This week, we started eating all together, at the dining room table, like decent human beings.
It’s something I’ve wanted to start for a while. I’ve read so much about the importance of shared mealtimes away from the TV – what it does for family cohesion and establishing eating patterns and healthy habits in small children – but it’s just never really come together. Lil A has been eating supper at 6, usually haphazard meals thrown together. Scrambled egg sandwiches with raw carrots has been a favourite, and baked frozen fish with leftover sweet potatoes. She’s been eating her main meal at lunchtime and so supper’s always been low-key for her, in her highchair, while her dad or I cook our dinner, or send work emails, or feed the dogs, or exercise. Then once Lil A was in bed, my hub and I would scoff our food down in front of the TV.
But no. This was the week that that was going to change, hopefully forever.
I knew this would change what and when we ate, but I didn’t foresee how difficult the change would be. Firstly, getting a meal from scratch on the table by 7pm means starting at 5, especially because Lil A wants nothing more than to “help me cook” – in other words, putting her step stool in front of the counter and using her tiny whisk to stir sugar into water and then eating bits of everything I’ve chopped up. And then, once we’re all finally sitting and ready to eat, she doesn’t really know what to do with herself. Having been left to feed herself and get on with it, she’s suddenly confronted with both of us willing and able to give her attention while she eats, which, of course, means she just doesn’t eat. And after five minutes of picking, she hops off her chair – because she can.
We’ve not found the answer yet. We’ve just decided to only attempt this family-at-the-table thing three times a week, and have had to accept that, at first, she’s only going to be able to sit with us to eat for a few minutes at a time, and hopefully she’ll be able to tolerate it for longer and longer as she gets older. Whatever she doesn’t finish on her plate, she gets for lunch the next day and, left to her own devices, she’s been polishing it off. I suppose we should give her smaller portions for supper, too, seeing as she’s still getting a cooked meal at lunchtime.
But the main thing I’m struggling with is not commenting on what or how much she eats. I’ve read that this is the best (possibly only) way to keep food from being a source of guilt or reward for your kids. I don’t want her to attach as much guilt to food as I did as a teenager and young adult, and I also don’t want to use it as a reward or punishment for her. I don’t want her to attach emotion to it. I don’t want her to become an emotional eater as an adult. i want her to enjoy food and to respect it. So once she’s said she’s had enough at the dinner table, I have to bite down hard on my tongue and quash my instinct to say “No, you haven’t. Just one more bite”, or “How about you just finish your carrots, then you can watch TV?”. I’m trying to get better at simply making sure that everything on her plate is healthy, so that no matter what or how much she eats, she’ll be getting something good. Toddlers are really good at knowing when they’ve had enough to eat and eating only when they’re hungry, and I really don’t want to mess with that. When we leave her to eat by herself and get on with it, I’m confident that she eats as much as she needs, but with eating at the table, I’m worried that she’s just saying she’s had enough because she’s got bored with sitting still. So I need to keep reminding myself that she’ll eat if she’s hungry, and that she will probably finish her food the next day when she gets her leftovers for lunch. It’s hard, though! So many of us were raised under the “you can’t leave the table until you finish your food” philosophy that it just comes naturally to try to encourage your kid to eat more than they would otherwise.
As far as what we eat goes, so far, we haven’t had to change very much, actually.
If you’re curious or want some inspiration for what to feed your tot (especially if you eat the same food, don’t want to eat too much meat, and don’t want to overload on carbs at night), have a look at the dishes we’ve made so far – they’ve all got Lil A’s approval. And that’s not easily won – she’s two-and-a-half and very particular about what she eats!
And here are the resources I like to use to find tot-friendly family food:
Dinner vs Child on the Food52 blog (makes for pretty hysterical reading and has great ways to introduce complex flavours and “exotic” dishes to kids)
Jack Monroe in the Guardian (a bonus is that her recipes are also really budget-friendly)
Feel free to follow my yummysuppers board on Pinterest for some free inspiration – I cook 80% of the dishes I Pin onto it, and lately they’ve all been appropriate for family dinners. I’m not ever going to be dedicated enough to be a food blogger, but I think I’m getting to grips with the (relative) “art” of knowing which blogs to visit and which recipes to recreate.