If you know me well, you know that much of my life revolves around food. Not only do I love eating food, I love preparing it, I love cooking it, baking it, and thinking about it. I plan my week's meals ahead of time, and I buy groceries according to what I'm cooking that week. If there's a holiday coming up, watch out--cookies and other baked goods leave my kitchen with stupendous speed. I love planning holiday meals and meals for special occasions. I make 95% of what we eat from scratch; and I'm damn proud of it. I buy local and organic as much as possible, and love cooking and mastering different cuisines.
This is why it's so difficult for me to admit my dirty little secret: up until two weeks ago, my kids didn't eat dinner with my husband and I. As in, not at the same time, and not the same meal.
This isn't the case for any other meals. We eat breakfast together, and there are no special or separate orders prepared. Lunch is a freebie--we eat what we want, unless we go out or unless I'm making something special. Our snacks are pretty much universal--having next to zero processed food in our house means we all munch on fruit, nuts, and the like. So why the dinner disconnect?
My son was a really picky eater (still is). I learned pretty quickly that it was easier to serve up chicken nuggets (organic ones with whole wheat breadcrumbs!) or pizza (Amy's Organic! I swear!), or pasta with sauce (organic too!) rather than fight with him about eating what I was serving up for my husband and I. I was insanely neurotic about my son going hungry--I figured through giving him what he liked, at least he would eat, and then eventually he would join us in our meals.
With my middle daughter, I was determined make a change. I made all her baby food and started feeding her "table food" as soon as she would have it. However, eventually I fell into the same trap I did with my son. The "kid meals" were easier; faster; and my children loved sitting and eating together. My kids would eat dinner around 5:30; my husband and I, 6:30 or later. I reasoned that this made sense because I didn't want them eating too close to their milk and bedtime. I didn't want them going hungry, waiting for my husband and I to eat. This was a good thing. Until it wasn't.
Inevitably, the food battles with my daughter began around age 3, as they had with my son. This made me realize that food battles are not about food, but about control. Whereas my daughter was eating eclectic meals just weeks before, now she was turning her nose up at seemingly everything. We began arguing at every sit down meal.
After a year of my kids rotating through the same four things for dinner, I finally had enough this past Christmas. Faced with another round of holidays where our children would not join in the family feast, I decided that was it. I didn't make a huge deal about it, but I told my kids that there was not going to be any more frozen pizza, frozen chicken, grilled cheese sandwiches, or pasta with sauce and cheese (unless it was what we were all planning on eating).
You know what? This was one of the easiest transitions I have ever made with my children. It's amazing how, when there are no other options, the kids will just eat what's there! They don't always finish, and that's ok, but they are ingesting things I never thought would be possible.
You may be reading this and laughing, or thinking "No duh, genius," but if you aren't, I have some good tips for you that are working for us. I recently came across a blog post about a book called "French Kids Eat Everything," and though I haven't read the book yet (it's on my reading list!), in it there is a list of ten unwritten French rules on eating with children that I think are fantastic. If I may pat myself on the back here, I'm happy to say that once we started the family dinner meal, we used all of these rules before we knew they existed. Once again, you may be thinking that this is simply common sense and what's the big deal? But if you're not, here are the rules, and my take on each.
1. Parents: YOU are in charge of food education! This is absolutely true, and something we take very seriously in our home. We talk about food a lot, where it comes from, how it's prepared, and when our local farmer's market starts up, we attend as a family as much as possible. I know that when my kids get older they'll eat stuff that's bad, but as long as what they eat is under my control, I will work as hard as I can to influence them in a positive way. Growing up, my mom cooked simple, delicious meals with wholesome ingredients, and though I went through a heavy McDonald's phase in my late teens and early twenties, my mom's way of cooking and treating food was instrumental in the way I feel about food and eating, and what ultimately brought me back from the Dark Side.
2. Avoid emotional eating: No food rewards or bribes. This is difficult, but ultimately is for the best. I use food as a reward or a bribe only when everything else in my arsenal is exhausted. I've started offering a cookie not as a bribe, but more as something to look forward to once the meal is finished. I've also started avoiding saying, "If you don't finish your dinner, you're not getting a cookie, etc." It's helping a lot, and the kids eat simply because its time to eat!
3. Parents schedule meals and menus, and kids eat what adults eat. Hooray! This is one I'm most proud of, and while I've done the meal planning for years, we are finally eating the same food! Someone give me a cookie!
4. Eat family meals together. Probably my favorite part of this transition, I love sitting down with everyone, kids included. The mealtime conversations we are having are wonderful. As for my youngest daughter, we've started giving her tiny morsels of whatever we are eating, at every meal. She's fallen into place, just like that! It's ok if this means that the kids go to bed a bit later some nights. Family meal time is so much more important.
5. Eat your veggies (think variety). We are all about the vegetables here. At least one veggie accompanies every meal, and I love to cook vegetarian and vegan meals. I'm so excited to share these with the kids.
6. You don't have to like it, but you have to taste it. This is exactly what it sounds like. We put every component of our meal on our kids' plates, and they have to try it before they say they don't want it. They both tried and loved red bell peppers. They tried and hated fingerling potatoes. Next week I'm making cauliflower!
7. No snacking! It's ok to feel hungry between meals. This is absolutely true in the hour or two before dinner, but if we are out and about and not planning to eat until we get home, you can bet the snacks are out in full swing, especially if we have to wait somewhere or have a long ride ahead of us. I'm not sure if the book is nixing all snacking or just close-to-dinnertime snacking, but either way, we have to adapt these rules so they make sense for our family. Snacks have saved my hide more times than I can count. I never leave home without them.
8. Slow food is happy food--as in, eat slow. This is a work in progress for us. I eat like someone is chasing me because frankly, someone usually is (to nurse, or read a book, or wipe a butt). Now that we are eating together, since we are all engaged in the same activity, it's easier to slow down. But I still need to remind myself to do it! My husband and I both also have a bad habit of rushing our kids while they eat. Work in progress.
9. Eat mostly real food. Another area where we do well, as stated above--I make nearly everything we eat from scratch. It's wonderful to be able to share my love of fresh ingredients and good-for-you food with our children.
10. Remember, eating is joyful. Relax! Now that we are all eating dinner together, I can't believe it took us this long, and can't imagine it any other way. It's so awesome hearing my kids exclaim over parts of the meal they love and ask questions about what everything is. They wander in the kitchen while I am cooking and ask what we are having, and look forward to what new thing they are going to try (for the most part. Middle daughter was not enthused about trying the fingerling potatoes). I'm so excited to instill in my children my love of food and cooking.
Does your family eat all meals together?