Eat together like you like each other

You’ve probably read the headlines: Family Dinners Cure Everything and Ensure Your Child’s Future Health, Happiness & Life Success

Of course nothing cures everything or ensures our child’s perfect future happiness. However, there is good research that shows that eating together can have pretty significant positive effects.  Usually we think of the food.  Healthy food leads to healthy bodies.  And while that’s generally true, the benefits that come from sharing a meal are about so much more.

According to clinical psychologist, Anne Fishel, in this Washington Post piece,

“The dinner atmosphere is also important. Parents need to be warm and engaged, rather than controlling and restrictive…”

She goes on to say:

“the real power of dinners lies in their interpersonal quality. If family members sit in stony silence, if parents yell at each other, or scold their kids, family dinner won’t confer positive benefits.”

And yet…little kids often need a lot of management, reminders, discipline, don’t they?

Perhaps your family dinners sound more like this:

Sit Down!
You’ve barely touched your chicken…
Use your spoon!
Be careful!
Stop spilling!
Are you sure you don’t want Broccoli?
It’s really good for you.  No more milk till you’ve had 2 bites of broccoli!
Cut it out!
Keep eating!

You might recognize some of these common meal time directives.  Have you said these to your kids lately?  Be honest, because there’s at least one that I know slips out of my mouth a lot. (Hint: we have a bit of a problem with the proper use of chairs.  We’re working on it).

So we’re supposed to have family dinners, but they also have to be … pleasant?  With little kids!?  Reading through enough family dinner articles will leave you convinced that your child is doomed to be a depressed, obese, drug dealer if you don’t drag yourself through these exhausting good-for-you family dinners every night.  But at the same time, ugh.  Right?

If the nagging phrases I listed above describe the majority of your family meals and you would like to see that change, I have some ideas and a challenge for you in just a bit.

The Battle Between Two Ideals
In theory, the idyllic family meal where everyone is enjoying each other’s company, laughing and joking and making memorable conversation sounds great.  I want this to be what our kids remember about our meals together.  But the harsh reality is that most days, my actual ideal, the thing I want more than a lively conversation is a peacefully quiet meal.  Where the kids and I (and the hubby) blissfully enjoy our food without a single word, reminder about manners, or need for discipline.

Learning from my Patients
When I have a pediatric patient, it’s usually because the parents/physician are concerned the child is eating too much/too little or weighs too much/too little.  One of the tools I use to best assess the situation is video footage of the family meal.  I ask each family to record video of a few family meals.  Many parents turn down this option. It probably feels awkward or invasive.  Maybe pointless.  Why film what they already experience?  But all of the videos I have received have provided valuable insight that would have never surfaced during the interview.

Usually what I look for in these videos is pressure sneaking into meal time.  By the time parents record their first video, I’ve talked to them about the importance of keeping meals pressure-free.  In families where there is a feeding problem, parents are typically putting a lot of well-meaning pressure on their child to eat more/less/differently (which makes things worse).  In my office, they learn that their job is to provide the reliable meals, their kids’ job is to eat–or not.

I do my best to help families understand the problem of pressure, but I’m realizing I have somewhat neglected an entirely different problem.  I’ve noticed something in the family meal videos I’ve watched (and my sample size is small so take it for what it’s worth). I’ve noticed families that rarely engage each other around the table. Maybe it’s camera shyness or maybe it’s typical for them, I don’t know.

With little exception there’s very little conversation and while I haven’t watched any harshly negative interactions, the atmosphere is generally neutral, at best.  If/when the parents do talk it’s about the food and the logistics of getting the meal started.  Or correcting and managing behavior.  Sometimes I see repeated talk about food.  Not even food in the abstract, but the food and the child’s eating of it…or lack thereof.

Certainly not an environment conducive to wanting to eat–especially when you’re a little kid who doesn’t have much of a love affair with many foods to begin with.

Now here’s the thing.   Family meals are tough.  And any day can be tough for different reasons that don’t even have to do with food.  There are days when the kids are all grumpy simultaneously or there’s tension for other reasons.  You might have had a tiring day and don’t want to clean up a mess or throw a wasted plate of food into the trash.  Add to that worry about your child’s eating (or weight) and it can feel like more of a headache than it’s worth.

I also know that it’s easy to get sucked in to the constant “Sit down, use your fork, just one portion at a time, we don’t throw food” reminders.

Frankly, kids sometimes need a lot of management because they are still learning how to behave.  They are messy.  They are not very grateful for the time you’ve spent cooking. They have erratic appetites and preferences and short attention spans and wiggly bodies. They will interrupt adult conversations.  They will switch emotions on a dime.

So whether you’re the mom who wants the silent peaceful meal or the mom who wants the lively convo at any given meal, the behavior management can really get in the way.  And of course trying to control your child’s eating will get in the way.  It’s tough to decide which behaviors to ignore and which to focus on in an effort to be a ‘good parent’ whose kids have manners.

My Challenge to You (and me!)
Forget about the food.  Forget about how many bites your child is eating.  Pressuring your kids about their eating only backfires and makes the time spent at family meals a huge drag.  This part is the easiest for me.  I have followed the Division of Responsibility for a while now so I’m cool with sticking to my feeding jobs and not micromanaging my child’s plate.  The worry about my kids’ intake of veggies and portions and calories has long fallen off my list of things I need to control.

So I can chill about how much (or little) my kids eat.  But the manners and behavior and mess…I still have trouble with.  The control freak side of me has a hard time not nit-picking.

I’m not saying to let your kids go crazy with food fights and dancing on the table.  But I am suggesting that for the sake of making mealtimes a pleasant and positive time for everyone…really pick your battles well.  I’m really bad at battle picking.  Half the time I don’t realize I’ve just picked a battle until it’s too late to back out.

What Table Behaviors Can You Live With?
Is it really essential for your 2.5 year old to use his spoon like an adult every time?  Is it the end of the world if he uses his hands a bit longer?
Does your 4 year old have to be completely seated perfectly still in her chair the entire meal? Is it okay to crouch or kneel or wiggle?
Will you want to poke your eyes out if you see your child do xyz again?

Many toddler and preschool table behavior will go away on its own.  Some things are better talked about and practiced away from the table.  And there will be non-negotiables that you simply won’t tolerate.  And that’s okay.  Before you decide, though, really consider how realistic it is for your child (at this age) to stop a certain behavior or adopt a new behavior.  Does he need assistance with what you’re requiring of him?

If it’s a sitting problem, is the chair adequately supportive and comfortable?  Is there a place for him to rest his feet while sitting?

Here are a couple of our table time no-no’s as demonstrated by my daughter:
IMG_7618 IMG_7619

Consider What it Sounds Like to Your Child
This is where a video or audio recording comes in very handy so you can really see/hear what it looks like from the outside.  It’s one thing to value manners, but if the majority of your mealtime conversation revolves around correcting your child, maybe it’s time to reset expectations or dig a little deeper to see what is holding your child back from following the family manners rules.  Because more reminders and nagging probably won’t improve things.

Focus on Engagement & Connection
I’ve come to the conclusion that the antidote to pressure and constant reminders at the table is to connect with & engage your child.  Fellow dietitian, Natalia Stasenko, has said that she barely notices what her kids eat at family meals.  She makes a concerted effort to keep her eyes focused above their plates and find other things to talk about.

This takes an active effort.  

As a natural introvert who loves to sit perched in my own mind and ponder ideas, this is often very difficult for me.  Especially after several hours of mommying prior to the meal.  Some days it is easy to slip back into “this is my quiet time” mode and only open my mouth when my kids are doing something wrong.

But when it comes to reeling my 5 year old’s mind back from the distraction of the moment (which is pulling her bottom away from its seated position) it’s much more effective to ask “What was the funnest thing in preschool today?” than to point out how little she’s eaten or to correct her for her posture.  She would like my rapt attention for more than what she’s doing wrong.

Instead of eating in silence until a behavior needs addressing, I challenge you to purposefully engage your little ones in conversation or respond to your child’s conversation attempts.  Keeping kids engaged in the family time aspect of a family meal will probably elicit better behavior and keep you from going down the nagging/reminders path more easily than merely striving to “not pressure” and “not nag.”

If you’re feeling low in creative conversation energy some days, keep this Chat Pack for Kids handy.  It was recommended by a fellow dietitian and it’s now on my shopping list.  You can view the topics here by clicking on the “for kids” version.  Googling also led me to these:

And to these websites that have ideas:

If you’re struggling with your child’s eating, consider whether your child might be struggling with the atmosphere at the table.  Nobody has perfectly pleasant family meals all the time.  But do your best to infuse some positive energy into your time together by actively engaging and connecting with your kids.  Eat together like you like each other 😉

When it comes to making family meals a pleasant and happy experience, what challenges do you face?

***For more help with family meals, picky eaters, or greater feeding struggles, check out my online classes at:

Posted by Adina
January 18, 2015

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