Family mealtime, what image does that phrase evoke? Is it a picture of a happy family surrounding a beautifully decorated table filled with nutritious and delicious looking foods? Or does it resemble a stressed out mom and dad surrounded by her grouchy kids who complain about the foods (that starving kids in Africa would love to have). In the past few years my mind would go to the latter image. In fact I felt this movie clip was perfectly appropriate adaptation of how our dinnertime can sometimes look[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cjgdiy_SGjA&w=560&h=315]
One of the biggest sources of meal time frustration for me has been from my seven-year-old, Eric, and his disdain for all vegetables or most healthy foods. Dinner time was consisting of a lot of me yelling at him to eat five bites of his broccoli in order to have dessert. I would often find myself wanting to just feed the kids separately just so we could avoid it all. I started pondering, is it even possible to have peace at dinnertime? Then I remembered something. One of the things that I noticed while traveling to Europe a couple years ago was the meal time scene while out at restaurants. Families were eating together in peace, no yelling and there wasn’t a whole lot of electronic use at dinner tables. This was even with their two-year-olds, I didn’t get it. I wondered what were they doing that I wasn’t? And then I realized it was actually what they weren’t doing that was causing this peaceful dinner atmosphere. They weren’t yelling at the kids or making them seem like a nuisance. The kids were sitting there and they were eating and everyone seemed generally happy. The parents interacted with the kids as though they were another adult, a friend even. They didn’t over helicopter and count the bites of broccoli. Sometimes we just need to get out of her own head we need to stop doing what we think is normal just because rest of our society does it. This is NOT an easy thing of course, but I can tell you that it is worth trying.
What does this mean and how do I implement this type of peaceful meal time I wondered? Ultimately I wanted to start a new thing by “stopping the yelling and counting of bites.” The yelling was simply not creating a dinner time atmosphere that any of us wanted to be part of. I ending up frustrated that I cooked such a healthy and nutritious meal and “kids in Africa would be glad to have this food.” I was counting the bites, to the point where Eric would preface each meal by asking me “how many bites do I have to eat of this?” He wanted to know what the quickest route to getting to the dessert was. I was letting my emotions get the best of me and forgetting the bigger picture. After all I wanted to raise a child who can make grown-up food choices that would ultimately make him/her healthy and happy. I also have two older children and for whatever reason I have forgotten that they are older and they eat everything I offer them for the most part. I should realize by now that this is just a stage that Eric is going through, but I still forget and sometimes I attribute it to my nutrition background. You see with the older two I didn’t have my degree in nutrition. I’ve only had it for the past five years which is not so lucky for Eric who gets to bear the brunt of all of this somewhat new-found nutrition knowledge. It kills me when I don’t see him trying out his vegetables, inside I am dying when I see him push aside his broccoli in sheer disgust. It KILLS me inside, everytime I see another plate of veggies wasted.
Dinner time was my new quest when 2018 rolled around. I wanted to cultivate this place of peace and happiness at the end of a long day of school and work. In doing that I knew I had to change myself because after all I’m dealing with a seven-year-old food critic and I’m 35 years old. I decided that instead of counting bites I was going to offer at least one food option at every meal that he would like. You see this kid of mine might not like vegetables mostly, but there are some that he does like. I decided to buy those more frequently and I always have a salad at the table. Eric loves salad, in fact he mostly loves balsamic vinegar on his salad so much that he could literally drink the bottle of balsamic vinegar. So I’ve taken to embracing these healthier items and making sure they are available much more frequently if not almost every day. This Is a work in progress of course, but I feel like I have finally figured something out. And that something is changing the way I am responding, as well as what I am offering. That’s not to say that we never have fish or bok choy or anything that he wouldn’t want to eat, but I always make their sure there is at least one item that he loves or will enjoy eating.
So what did this mean for eating dinner out? Guess what the kids don’t have to eat off the kids menu either, in fact in France when you dine out there is often NOT a kids menu, kids are expected to eat the same food as grown ups. In America, the kids menu is a lot cheaper I’m not going to lie. However if you are coming at this from a position of wanting to invest in quality food for your family, then you too might consider ordering a steak or a salad for your child instead of that mac & cheese. In a lot of restaurants you can just ask for grilled chicken, a side of veggies or fruit and some “dipping sauce.” We do that a lot now for Eric, that is something he will always eat. Sometimes I think as Americans we’ve been conditioned to believe that going out to eat means we order a kids chicken tenders or mac & cheese and guess what it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re doing it out of financial need, maybe you should consider eating at home more frequently and out a little less frequently because ultimately eating at home will always be the cheapest. So let’s try reprogramming our brains to question the status quo and order something healthy for our kiddos to eat while we dine out. Instead of nuggets ask the waiter if they offer a grilled chicken. Instead of mac and cheese see if your kiddo would like a soup from the grown up menu. Instead of a drink opt for water, just because the kid meal comes with a sugary beverage, doesn’t mean you have to get it. Sure they may whine for it for a few times out, but eventually this water drinking business will be a regular thing and they will find other things about dining out that they love like talking to you or playing a card game. (I have a bag of restaurant games and activities that I bring along even though my kids are older)
What about Dessert? Along with longer counting bites, I stopped mentioning dessert period. Here’s what was happening before, I would say “if you don’t eat five bites of your broccoli” you won’t be getting dessert tonight. Que temper tantrum revolving around a phantom dessert that interestingly I don’t even have planned. Eric would fixate on the fact that he wasn’t going to have dessert so much so that he refused still even to eat his food it was a weird phenomenon. It took every fiber of my being to re-create this narrative at the dinner table and now it looks more like this… silence. I don’t say anything I offer the food on the plate I don’t say “you have to eat this many bites,” I don’t say anything! So what happened next? He STOPPED expecting dessert. In fact we rarely have dessert and usually it’s on the weekends. Of course occasionally we have a special treat after meals during the week, but usually it revolves around a fruit that is in season. In fact I try not to even use the word “dessert” all that often because it creates this idea that any kind of food is “bad,” when really there are foods that fuel us and foods that are extra or fun…
Once I made a decision in my head that dinner time was going to be much more enjoyable and a yell free zone, I was no longer angry, Eric was no longer in distress and the rest of our kids stop bickering mostly and my husband was no longer annoyed with my “bite counting”, this has been the one of the most life altering things that has happened in 2018 and I am honestly more thrilled about this happening then I could ever be, even losing 5 pounds. Overall my ultimate goal in our health journey has been to create an atmosphere of total health and wellness in our household. This means I don’t just sit around cutting calories to be healthy. We try to go to bed on time we try to get enough sleep, we try to eat when we’re hungry, we try to eat the right foods, we try to move our bodies once a day, and we try to connect with each other more lovingly. In the end I don’t wish to be known for being thin and beautiful, I hope to have taught my children lifelong healthy eating principles and happy feelings around food as well as the community that we create around food so they can pass that culture on to their future families.
And because we are nowhere near perfect…When I find myself tempted to count bites I remember my dinnertime mantra: Dinner should be enjoyable for all involved including the littlest of the Littles. Dinner time should be about connecting over a good meal at the end of the day and remembering the important things in life.
“The benefits go beyond nutrition, too. Eating together can improve parent-child relationships, and give kids a sense of stability and connectedness. Children younger than 13 who regularly eat meals with their families exhibit fewer behavioral problems, and mealtime conversations have been tied to improved literacy.”-Childtrends.org