“Don’t eat that pea. DO NOT EAT THAT PEA. That is MY PEA and you are NOT allowed to eat it…. YOU ATE THE PEA!!”
That’s what was going on in my house last night. My daughters and I were sitting on the kitchen floor, digging leftover steamed peas, broccoli, and cauliflower out of a Tupperware container. With our hands.
Did I mention that we were on the kitchen floor?
This is a significant change from how we usually eat dinner, which involves the girls sitting at the table, staying in their seats, using their forks and spoons, and remembering to wipe their hands on their napkins instead of their shirts. (OK, in all honesty, it involves the three of us sitting on the table, and me nagging them relentlessly to stay in their seats and use their utensils and their napkins.) In general, dinnertime at our house is not particularly fun, but if nothing else, my daughters are generally well behaved at the table.
Perhaps it’s because my father was raised by a German grandfather who would bark out numbers at his grandchildren (the numbers correlated to rules that they needed to remember, such as sit down, shut up, etc.). Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen far too many children who have no ability to sit at a table ever, and I became determined that my daughters would learn proper manners. Perhaps it’s because I’m terribly anxious about whether or not my picky preschooler is getting enough food. Whatever the reason, I have become a bit of a stickler at the table. Eat your dinner. Wipe your face. Use your fork. Keep your hands out of your hair. Blah blah blah.
You may be wondering how I went from being obsessive about dinnertime to eating peas on the dining room floor? It started last week, when I attended a Family Dinner workshop with Danya Handelsman, Parent Coach, and Ilana Margalit, Nourishment Counselor. The program covered a number of aspects of eating with our children, but I took away three important lessons from the evening:
1. “Family dinner is a practice. Sometimes it goes really well. Sometimes it doesn’t. But we keep showing up for it.”
People talk about things being “a practice” all the time; what this means to me is that we head into something (dinner time, bedtime, managing tantrums, etc.) with an intention to be in a certain way. That can be whatever you want—for me, lately, it’s about being as mindful, present, and kind as I can be, as often as I can be. The thing is, that totally wasn’t happening at dinners for us. I would get so caught up in my anxiety about whether or not the girls were behaving or eating enough vegetables that I wasn’t acting with intention; I was reacting to all of the crap in my own brain. As ridiculous as this may seem, it just never occurred to me that family dinner could be a practice.
2. “Yes, it’s important that children eat vegetables, and it’s OK if children don’t eat vegetables.” This statement captures the essence of mindful parenting, the delicate balance between having a vision for who and how we want our children to be, and the reality of who they actually are. There are certain foods that each of my daughters just won’t eat, no matter what I say or do. In that moment, I have a choice. I can either get into a power struggle that may or may not result in the girls eating their peas (but with definitely end with everyone feeling pretty miserable), or I can acknowledge and accept the reality of what’s in front of me. The reality is that both paths lead to the same outcome (a child not eating peas), but the second path a) strengthens our relationship, b) makes dinnertime just a bit more fun, and c) makes it more likely that she might eat her peas one day. (When was the last time you really wanted to do something that you were repeatedly nagged about, even if you knew it was good for you? Right. Never.)
3. “Play games.” That’s right. After years of telling my daughters that we don’t play with our food, I was shocked to hear two parenting experts talk about playing at the dinner table. Quite simply, it just never occurred to me that it would be OK to play at the table. Now, don’t get me wrong, they’re not advocating hiding peas in Lego buildings or letting BathTime Barbie swim in the split pea soup. They were, however, talking about games such as “I Spy” and “Two Truths and a Lie” as useful ways to connect with your kids during mealtime and take the pressure off what your kids are eating (or not).
And so it was that I found myself sitting on my kitchen floor last night, cracking up as my daughters reached their grubby little hands into the Tupperware container in my lap. Dinner started at the table as usual, but both girls were feeling a bit under the weather, and not particularly interested in eating. We ended dinner and the girls headed off to play. I was cleaning up when they wandered in saying they were hungry. Normally I would give them the old song and dance about eating when we are at the table, but I was tired, and they were being particularly cute, and the words of Ilana and Danya were in my mind.
I just didn’t need to be so uptight.
I offered them veggies, they agreed, and I just didn’t have the energy to schlep them back to the table. We sat right down on my dirty kitchen floor and ate the veggies.
And my five year old, who never eats peas? She ate the most of any of us.