Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Rules of the Table

A few months back, my son suddenly discovered a liking for hot dogs, and I was overjoyed.  Then I recalled that hot dogs were junk food and I felt guilty... but still disproportionately pleased.

It isn't that I'm a big fan of hot dogs, but all summer it seemed like the only safe lunch (and sometimes dinner) was a peanut butter sandwich.  The possibility of having something new and different was like a gift from the heavens.  Not to mention it involved meat (technically).  Perhaps this would be a gateway food.  So yes, we have had hot dogs and rolls in the house ever since, though I don't make them more than once a week if I can help it.

The Ideal and the Reality

Of course, I should not cater to my children's limited palates and only feed them things that I think they'll eat.  I should make things that I like, because it broadens their palate to something compatible with our family.  And also because I can guarantee my own satisfaction, whereas I'm eternally gambling on the children's.  This is something I absolutely believe in, with one qualification--I should make sure that they get meals they do like with reasonable frequency so that mealtime doesn't become a thrice daily ordeal for them.

Yet this theory is not easy in practice.  Every time I serve up something the children don't like, I have to deal with it.  The whining, the refusal to eat, the tantrums when they are not permitted a treat or a snack afterwards....  Most of the time, I don't feel prepared to deal with that.  And most of the time, I try to be good and deal with it anyway, but there will always be a couple of days a week where I take the easy option of the peanut butter sandwich. 

Or at least, that was the easy option, until my daughter decided she didn't like them.  Praise be the lowly hot dog!

So my new project in my ongoing self-improvement quest is our eating habits.  And it starts with the actual process of eating rather than what we eat.  After all, for the past three years, figuring out how to calmly navigate the treacherous politics of mealtimes has taken all my attention.

The Fussy Eater

The children and I eat all our meals together.  Daddy joins us for dinner (and sometimes breakfast).  The children were both brought up on the baby-led weaning method which purports to create less fussy children (among other benefits).  I was skeptical about that and it certainly didn't work out for me, but I was still very satisfied with the "learning to chew before learning to swallow" approach and would recommend it to anybody. But that would be another post altogether.

My twenty month old daughter has just transitioned from the baby who loves food and will eat anything to the picky toddler who has been known to take one look at her plate and burst into tears.  My son, who will be four in two months, has only recently emerged from a two year stint of being utterly fickle with his food, his tastes changing from one season to the next with almost every meal being an exercise in negotiation.

At least we have had two years of experience to settle into a consistent standard--or so you'd think.  Our paediatrician always tells me: "Don't make a battle out of eating, because you will lose."  We still have varying success here, since it is so very difficult not to start down the road of: "Just eat this bit." Or "This is chicken, and you like chicken."  However, we do have our consequence set, even if I'm still trying not to lose my temper/patience with the child should they choose consequence over eating.
My mantra is "Every time you waste food, somebody goes hungry," accompanied by the tacit consequence "and it's going to be you."  I won't go down the route of serving up the same meal over and over until it's eaten, but after discussions with friends, I am quite confident in letting the children know what an empty tummy feels like.  If you do not eat everything you are given, (and I err on the side of small portions), you will get nothing else until the next meal.

This can have drawbacks, such as when my daughter won't eat more than a bite or two of her evening meal. She goes to bed on an empty tummy and of course wakens up to an hour early (though thankfully, never yet in the middle of the night).  Usually, we'll have some success in getting her back down for half an hour, but I always have to get up early on those days.

That's also the one instance where I don't make her wait until the next meal.  I don't want to throw out the morning routine by doing breakfast early, but I won't leave her ravenous when breakfast is ninety minutes away.  So she gets a banana as a snack.  That's the only exception I will make to the rule though.  There have been times when a refused lunch led to six hours of an empty tummy and cranky child.

What makes it harder with her than with my son is that her brother now finishes his meals regularly and is allowed to eat between them.  I confess that we do reward empty plates with a treat, and while my son understood the distinction when his sister was allowed one and he wasn't, vice versa has been much harder.  Thankfully, she now does understand the condition, and although I don't want to deliberately tease her, I don't want to hide this direct consequence of her actions either.  She usually watches tearfully while her brother chooses his treat, and then I ask him to go to another part of the house to eat it.

What we've come across with my daughter that I don't recall being such a huge problem with my son is her habit of crying at the sight of her food if it's something she doesn't want to eat.  Ignoring her tears at a family meal does not work out, so my standard solution is to give her a choice between sitting quietly and trying her meal or going straight to bed (she has a nap after lunch and bedtime after dinner anyway).

Invariably, if I put her to bed, she'll be wailing "Mama," after five minutes.  I ask her if she is ready to eat her meal, she nods and we go back down.  After this, she usually sits quietly enough in her chair and tries a few bites, but we do not have eating by any stretch of the imagination.  However, as long as she tries it and stops crying, she will be permitted to get down with the rest of us and play before bedtime.

The other thing I do believe in is meeting her halfway.  As said before, I try not to give her huge portions (she has no qualms about asking for more if she does get something she likes, though she's supposed to clear her plate first before getting second helpings of chicken or what have you).  Her biggest issue seems to be with carbs... She's not a big fan of bread, rice or potatoes--pasta and noodles are just fine though.  So I'm trying to do a couple of extra meals a week with pasta instead of rice (we usually have rice twice a week anyway), and generally make the carb portion of her meals smaller--which is probably an example we should all follow.

The Slow Eater

As I said, my son has recently become much better about trying things and has decided he likes quite a lot of food.  He will even eat things he doesn't like without too much persuasion.  Our new issue with him became slow eating.  He would sit at the table and poke at his food or chatter away and be silly, anything but actually eat.  A lot of it is trying to get us to feed him; as soon as we're finished, he'll declare that he needs a hand.  How I wish I'd listened to the baby-led weaning rule about never feeding him myself!  Of course, I fell into the same trap with my daughter so I am doubtless doomed to repeat this scenario.

Basically, long after the rest of us were done eating, my son would still have 3/4 of his plate left.  Leaving him to it induced a meltdown, thanks to the clinginess I've referred to in my recent posts; even feeding him was a painful procedure as he started fidgeting and playing around, although it was certainly quicker than sitting and waiting for him.

This situation has improved, but unfortunately not by any solution we've implemented.  There are a few things he'll always eat quickly, and in all meals, he likes to say he's racing us and is winning.  I'm not a big fan of making meals a race, but I have not been discouraging him in the least.  Basically, he seems to have motivated himself to improve, so we got lucky.

Even so, he's often the last to finish by a wide margin.  We're still feeding him as a solution, but neither of us want to be doing that for years to come, so we are using his fourth birthday as a cut-off point.  Once he is four, (less than two months now!) he will have to feed himself.  Googling slow eating, incidentally, is pretty depressing.  There's a lot of stories about how nothing helps.  So I think there's going to be a certain amount of us all accepting this--Mum and Dad accepting that he just isn't eating quickly tonight, and my son accepting that we can't sit around the dinner table for an hour keeping him company.

I had one previous experience with slow eating in my teaching days, when I was sitting with a class of older children.  One child always took dramatically longer than everybody else to eat--too long for the time allotted for lunch.  The tip from an experienced teacher was for me to read aloud a couple of chapters of Mr Popper's Penguins after lunch, and those children who had finished (and cleaned up, etc) could come and listen to the story.  It wasn't a magic wand solution, but it was an inducement for everybody to eat promptly, and it meant that the children who had finished were peacefully occupied without disrupting or being disrupted by the children still eating.

There are a few logistical issues with me doing this here, namely that my son starts melting down if he's missing out on something other people are doing.  Still, I am trying to take the tack that it's his own time he's wasting.  We usually watch half an hour of television after dinner, but I have started insisting that he finish his dinner at least half an hour before his official bedtime, or it will be too late to watch anything.  As is often the case, I am not confident that this consequence has produced results, but I am satisfied that there is a consequence.

Table Manners

I admit it.  We're not huge on table manners in our house.  It is only recently that I've felt ready to tackle "Please keep your mouth closed when you chew!" with my son. Cutlery is used as the child desires: my son uses a fork but usually not his knife; my daughter will poke her food with a fork a bit and then use her fingers.  I suppose if my son regresses to fingers in the future, we'll have to make an issue of this, but letting them train themselves has worked so far.  And the children are allowed to get down more or less when they want--I am tired of trying to eat my food while a child is wriggling and crying less than a foot away.

A few months back, I did start stamping down on "I don't like it," since my son had a terrible habit of coming into the kitchen while I was cooking and telling me that.  These days, nobody is allowed in my kitchen if they say nasty things about the food.  Previously, my reply was always "You don't have to like it, but you do have to eat it."  That still gets trotted out sometimes, but we are also making it clear that "I don't like it," is rude.

My anonymous hero here is a woman whose forum post I read years ago on some message board or other.  Apparently, at the first whine about the food, the offending child was sent packing from the table with no second chances or alternative eating options.  I haven't quite had the nerve to do that, but I sometimes wish I did.

So mealtime for us is very much a pick your battle scenario, and most of the work that needs doing I will continue to procrastinate on.  But it is past time for me to firm up the why we eat when and what we eat into a ruleset for nutrition that will be logical for the children--or at least for my questioning son who is very much at the age of trying to understand the universe.  It won't hurt my daughter either.

I'm currently mulling that over and also striving towards healthier eating habits for all of us.  The plan is to post up the results of my cogitation when they've reached coherent form, but that might take awhile....


  1. E was blw'd and generally eats most things although at nearly two and a half has started to become more fussy. She certainly understands that some foods are more desirable than others eg apples over cereal, chocolate over apples. We don't cook separately for her, she eats exactly the same as us. Past and pizza are favourites so I try to make sure we include those once a week. Apart from that, I try to make sure there's at least one thing on her plate that I know she'll eat. Of course there are days where shell eat nothing, in which case, she goes without until the next meal. I figure that as long as one meal is eaten, she'll be ok.

    Table manners are harder. We always start at the table (except when we have pizza, when we have a picnic on the floor) but she often gets down before we've finished, usually after she's eaten enough not to be hungry any more. We often put the TV on as she will sit for longer at the table if she's occupied and she's not yet old enough to join in an adult conversation.

    If its all going wrong, I usually take her away from the table and go back to my meal. Most times she comes back after 5 mins saying she's ready to sit nicely.

    It's nice to hear that other families have similar mealtimes! In 20 years, we'll look back and laugh!

    1. This has made me realise that in twenty years, mealtimes will seem very quiet! Having a meal with just me and the husband is such a luxury now, it's weird to think that at some point having a full table will be a treat!

  2. We're just starting to face some of these issues, like the whining when she sees what's on offer. And when she rejects everything at dinner, I'm not quite sure what to do with her while we finish. She whines if left at the table, screams if put down...The slow eating sounds really tough. I like your plan to stop feeding him when he hits four, and I wonder if you might as well introduce some other changes at the same time, like leaving him at the table, meltdown or no. Give you a chance to practice your tantrum response plan... I'm thinking if we face this, my plan will be to take her down when we're done with dinner and move on, regardless. But perhaps that's because she's not eating anything anyway, so no loss. SIGH. Why is something as fundamental as getting food into a child as complex as this?

    I've also been thinking that MY table manners have become appalling. Need to start with myself.

    1. I was too ashamed to discuss my table manners.

      I think you're right that we'll have to start taking a harder line on him soon, and the fourth birthday is as good a deadline as any. It's just... ugh. Tantrums.

  3. Love this post! I really do! Blogspot freezes me over and ovr, can't write much.
    Brilliant post. And terrifying at the same time. Eating is a battle at our house too. Urgh! Why can't children do what they are bloody told?! Parents know better, don't they?! :-)

    1. I am ironically heartened by how many people are suffering as much as I am. The eating issue really is an emotionally draining one. So frustrating too, when the enthusiastic baby eater decides they're becoming fussy!