P. vs. the "pink skayetti."

P. vs. the “pink skayetti.”

I’m in the business of feeding kids.  That’s not the job I go to outside of my house every day, it’s not what I get paid for, but it’s a big part of what I do.  I have two kids; I feed said kids; I clean up after said kids; I try to keep said kids from behaving in public as if they’ve been raised by feral monkeys.  And then they get hungry again, and I feed them some more.

Part of the feeding kids gig is obviously the Cooking of the Food, and then there’s the other glamorous bit, the Washing of the Dishes.  But then there’s allllll that stuff in the middle, roughly known as the Potential Filling of the Bellies, which starts somewhere around the Serving of the Meal and ends somewhere around The Triumphal Return of the Dishes to the Kitchen and/or The Refusal to Negotiate with Tiny Dinner Table Terrorists.  The things that happen during the Potential Filling of the Bellies are important.  They’re formative. They help us teach about the expectations of a shared meal, they help us shape our kids’ perceptions about what a healthy meal looks like, they give us an opportunity to model proper eating behaviors, and they accomplish some of that fleeting Family Time we’re all trying to latch onto at the end of the day.

One thing I’ve realized is that, while niceties like table manners are, indeed, important to me, I’m more than willing to sacrifice some of the expected pomp and circumstance in favor of other goals.  For example, I think there’s still plenty of time in my boys’ lives to teach them which fork gets used for what course, but the window of time in which I can easily teach them how to negotiate their own relationship with the food on their dinner plates is rapidly closing.  There are some “bad table manners” that are, I suspect, helping us to get some pretty good results as far as helping the kids to try new foods, eat what they’re served without complaint, take charge of their own relationships with food, and build positive associations around the whole concept of family dinner.

Picking their food apart. Yup, sometimes usually with their fingers.  Just tonight, P. picked the mushrooms out of his pasta.  The other evening, L. tried unsuccessfully to pick any trace of sauteed onion out of his dinner.  He also went through a phase where, every time I took him out for sushi, he’d order the same maki and then proceed to pull it apart and take out all the little bits of scallion.  P. is also legendary for plunging his fingers into a bowl of soup and fishing around to pull out the things he doesn’t want.  And despite the mess of it all (which we’re working on), I’m actually okay with this, because it:
1) Allows them to feel in control of what’s being served to them, without asking for another dish or complaining about the component parts of what’s in front of them;
2) Teaches them to manage their own likes and dislikes without rejecting the entire plate of food;
3) Helps them to readily accept “mixed-together” foods, knowing that it’s possible to set aside the bits they don’t prefer.

Eating with unconventional utensils.  Forks and knives are great, and I set the table with those. Sometimes, the kids use them; sometimes, they don’t.  There are foods they still eat with their hands, like long-strand pasta, because it’s less frustrating for them to use fingers to help while they’re still mastering the art of the twirl.  They’ve often eaten soup with straws.  They’ve also used cocktail swords, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, tongs, serving utensils, and any number of other non-traditional items to get the food from the plate to their mouths.  I’ve allowed and even encouraged this kind of behavior, because it:1) Gives young kids who are still developing motor control new challenges to test their skills;
2) Helps them to happily eat what’s been served, without the frustration that sometimes accompanies mastering the use of utensils with certain foods;
3) Makes the occasional meal more fun and motivates them to stay at the table to participate in the family dinner.

Playing with their food.  A current favorite meal for both boys is our Buffalo-inspired lettuce wraps, mainly because it’s so much fun for them to play with.  They pretend the lettuce cups are boats, the meat and vegetables are passengers, and the dressing is the ocean.  Sometimes there are sharks, or pirates, or other boats to race with.  It doesn’t make for a neat meal, but it makes for a meal where everything gets eaten and nobody whines.  Long ago, I realized that letting the kids — especially P. — play around a little with their food could make the difference between nagging them to try a bite, and watching them finally decide to take that bite on their own.  I let them play because:
1) It helps them to feel more in control of the eating experience;
2) It keeps them engaged with the food on their own terms, which keeps them at the table longer with a better attitude;
3) It helps them to explore new foods with all their senses, which is much more likely to lead to them eventually deciding to taste those new foods.

Sure, we work on manners and we try not to let the family dinner table become a free-for-all.  (And judging from the boys’ generally well-received behavior when dining out, I guess we’re not doing too badly on the not-being-raised-by-feral-monkeys thing.) But ultimately, relaxing and realizing that we’re not trying to impress anybody at a five-star restaurant most nights has helped us to construct a positive and pleasant environment that brings everybody willingly to the table.  In the world of family dinners, less whining and more eating can only be a good thing.