Sunday, June 29, 2014

Stress-Free Meal Times


     Meal times, specifically dinner, haven't been so easy lately. My four-year-old has always been picky, and my two-year-old, with whom I practiced baby-led weaning, and who used to show so much promise in the eating department, has followed my older daughter's lead. Sometimes I wish I believed in bribing, distracting (often used with babies), or threatening my kids. It would make things easier, and I'm certainly guilty of all of them, but I do my best to avoid those tactics.

     With meal times, especially, it'd be so easy to say, "Well, if you want dessert, you need to finish your dinner," or, "If you eat one more bite of broccoli, you can have ice cream." I could also say, "If you don't eat your dinner, you are going straight to bed," or, "There will be no TV if you don't finish your meal."

     What makes it so appealing is that, by and large, it seems to work. She finishes her dinner, dessert is served, and you can feel good about getting her to eat her vegetables.

     But here's the rub, at least for me: I don't want to have a relationship with my daughters built on manipulation. Would I like them to comply and eat the nutritious meal that I have provided? Absolutely. Yet, if my daughters can't control what goes in to and comes out of their body, what can they control? Do they have no autonomy whatsoever? On Janet Lansbury's website, she writes, "Distraction is the polar opposite of connection ... Distraction doesn't teach appropriate behavior. What it does teach children is that they don't rate an honest connection in their first and most formative years. So these distractions, along with other manipulative, controlling methods like bribes, tricks and (most disconnecting of all) punishments threaten the relationship of trust necessary for close parent-child bonds."

     So here's what I practice instead: I am in control of what I offer; they are in control of what they eat. I cannot force-feed them. I make a meal. I try to get them as involved in preparing the meal as they are capable of being (though, I admit, a lot of times it is just easier for me to do it myself). I serve the meal. If they eat it, great. If they don't, oh well. There will not be any other food offered. If they complain that they are hungry, then I will offer again the dinner that they initially turned down. Sometimes they just choose to go to bed hungry. Once, my youngest even screamed because she was so hungry but so determined to not eat the spaghetti that I had made. I try to show empathy and acknowledge their feelings: "You are hungry, but you don't want to eat the meal that I made. I know that is very upsetting to you. I am hungry too when I don't eat my dinner. I will give you an extra serving of oatmeal at breakfast so that you feel better tomorrow." Once or twice a week, I make something I know they love (right now that is Applegate chicken nuggets and eggs). That still leaves five days of the food that I prefer that they have. Another thing I do sometimes is a tip that I got from my friend Anna, which is to limit the snacks they have during the day so that they are hungrier at dinner.

     As far as dessert goes, I don't offer it unless I am okay with them having it whether they eat their dinner or not. When I am at someone else's house, I don't stress about it at all. The host is in control of what is offered  not me  so even though I would prefer that they eat dinner before getting dessert, the visit is usually infrequent enough that I just choose to not worry about it.

     One of my boundaries is that I don't want misbehavior at the table. I don't want feet put up on the table or my girls getting out of their seat, and I don't want them playing with their milk. In these cases, I use natural consequences. For example, I simply remove their plate, and say, "Thank you for letting me know that you are finished." My girls usually protest at this, but I still take the plate. I tell them that if they are not finished eating, I will give them their plate again in a few minutes. 

     Eventually, as they get older, I worry that they might purposely misbehave at the table so that they can get out of sitting down with the family for dinner. In these cases, I think it depends on what your goal is. While I don't like the idea of them going off to play instead of eating with me and my husband, if my aim is to get them to eat what I serve and to not misbehave at the table, then I might have to wait until they are hungry enough to relent. The bottom line is that they will not be permitted to behave inappropriately at the table, and, if they are hungry, they have to eat what I serve. I'd rather have the trifecta: they eat what I've prepared, they don't misbehave, and they sit down as a family. And I will get that some of the time. Other times, it's imperfect, but I figure I will have to take the opportunity to connect with them when they decide to eat.

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