout the workbook, you can pick up a lot of these tips that you can do together or as a family. So on Amazon — Mindful Eating for Teens, or my website, eatingmindfully.com. You’re welcome also to join my Instagram or my Facebook page, Dr. Susan Albers where I share tips daily.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, and I will just say that the workbook — the Eating Mindfully for Teens workbook is something that we use and recommend quite a bit in our clinic, and has been a great resource for parents and kids to go through together, so make sure to check that out along with all the rest of your resources, you’ve got tons available for people, which is awesome. Thank you so much for spending time with us today and sharing about this. It was great information, I know people will find it helpful, so thank you for being here.
Well, thank you! And remember to eat, drink and be mindful.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Okay everybody, we will see you next time for our next episode of the Better Behavior Show.