Family meals can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the day though it can also be utterly challenging and stressful. What kids eat and don’t eat can be very emotional for the parents and children.
Children use food as emotional leverage, as do parents. How often do some parents say ‘Eat this food and then you can have some dessert’, or even ‘Just have one bite and then you can have dessert’. ‘Eat three mouthfuls then you can go to the park’. Children learn pretty quickly how much they can get away with.
When I grew up it was pretty much a rule that we don’t get up from the table (or couch as we were often allowed to eat in front of the television) until our plate was clean. It wasn’t a drama though cause my mother’s cooking was exceptional and for quick snacks we were allowed to eat white bread and mortadella sandwiches with ‘plastic cheese’ or fried dim sims were a favourite. There was always ice cream in the freezer and creamy soda to quench our thirst. Maybe that’s why I was 20kgs heavier at 16 years of age than I am now!
(Un)Fortunately my children aren’t that ‘lucky’ and whilst they enjoy dessert and ice cream like any other children it is not the norm on a day to day basis. With white bread and soft drinks, I figure if they aren’t at home then they can’t have them. It’s difficult for children to comprehend that their are different rules for them and different rules for adults. More on how we tackle these issues later…….
Since living in Crete for the last 6 months we have really enjoyed and embraced the daily ritual of sitting to eat a family meal together. We hover between making new ultra healthy foods to our easy family favourites like gluten free pasta with a homemade tuna, garlic and tomato sauce, or one of their all time favourites is our simple rice meal – everyone loves that one. The recipe for it is at http://www.mynaturopathchristos.com/recipes/kid-friendly-rice-meal/
We usually put a good sized children’s helping but not too much. Generally our food rule is they don’t have to eat it if they are not hungry – though there is nothing else available to them until the next meal. So to be consistent with this we need to make sure we keep the plate of food. Other rules we sometimes use are ‘you can choose one thing on the table not to have’ this rule has come about more so here in Greece as we usually have lots of little plates of things in the middle of the table to share. What I have found though is that consistency is the key. If there is usual wavering the kids will jump on that and create an emotional battle.
I remember when our oldest kids were one and a half years old we were really struggling with them saying ‘no’ to everything we were cooking for them. It was a battle and not at all fun. At the time Sandy and I were doing a parenting course over the phone (it was difficult to go anywhere to do courses with two young twins) and I had a bit of an ‘A-ha’ moment. The counsellor said ‘Do you know that kids will never starve themselves’ – and of course – what kid will go on a hunger strike on purpose? She added ‘if it’s not available then they can’t have what they want. If you tell them that you have created a healthy meal for them to nourish their body and this is what is available to them until the next meal then they have nowhere to go. Children are dictated to by their stomachs! They will eat eventually.’ It was the best advice I think I had received to date – I mean it just took all the emotion out of it. It was a no brainer. What she suggested was to simply put some glad wrap on the food and every time they asked for something to eat then warm it up for them. So we tried it, though since we didn’t have a microwave, they usually had to eat the food cold. It only took a few meals for them to learn that this is just what happens and they can’t have plain pasta cause ‘that’s a carbohydrate, not a meal!’
With our first twins we were quite strict – they had only organic food until the age of 11months (when we went overseas then it was impossible), they didn’t have any sugar until the age of two etc. Then we relaxed a lot more with our other kids. We figured we would feed them healthy immune building foods at home with occasional ‘treats’ when it’s a special occasion (like Friday night!), though we wouldn’t be so strict with grandparents. The problem now is that children aren’t really the best at making healthy decisions unless they have a severe allergy. A couple of years ago when a few of them were with Pa they chose a red raspberry drink and I noticed a distinct difference in their behaviour and rudeness. It was so dramatic and instant. I debated what to do – they have such beautiful relationships with grandparents and aunts and uncles who love to take them out for a treat. Whilst I don’t mind them having the occasional ice-cream, muffin or chocolate I really struggle with lollies and soft drinks. They are just so full of not only sugar but so many artificial additives and they have no nutritional benefit at all. I didn’t want to have to fight with them so I made a rule that they were allowed to choose whatever they wanted when out with others though if it was soft drinks or lollies then they had to pay $1 into the ‘dentist jar’ to help pay for our dentist bills. It generally seems to work and cause the oldest ones were saving up for an iPod they didn’t want to lose money so they chose mineral water, juice or chocolate. I didn’t want it to be a monetary ‘punishment’, though I did want them to consider their choices and what it means for their teeth. I just thought it was a win-win.
I wonder how many parents on this planet have never had a problem with their kids’ diets? Let’s take the negative emotion out of it. Food is to be enjoyed as nourishment and the social connectedness that it brings. Bon apetit!