Making Mealtime Meaningful: The Antidote to Supersized and Overweight

Your kids are begging for fast-food.  Burger King. McDonald’s. Wendy’s. Somebody’s screaming for Kentucky Fried. Where should you go?

Absolutely nowhere. They might be jumping up and down on your left foot waiting for you to jingle your keys, but what they really want is face time. That means time with YOU!

When meals are prepared, served and eaten together within the family setting, kids get the message that meals have meaning, and that’s way more important than a biggie fry.

When parents make meals meaningful, they are helping create  important mental processes; processes that when learned at the elbow of a caring mentor establish desirable behaviors, such as learning to take directions, thinking logically, problem solving and planning ahead. Every parent wants their children to have these skills; it’s just a matter of connecting the desired outcomes with purposeful daily activities.

Meaningful mealtimes is a concept akin to “slow food,” a growing movement urging communities to engage in sustainable agriculture and the production of healthy, seasonal foods. But instead of being about sustainable agriculture, eating with meaning is about growing sustainable habits. It’s the way we want to train our children to engage with family and friends as we cook together, present the food, and enjoy one another’s company – whether we’re sitting at a table, on the floor, or the deck of a boat.

A lot of parents kick their kids out of the kitchen, but instead of too many hands spoiling the soup, as the adage goes, the soup actually tastes better when everyone helps make it.

I wanted my kids to learn about the world of food—their food. They loved putting their initial on a biscuit or tortilla, and they thought what they made tasted better than anything in a package. They learned cooking secrets, like how to make a nori roll, bake an apple with cinnamon and brown sugar, and what happens when you add a spoonful of vinegar to a stock pot of turkey bones being boiled for broth.

And together we created concoctions with mysterious-sounding names, like meringue, posole, and baba ganoush. As they got older, I know these words stuck in their memories, like songs heard in early childhood. Their minds and taste buds had been opened to myriad possibilities.

Kitchen-time is also for sharing ideas and fun, for reminiscing about the day and asking what your kids have seen, where they’ve been, and what they’ve done. I remember standing at the stove one day when my six-year-old daughter accused me of being sexist.  “You always make ‘girl cheese’ sandwiches,” she said. “Why don’t you ever make ‘boy cheese?”

Here’s the nitty-gritty on how I fed my kids. I never dickered with them over meals. They got to choose their birthday dinner. That’s about it. To me, providing healthy meals is a parent’s job and no parent should have to put it to a vote every time they want to steam carrots or bake some fish. As Laurel Robertson wrote in the now classic vegetarian cookbook, Laurel’s Kitchen, the woman is the keeper of the keys. With the exception of just a few allergies (and one or two near-nausea-producing dislikes, including mayonnaise) I served my family what I felt gave them a balance of nutrients and exposed them to a variety of colors, textures and tastes.

And I didn’t bargain: if you eat this then you can have that. I always thought it would be a difficult habit to break. Children need to trust their parents to provide food for their benefit. It’s an emotional safety factor.  They should not be in charge of every morsel that goes in their mouths. Now older kids who have good eating habits and food preparation skills can begin to plan meals every once in a while. And they can help shop for the food. They can fix Mother’s Day breakfast, whip up a Christmas punch, and make brownies on a snow day.

Serving the food is the next step in making mealtime meaningful. It’s our chance to teach children service to family. There are things we do every day and things we do on special occasions. Let’s focus on the “everyday” things. Children can be taught to clear and wipe the table before meals. If they were doing homework there, playing a board game or working with clay or paints, they need to put these things away and wash the table. The family should not be relegated to eating in the living room because a child is too busy to help and his parents are too busy to help him learn how.

After being shown the proper procedure—and doing a couple of dry runs under a parent’s guidance—a child of four can set the table. Don’t let them fool you. Four-year-olds are extremely capable. All they need is a tall person to take the dishes and glasses down from a cabinet.

I learned basic table-setting skills at the age of six, a requirement for earning a Brownie badge, and I practiced setting the table at home. (I took my badge work very seriously.) For an everyday dinner, the plate and utensils should be positioned about an inch from the table’s edge, with the fork and napkin to the left of the plate; and on the right, the knife with blade facing inward, before the spoon. Even if the only plates in the house are made of paper and the only utensils plastic, children who participate in this way learn that one person can make a big difference.

Generous and specific praise should then pour from your lips: “Who set this beautiful table? You did such a nice job giving each person a glass! And look at how you folded the napkins! Oh, my goodness! Wait until Daddy sees!”  This is how you win a child’s cooperation. They feel appreciated and proud. So what if a glass breaks? Ask the child to fetch the dust pan. Then you clean it up without having a melt-down. Italian educator Maria Montessori believed the loss of the object was punishment enough for the child.

In our house, extra chairs often needed to be set around, and someone had to see to that. How many people will be eating? How many chairs do we need? Such questions can be answered by a child learning to count.

To make the table attractive, children can gather a handful of flowers from the yard or make some from pipe cleaners and paper. They can put out a project made at school or something they want to share, perhaps a poem they wrote or a song they learned in music.

I generally made sufficient quantities to satisfy everyone, and sometimes had leftovers. To curb excessive portion sizes for children who are used to overeating, parents may want to decide the portion size themselves and not leave the serving bowls on the table.

Next I want to talk about eating. The most important thing is to serve modest portions. For toddlers, start with a few teaspoons; and for preschoolers, a tablespoon. When they decide they like what is being served, give them a little more after they have tried everything on their plate.  It’s ridiculous, the quantities some parents heap on their kids’ plates. It’s as though they had the appetites of farm hands just back from plowing the north forty.

I never worried about my children eating too much. In fact, I always asked if they’d had enough. Knowing there would be plenty, they did not need to overeat or horde food. By serving generous portions of love and attention—no distracting cell phones, computers or TV— parents show their children that they don’t have to overeat to be satisfied.

A meal with friends.

All kids are not big meal eaters. One of mine lived on air and kisses until she was four or five. She needed nutritious snacks throughout the day, and trying to force down a big meal at one sitting would have been a waste of time and energy. I always had her sit with us, however, and eat what she could. We never made it a big deal.  A child’s best example is seeing her parents eat healthy foods with enjoyment. Children will naturally want to imitate them. If a new food is not received with zeal, try preparing it in different ways in the future: baked, steamed, sautéed, mashed, in a casserole, etc.  What is distasteful to your child in one form may seem delicious in another.

Most of all, keep meal times about all family members. You may be stewing about a parking ticket, or maybe your boss moved you into an office with a view of the parking lot; but remember: a parent’s emotional state is as contagious as chicken pox. Your kids will mirror your attitude. If you’re ranting about your bad day, how do you expect a six-year-old to pipe up and share what happened in gym class?

Also, don’t let one child’s dislike for a certain food dominate your precious time. Saying things like, “Gina hates spinach” is counter-productive. Gina may very well want to try spinach the next time, but decides she cannot risk spoiling her reputation. Her “thing” about spinach then becomes an issue.

Make it clear that the child only has to take a small bite, and then leave well-enough alone. Don’t sit around staring and waiting, making the child the focus of attention. Move on and have an enjoyable meal.  I never made my children sit at the table until their plates were clean. Coercion is a sure way to create anxiety surrounding meal times. When he asks for a snack later, simply remind him that he decided not eat his dinner, so no sweets. You might be surprised to see an unfinished portion of pasta or chicken disappear from the refrigerator!

What about dessert? Save it for special occasions. Instead, serve an appetizer like baby carrots and celery sticks with salad dressing while they’re waiting for dinner. Or set out a plate of steamed edamame—green soy beans. They’re delicious in the shell. Or maybe some hummus and veggies.

Eating together is time for reconnecting and refueling, not only our empty tummies, but our emotional tanks as well. When we make meals meaningful, we are overcoming a serious problem plaguing so many American families today: a deficit of interaction that affects kids’ social skills, verbal skills and self-esteem. When you spend time preparing, serving and eating together, and giving your child feedback and sincere gratitude for his help, you are telling him how he is doing in this world and creating a positive self-image.

Neither children nor adults can extract much meaning from meals scarfed down in a noisy restaurant, without benefit of pleasant conversation or an unmuddled place to sit; and most of all, the diners’ own participation. Mealtime is more than a time to feed the body. It’s a time to nourish the soul. FFG

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