Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Dinner Time Dread

I have reached a point where I absolutely dread dinner time. Now that's saying a lot for a foodie who lives and breathes for her next meal. It is also a little melodramatic given that most of this dinner time loathing stems from the recent behaviors of the tiniest human in my house: my three-year-old. It's amazing how much power those littlest humans can pack in there.

My son's vocabulary is ever-expanding and he's got a pretty strong will hidden behind that sweet demeanor of his. He's been exercising his independence and isn't shy about telling me how he really feels about my cooking, hence my recent frustrations.

Some of his latest mealtime favorites have included:

"I hate this."
"That's gross."
"Where is the other dinner?"
"What else are we eating?"
"It feels yucky in my mouth."
"This is weird."

Feeding him is an absolute delight. (Ahem, there was a twinge a sarcasm in that last sentence, in case you missed it).

A few too many meals of late have concluded with him chucking the undesired food items onto the floor and me resting my head in my hands in total defeat. My perceptive seven-year-old typically jumps in following these escapades with a quick interjection of "Mom, I'm sorry we are making you feel sad about the dinner you made." To which I usually lie "Oh honey, you aren't making me sad."

I can think a few other things that infuriate me more than a delicious dinner "wasted" on my children.

Anyone with me on this?

Before I go on, my head tells me that I must interject. I know my emotional brain is taking precedence over my rational brain (ha! when is it ever not?!) Intellectually, I recognize (and in fact would preach to you) that a meal is never "wasted" on our kids. But it doesn't change the reality that it so often feels like it!

So I will preach this to us both: each time we expose our kids to food, it's progress. Each time they see us eating matters. What's going on inside them might seem like mindless data entry to us - totally pointless, a blur of meaningless perpetual figures. But eventually the cumulative effect of all the entries amounts to something. Also I would like add that it is so important that we take our kids' food rejections in stride (i.e. my hiding of my face in my hands probably isn't my strongest move but we all have our moments...) As tough as it may be, pull on your big kid parenting panties and let the fact THAT YOUR KID WON'T EAT A DARN THING (!!!!!!!) slide right off your back, as if it were the most soothing behavior you could ever envision. Imagine you are getting a massage. Think about Hawaii. Pull out the big guns and put on your poker face. Do whatever you have to do to put forth the attitude that it doesn't phase you one bit that your kid isn't eating.

Now, I'm not at all promoting lying here, but I do truly believe that sometimes you have to act on something first as if you believe it and then the feelings follow. In time, as your kids grow accustomed to your I-Don't-Care-Whether-You-Eat-It-Or-Not game face, they will realize fighting with you over food is no longer a means to get your goat. It's no longer a fight when you lose your opponent. Which one of you is going to be the first to back down?

Needless to say, I realize that no one wants every meal to feel like a disaster (myself included!) so here are a few things you might want to consider if your child is really throwing it down each time you sit down at the table.

Are you offering at least one food you know your child loves? It could be as basic as some sliced fruit or a cup of milk - don't make it complicated. But be sure to always include one known and familiar food item on the table at every meal so that there is something you know your child will feel comfortable eating (preferably also make sure that one food item is a healthy one). Your child is learning how to eat and this can be a scary thing sometimes. As you expose them to new foods, be sure to offer a familiar one alongside to help them feel more comfortable. Depending on your child's personality, it is quite likely they won't try the new food on the first or second or even twelfth go around. Know this fact and be OK with it. Try not to view their refusal as total rejection. Their brains are slowly taking in more than you realize and they are watching and learning from your example.

Are all the foods you serve "mixed?" (i.e. are you serving one-pot meals all the time or salads where the meat and starch and veggie all touch each other?) It is developmentally appropriate for many kids to prefer their foods separate in the younger years. They like to experience each item on their own. This is why you might catch your child picking the tiniest fleck of spinach off their piece of stir-fry or painstakingly trying to wipe the green pesto from each piece of pasta. Yes, eventually we want them to enjoy "mixed" foods but you might need to ease them in a little.

In my house, I serve a LOT of one-pot meals. The ease of them is pretty hard to resist. But I've found myself getting so frustrated when my son keeps asking for "more sausage" repeatedly out of one of my favorite one-pot meals: Farro with Chicken Sausage and Apples. I dig around the bowl to find him more sausage and then the ratio of meat-to-starch gets all messed up and then I'm angry that the leftovers will now be low in protein. After doing this one time too many, I decided I needed to tweak the meal a little. I could either significantly increase the amount of sausage in the recipe, or I could try browning some chicken sausage links and then serving the sauteed farro and kale separately on the side. The same thing goes for main dish salads. My kids don't yet eat salads in the traditional sense but if I present them with bowls full of the different ingredients separately (greens, corn, cheese, bacon, hard boiled eggs etc), they will pick and choose what they like and actually eat something. By no means am I saying you need to quit serving soups and stews and main dish salads and the like. I'm just encouraging you to be mindful of what is normal developmentally for kids and get creative if need be. Sometimes just separating out the different ingredients from the dish on your child's plate will make all the difference.

Put the kabosh on disrespectful mealtime commentary. In our house, we are NOT allowed to say negative things about what is being served. Having a rule and following it are two separate issues so this, of course, does not mean these impolite words do not get said (as evidenced by the list of offenses coming from son above). However, when these negative phrases do get said, we correct them immediately. Our kids are allowed to turn down foods but they must do so with a simple "No thank you." They can also tell me that they "don't care for" a particular food item but phrases like "I hate it" and "That's gross" are definitely not permitted and are disciplined. We are mutually respectful at our table - I am respectful of the fact that they are learning to like new foods and they are respectful of the fact that I worked hard to prepare them the meal. When plates or food items are thrown to the floor, the meal ends immediately. No questions. This behavior is simply not allowed.

So, no matter the age of your kids or the particulars of your individual mealtime struggles, be encouraged my friends! Eating well is a skill that your child must learn and it certainly won't happen overnight. I hope these quick tips I shared will be helpful to you today. I'd love to hear what other eating concerns/frustrations you are facing - maybe I will even respond to with strategies on how to address them in a future post! ;)


(If you are newer to this blog and haven't read any of my prior posts on nutrition and feeding kids, I'd recommend you head on over here to learn more about my approach to feeding. Also feel free to click on the "Feeding" tab at the top of this page for more posts on kids and mealtimes).

1 comment:

  1. Your posts on meals with kids are always so helpful. Meal time is a struggle at our house and your posts always have some new ideas for me!


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