Last week, befuddled by the fact my toddler’s normal voracious enjoyment of dinner had transformed, overnight it seemed, to disinterest at best and often outright refusal to eat, I turned, like all modern mamas, to facebook for help. This is what I wrote:
Mamas – Advice needed. Food strikes are normal for a toddler, right? G is rejecting most of what we offer her for dinner these days, claiming to “not like it” (thanks daycare for helping her learn that phrase). I think it’s a combination of perhaps too many snacks given at daycare and toddler willfulness. We ignore this and wait for it to pass, right? And is it okay to let her have a banana or yogurt instead, or should dinner be dinner and that’s it? Blarg! (she will eat breakfast and lunch that we give her w/out problems).
Holy opening of the floodgates. I was expecting four or five of my experienced mama friends to chime in with thoughtful responses – I certainly did not expect feeding toddlers to be such a hot-button issue. An extremely conservative aunt of Ian’s who keeps harassing me for my liberal views chimed in with all the techniques her daughters utilize to get their daughters to eat. My more mid-westy friends commented with rather puritanical ideas and cheesy casserole recipes that horrifed my more east-coasty friends. My father-in-law piped up with a very “she should eat what’s on her plate and like it!” tone of voice which tends to keep him on my shit list time and time again while people who just plain love me felt the need to tell me I am doing a great mama job. All of which leads me to the following conclusions:
(1.) There are a lot of people winning at food right now.
(2.) Becoming a “foodie” is something to aspire to, and
(3.) If my daughter becomes a picky eater, it is (a.) entirely my fault and also (b.) a shun-worthy personality trait.
Much of this missed the mark for me, because I don’t think of myself as a foodie and don’t really consider it a thing to aspire to. Ian and I both love to cook, and we eat balanced, well-rounded diets. We also believe in the importance of home-cooking and family meals, but we don’t instagram photos of food at trendy restaurants, nor do we spend time groaning over imported cheeses at Whole Foods. Sometimes, we even like to eat Popeye’s chicken. Our daughter, on the other hand, has recently claimed that she doesn’t like food. ALL THE FOOD. And she thinks this is funny.
Two conversations ended up helping us tremendously. The first was my friend Katy’s response, wherein she asked me where eating dinner falls in terms of a family priority. For instance, her older son sleeps better if he has a full belly before he goes to bed and so getting food in him is a priority, but since she knows he routinely gets a healthy lunch at school, she’s not sweating bullets if dinner is yogurt and berries or so forth. Her comment was just what I needed to hear because yes, Evangeline sleeps much better if she eats dinner in the evenings. We’ve had one too many unwelcome wakeup calls at 5:00 a.m. with Evangeline ready for breakfast. Thus, I decided dinner is important to us because it leads to better sleep for the entire family.
The other conversation that I found particularly helpful in thinking through these issues I had with my friend Hattie. She didn’t jump in on the facebook chain but she followed it closely, herself a recent survivor of a nothing-but-noodles-and-cheese toddler.
“Well, you also have to consider how important dinner is to your husband and to you, as well,” she said. According to Hattie, for her husband, dinner is the high point of his day. He works long, hard hours (as does Ian) and coming home to a proper dinner with a proper cocktail hour is incredibly emotionally important to him.
“I mean sure, sometimes we eat what the kids eat, or, more accurately, the kids eat what we eat, but am I going to make them eat an asparagus and bacon salad with fried potatoes and homemade viniagrette? No, no I am not,” said Hattie. “So some nights it’s de facto noodles and cheese.”
I really spent some time considering Hattie’s point. Ian works an incredibly demanding job with a higher stress level and much more required of him than I do. One of the few times he gets to relax on any given day is dinner time. Moreover, we have fifteen years of dinners behind us as a couple – to suddenly transform this important family time into a battleground makes no sense. In answer to Hattie’s point, I could honestly say dinnertime is emotionally important to our fammily, and a highllight certainly of Ian’s day, and often mine as well – so the dinner hour deserves protection.
I also had to come to terms with other various issues, including the reality that it is unlikely we will ever get dinner on the table much before 7 p.m., and this is the approach Ian and I agreed upon:
1. Food from the “adult” dinner will always be a part of Grace’s plate, along with two items we know she enjoys, like blueberries or a cheese stick or applesauce, etc.
2. She can eat whatever she wants from her plate, but we will not honor continued requests for other food.
3. If she’s hungry, a snack before dinner is acceptable. We realize this will impact how much she eats at dinner but again, we dont’ get home in time for a 5:30 supper like so many of my friends I grew up with did.
I can’t claim this process has made dinnertime that much easier, but I will say Grace, Ian and I are all on the same page about it, which feels like something. A big something. Last night, hearteningly, Grace even took bites of some previously spurned chicken and declared it tasty. Ian and I are no longer arguing about dinner, and if feels like our first official family compromise has occurred.
I’m sharing this because I know there are other mamas out there dealing with similar issues, and I thought my friends Katy and Hattie gave really interesting perspectives that I hadn’t thought about before, and their points of view might help other parents really think about the role and importance of dinner in their lives, and help guide them as they make their own family compromises.