by Julie Lass
About a year ago, I realized that, through shear inertia, my family had fallen into a familiar rut—one meal for us, another, significantly less colorful, meal for the children. We had a rotating menu of about 5 main course items for the kids (ages 7 and 4), most of which were some form of yellow or beige, served with peas or carrots and fruit. Meanwhile my husband and I ate a variety of dishes. We looked at the situation and decided to make a change: everyone eats the same meal.
First, we set up the ground rules during their “last supper” of regular kids meals. “Tomorrow, y’all are going to eat the same foods we eat. You will eat enough to make sure you are not hungry before breakfast. If you do not eat enough, you will go to bed hungry. Do you understand?” They nodded, but we suspected it was not going to be that easy the next day.
To kick off our new set of dinner rules, I made tilapia. There were protests, demands for mac and cheese, crying…you can imagine it, I’m sure. After ketchup was placed on their plates, the kids agreed to take a bite. Then 8 bites. Then the vegetables. Success!
The next few days were hit and miss. If I made a straight protein or pasta dish, they’d eat it with few complaints. Casseroles were a disaster. They do not want their foods—even foods they like plain—mixed together. At times, we’d compromise. If I’d made something they probably didn’t like or wouldn’t like, I would let it go at 5 bites and let them each make a peanut-butter sandwich. If it was a meal I knew was good and that they would be likely to eat—I’d call them out for being fussy and we’d refuse to let them eat anything else until they’d eaten their serving. If they asked for other food after that, they could have fruits, vegetables or yogurt only, or more of the meal on the table.
I knew it was working. The best evidence was when I put a casserole on the table and my son started wailing that he wouldn’t eat it. My daughter calmly told him “you know you have to eat enough so you are not hungry tonight” and he stopped crying and ate it. She’ll also tell him, as needed, “you have to try something a lot of times before you know you like it” and “this is a grown-up food—you will like it better when you are older.” Now, my very particular son will try almost anything once a day (though wailing and protests are still common first instincts for him).
This year, at Thanksgiving, we had another challenge. We had several kids coming who did not live under our roof and did not have the same rules. If they didn’t eat their dinner, my kids might not want to eat theirs either. So, I set up a challenge for the kids table (with permission from their parents): For every bite of a new food, they would earn 5 minutes of movie time after the meal for the whole table. Some of the kids took to it with gusto, and only one kid decided to ride the coattails of the others. But best of all, my kids didn’t complain or ask to eat something else. Second best, the adults had a quiet hour to talk while the kids watched a movie.
That was the goal for 2011. In 2012, I’m going to put more energy towards harmony at the family meal. We’ll be more structured on the flow of the meal: kids set the table, we all say our prayer, we eat together, everyone clears the table. My kids know they will be excused early for talking inappropriately, excessive tattling, or generally annoying behavior (the boy likes to burp, jive and wail), which has increased the peace considerably. And, I’m hoping a more structured flow will make dinners together calmer and happier. I’ll have to provide an update in 2013!
What changes are you putting in place at your family table, and what lessons can you share?