When my kids were younger I had little tolerance for complaining at the dinner table. With so many going hungry around the world, it upset me that my children were not more grateful for their full bellies… even if it was full of broccoli or carrots. I soon instituted a few ground rules for the dinner table that helped them “adjust” their attitudes.
- Check It At The Door: The only acceptable term allowed was “not keen on it.” Words such as nasty, yucky, or ewww were not permitted. Phrases such as “I ain’t eating that” or “what kind of crap is this” were also on the not permitted list. Tongues sticking out and nose wrinkles were considered sign language for the aforementioned phrases. Those who could not contain their comments were rewarded with a second helping of whatever had caused their dismay. Additional helpings were added on an as-needed basis and, once on the plate, the food had to be consumed in its entirety. If not eaten at that meal, the leftovers were kindly saved until the next meal… even if that meal was breakfast. I once had one child test my commitment to this rule… she went 6 meals without eating before she broke down and ate the food she had earned through complaining. She only tested me once… in this area anyway.
- The Three-Bite-Rule: Everything on the table required a minimum of three bites.
- The Exception: Each child was allowed to pick one food item that was excepted from the three-bite rule or for which they would be provided an alternative if it was the entire meal. For example, I had one child who chose spaghetti sauce as her exception. When we had spaghetti, she would have noodles and cheese. At age 18, she still eats her spaghetti this way.
- No Wasting Food. If you put it on your plate, you were expected to eat it. They were cautioned to only serve up what they could eat knowing they could get more if they wanted it. Those who didn’t finish were allowed to “sell” what was left on their plate to another child. I have personally witnessed a child “sell” the food on their plate by offering to do chores for the another child. The point was not that the food be eaten… I just wanted them to understand its value by not allowing them to waste it.
- Eat a Green: When we went out to eat, it was often a buffet. It was usually less expensive, the kids could pick what they wanted, and eat as much as they wanted. My only rule here was they had to “eat a green” which meant at least one fruit or vegetable subject to the Three-Bite-Rule. The “two-sugar-buns” per plate rule was also implemented following a trip to the Chinese buffet where it was apparently thought that 8 sugar buns and three green beans constituted a well-balanced meal.
I know what you’re thinking… those are some pretty extreme dinner table rules. Maybe for some but it worked for us. Once in place, our dinner table was peaceful. Ok, peaceful as in little or no complaining and a new appreciation for the value of food. It was still wonderfully loud and crazy.
Might I just add here that complaining is also rude and insulting to the chef (me). If you don’t like it, I don’t want to hear about the entire time I’m eating. So there.
My kids are grown so I no longer enforce the dinner rules. However, I do find it amusing to see them put a “green” on their plate, and eat three bites of something I know they wouldn’t choose for themselves. Habits of your childhood are hard to break.
I now have a 5 year old stepdaughter (almost 6). She falls into the very picky eater category. Because she shares time 50/50 between our house and time with her mom, I needed a strategy where I gained her buy-in and cooperation. A hard line approach would only create conflict due to the inconsistency caused by her living in two households. A different situation calls for a different strategy. Here are some of the ways I’m using to help her learn to make healthy choices for herself regardless of where she is eating.
- Eat a Protein: I was sincerely concerned about this child’s health. She seemed to survive solely on carbs and juice. We insist that she eat something with protein at every meal. She is at the point where she knows this is expected and she does it without any fuss (most of the time). I’m willing to substitute the protein being served for an alternate as long as she tries it first. We are stressing that protein will help her grow and be strong and encouraging her to expand her list (see below) and make choices. Veggies will also soon be insisted upon as her list of “likes” grows.
- No complaining: This poor child has been subjected to my “kid’s are starving” lecture enough times that she has learned to say “I’m not keen on it” instead of making a face or pitching a fit over its extreme nastiness. If she does complain and I start the lecture she quickly changes her tune just to avoid having to listen to it. An evil strategy I know, but hey, whatever works.
- Chart it. We have implemented a Chow Chart. The chart has category headers for Proteins, Veggies, Fruits, and Nuts & Seeds. Each category lists food which she has tried and indicates whether she likes it or doesn’t care for it. She is rewarded for each 25 “tries” with a trip to the dollar store for a prize. Since putting the Chow Chart in place, she has tried over 3 dozen food items that she would not have touched before… and surprise, surprise she has liked over 80% of them. Where she would not even touch a vegetable before she now enjoys spaghetti squash and baby spinach on a regular basis (her two favorites). Last night she ate butternut squash and okra but alas “was not keen on it.” Can’t win them all. The great thing is that we all show such interest in her opinion and then we share our thoughts on the food in question (our favorite way to have it prepared, etc.). She feels like she is part of a grown up conversation and is learning to contribute in positive ways.
While I believe that every child is different and we should recognize their needs as individuals, I do think that the dinner table is an area where you need a family policy that applies to everyone consistently. If you have a human garbage disposal and a picky eater, you might consider crafting a strategy that meets them in the middle.
The dinner table is a wonderful time for families to connect and encourage each other. Once you have removed the negative you can focus on making it a special time for your family.