Monday, November 8, 2010

Table Matters

How can I describe what dinners at our house looked like just two short years ago? There were some dinners not unlike some of the best food fight scenes from your favorite 1980 teen flick. Picture bowls of tomato based stew flung off the kitchen island toward the living room (I have never been more glad for wood floors). Imagine musical chairs where only one person is walking around the chairs while the others provide the charming music of, "Sit down right now or..." You get the idea. Throw in two high-chair bound newly self-feeding babies, a worn out mama and a frustrated papa. Would you like to come over for dinner?

We still have our issues at dinner, but I'm glad to say that the food now stays on our dishes, except for legitimate spills, and we have regular (for us) conversations...where three children talk at the same time and two grown ups try to listen and maintain order, and wedge in some adult news when possible. It's a charmingly normal, if loud, family dinner.

What worked the magic? No magic here, folks, just some determined, consistent, calm, positive parenting under the tutelage of our mentors. There are some general guidelines:
  • Try to serve at least one thing that each child likes to eat.
  • Try to serve dinner as close to the same time each day as possible. (I fail at this sometimes, but at the beginning we were eating at 6:00 sharp every night.)
  • Parents are strategically placed between children wherever possible, though I can manage all three children solo now, if needed.
  • Don't plate the children's food (which we were doing previously). Instead parents control the food and serve "family-style" from the center of the table.
  • Key: When serving the children two questions are favored: 1) Where should I put your ___? and 2) Would you like a little or a lot? Sometimes for the latter question we ask a number or, if you're feeling really creative, a shape (e.g. for bread, square/rectangle/triangle, etc.)
  • Also Key: Re-phrase child's response as politely as possible as in: 1) Right here, please. and 2) A little, please. If the child replies with a polite form of their own initiative, praise them! "I like the way you said that!" or "Nice asking!" If you have re-phrased for them then wait for them to parrot the polite phrase before responding with the next question or by placing the food on their plate. The pause for politeness is so important...eventually they start initiating those polite phrases and it is just great!
  • If you give a child a choice about whether or not they want an item (which we do now from time to time) their responses should also be polite: Yes, please or No, thank you.
  • If the children ask for more of something this needs to be polite too: More ____, please, Mommy.
  • For a while (a couple of months seemed to do it for us) adult conversation is off-limits. Pretty much everything said should be about the food, or at least directed toward engaging the children in talking at a level that's appropriate for them. Now we like to ask about our favorite thing at school that day. These days we can edge in a sentence or two to each other, but we have to be careful not to get into extended discussions because it's very easy to upset the balance and lose the positive attention that the children are really craving during this time.
All of these questions, responses, and interactions begin to engage the children in polite and appropriate ways around sharing the food. With all of the positive attention and engagement it is easier for them to sit and eat. They enjoy feeling some sense of power over their food. They tend to actually eat more. There is still some general pickiness, especially in our younger set, so we've added a couple of soft rules. They need to try everything before they can have seconds of anything. If they don't like something, we're working on getting them to leave it on their plate (because this is the polite thing to do if you have tried something and don't like it). For some reason my kids like a clean plate one way or another, and if they don't like it they want to give it to someone else or do just about anything to get it off their plate...including eat it if Mommy insists that it stays on their plate. Well, it works sometimes. If I already know one of my kids doesn't like something (my boy refuses just about all pasta/noodles) then I don't give them much to begin with; just enough to try it if they are brave that day. And if they don't try that particular item I usually don't make them. No need to reinforce their dislikes with a negative experience. No dessert if they don't eat their protein and fruit or vegetable. That one is hard to enforce when two of the kids clean their plate and the third just wasn't hungry; and dessert is a big deal at our house, courtesy of Daddy's DNA. In that situation the non-eater gets a pretty boring dessert - a graham cracker instead of cookies from the jar.

This is what has worked for us, and it has only gotten better as the kids get older and more into our dinner routine. I'm not embarrassed to have them eat with us when we have company now, although I do sometimes feed them early if the company dinner time is far removed from our norm or if we have some specific adult conversation that needs to happen over the meal. In general dinner time is a happy time at our house now.

Credit where it is due: I learned about these and other techniques I am currently using with my daughter from two wonderful people, Clarissa Montanaro and Robin Hauge. Please contact them at clarissamontanaro-AT-gmail-DOT-com for more information.


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