As an event which generally occurs three times a day for a good 18 years, at least, either a family establishes some good practices or these daily rituals become trials we must endure… grinding us down. The act of eating together can be something which actually brings everyone together for a genuinely enjoyable experience, it might require that we explicitly express our intentions in order for that to happen.
The images that accompany this article were taken at the bilingual nursery I used to manage. Frequently the children we had in our care were described by their parents as fussy eaters and mealtimes were often thought of as battle grounds. There’s no doubt that when parents feel concerned, guilty or pressured to see their children consuming, a mealtime can devolve into a war of the wills… and unfortunately, when children get to see the chinks in their parents’ armour… and observe them willing to do backflips in order to get food down their necks, it can definitely degenerate into a slightly sadistic ritual.
In our house, we never had that issue. Food has always been a delight, something to be appreciated and enjoyed. Time and time again those ‘fussy eaters’ would come into our care and rapidly adjust to the happy and inclusive atmosphere around our table. I like to think that managing mealtimes with children is something I can really speak about with some authority and experience.
First and foremost, we like eating and that’s contagious. If adults don’t have their own passion for pleasure, it’s difficult to transmit that to anyone else.
Secondly, we love cooking. Preparing fresh, delicious, colourful and varied plates makes for enriching mealtimes and the whole process can be savoured if approached with enough time and the right attitude. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when food is flung onto a plate with a little less love than I would aspire to… and yes, sometimes our busy lives make it harder to cook with the heart and soul from which it benefits. However, relegating the importance of food to a freezer filled with TV dinners and frozen pizzas is not going to nourish your children or give you the energy and inspiration required for a satisfying life. In fact, it’s a recipe for a crappy life. If you can avoid it, do so. Prioritising food can make all your lives infinitely better.
Thirdly, trust that the children in your care want to eat. It’s the most natural thing in the world. If they don’t want to eat, then they have a death wish… and actually allowing them to explore that can be a deeply transformative experience. The will to live is so powerful, it will soon drown out any temptation to succumb to death. Leave a child hungry, without recourse to snacks and they will quickly come around.
Fasting is an ancient process and the body can withstand a shortage of food for much, much longer than we imagine. I have personally undertaken fasts for 10 days without blinking. As long as we drink sufficient fluids, the body can manage its reserves miraculously. It can require a steely nerve but don’t let the guilt of thinking that you MUST get food down your child’s neck create a tension at the table. You are presenting them with a wonderful opportunity to delight in a satisfying sensory experience. Forcing only undermines the whole affair.
When children come to the table, they are being invited to participate in a party, let them join the fun!