When our first child was born, we worked tirelessly to make sure that she was a “good eater.” I nursed her for most of the first year, and when we started introducing solids, we did it by the book. We started with green veggies because, let’s face it. They don’t taste as good as the bananas and peaches, and we like to work down not uphill! Then we added the other vegetables and moved to the fruits. Our pediatrician encouraged us to get her onto table food as soon as she was able to chew, and he taught us how to make “mushes” with our leftovers so that she would develop a palate for the foods we eat. She was a “good eater,” and people told us that all the time.
And then she turned 3. I’m not exaggerating when I say that she went to bed one night a “good eater” and woke the next morning to be a “terror” at the kitchen table. If it didn’t taste good, it was too mushy. If it wasn’t too mushy, it was too hard. If it wasn’t too hard, it “spiced her tongue.” If it wasn’t too spicy, it was too hot. If it wasn’t too hot, it was — you guessed it. Too cold. Different foods couldn’t touch or be mixed together (she got that one from her dad, according to his mother). Certain foods had to be cut. Other foods couldn’t be cut. Sometimes she wanted to feed herself. And other times, we had to spoon feed her. We found ourselves in a battle of the wills, at every meal, 3 times per day to get her to eat. Forget about all the battles we were having about HOW she was eating. Like a little piggy to the trough — straight out of A Christmas Story! Food was everywhere but in her mouth.
Mealtime — something Kory and I had always enjoyed — was no longer enjoyable. And this battle with our firstborn continued long enough for her little brother to enlist. Suddenly, we had two “terrors” at dinner table, and we were losing our minds.
The lines between acceptable and unacceptable eating habits were blurred. We lacked consistency in our enforcement of the rules. And we had lost control at the dinner table. In fact, it has been said that a barefoot, nine-month pregnant woman — while peeling a banana for one child and listening to the other complain about the chunks of tomato in the spaghetti sauce — lost her temper and threw the banana at the window. Upon impact, the mini-blinds sliced the banana into 6 pieces with the precision of a sous-chef on Iron Chef America. To this day, our kids will laugh and say, “remember when mommy threw the banana at the window?”
Yeah — we ALL remember it kids. Can we not MOVE ON!
But that was the day when Kory and I realized something had to change. So we sat down and came up with a new plan. Our goal? To create some manageable expectations and to regain control of mealtime. Along the way, we were determined that mealtime would become quality family time with food involved.
Here’s what we came up with and have, for the most part, adhered to ever since (please note: There are exceptions to every rule.):
1. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit! (Thank you, Pinkalicious!): We are not short order cooks. Nor do we have a lot of free time. As a result, we prepare one meal for breakfast, one meal for lunch, and one meal for dinner. If our kids don’t like it, we’re very sorry. But if they choose to picket the dinner table, they may be excused. They are welcome to throw their fit in the privacy of their own bedroom.
2. Before you may be excused from the table (assuming you haven’t been banished to your room as a result of violating rule no. 1 above), you must eat two “thank you bites” of your food (Thank you, Cousin Julie!): We want our kids to have hearts of gratitude. We also want them to learn how to be respectful when they are eating in other people’s homes. And finally, we believe that if we continue to put things in front of them, there is always the possibility that they might grow to like them. As a result, regardless of their preferences, they must eat two “thank you” bites of everything on their plate before they may be excused from the table.
3. No seconds unless you eat all your firsts: If there is something on their plates that they really, really like, that’s great! We’d love to give them more. But to get seconds of that item, they must eat the [fill in nasty green vegetable] lurking next to it first! (Of course, if we ever have a child that turns his or her nose up at the mac and cheese and wants seconds of the broccoli, we’ll gladly bend this rule. But that will NEVER happen, so we’re not really worried about being inconsistent!).
4. No snacks between meals unless you eat most of your food: We are not proponents of making our kids clean their plates. We want them to eat until they are full and then stop. But if they do not eat most of what is served to them at any given meal, then they may wait until the next meal before having any other food.
5. Kitchen closes at 7:30 p.m. (this rule constitutes a very recent amendment): Just like they are tired and cranky at the end of the day, so are we. And there comes a point in the day when, honestly, we are ready for a break from mommy and daddy duties. As a result, the kitchen closes at 7:30 p.m. They are welcome to help themselves to some water or milk, but that is it. Breakfast will be served in 11 hours.
In addition to these rules, we have some guidelines for our own behavior that we have implemented in order to set our kids up for success at the table:
1. We give them small portions. We have learned that battles at the dinner table often result from the fact that we give them too much food to begin with. So we give them smaller portions and offer seconds if needed to fill their tummies.
2. If we are serving something we know they don’t like, we try to pair it with something they do like. This provides a built-in incentive for them to conquer that nasty green vegetable or other less favored food so that they can have an extra helping of that item they really enjoy. This works great with pizza. We NEVER serve pizza without a green vegetable on the plate next to it.
3. If we are serving something we know is a real struggle for them, we may choose to offer dessert after our meal as an extra incentive for them to give their best efforts. We do not have dessert after every meal.
4. We limit (not omit) snacking between meals so that we can ensure our kids are hungry at mealtime.
5. We limit the amount of unhealthy food items we keep in the house so that our kids don’t have those more preferred items staring them in the face every time we open the pantry.
6. When we see good eating habits developing in a child, we will allow that child some preferences. We treat this like a freedom. Remember our oldest and the blueberry infused oatmeal? (You can read about that here.) She likes blueberries, and she’ll eat her oatmeal, so we allow her to have the blueberries on the side. We also don’t make our kids eat raw tomatoes. They can’t stand them. But they eat cooked tomatoes at almost every meal, so we let it slide.
Please know. These rules are really just guidelines. We have to consider the context of all situations and avoid the tendency to become legalistic about their enforcement. They also don’t serve to eliminate picky eaters. We still have picky eaters in our home. But these guidelines provide some parameters to help us manage mealtime, to set expectations, and to allow us all to eat in peace. Can I hear an “Amen”?
And we’re hopeful that someday, our kids will enjoy a broader variety of foods as a result of our efforts. Our oldest has come A LONG WAY since 3!
How do you manage mealtime issues?
*** Stay tuned for Part 2 of this edition of My Mommy Secrets, which will share some ideas regarding how to have fun at the dinner table!