I’ve been thinking about how simple routines with babies establish authority and lay a foundation for teaching obedience later on. What’s fun is that there’s a lot of freedom in how we teach authority and obedience. Mealtime is one situation where we generally manipulate the environment to avoid battles, but we still manage to stay in control. It’s just one way of many that parents choose to order their mealtime.
Since it’s a losing battle to force a child to swallow food he doesn’t want to, we take a different approach.
We generally require two bites of anything I make, but that’s all. If they don’t eat much for dinner, they’ll eat a big breakfast and be fine.
However, if our children want fruit or dessert at mealtime, they have to eat more. We determine how much they have to eat in a very unscientific formula of how distasteful the food is, how able they are to understand the concept of if/then, and what their “breaking point” is.
For example, the other night we had lentil soup. David and Laurel didn’t like it. We told David (almost five) he had to eat all of his soup if he wanted dessert (which is a rare occasion when we don’t have company; usually the incentive is fruit). He wanted the dessert, so he ate the soup (a half cup), even though he was really having a hard time swallowing the food without gagging (I do have some compassion; I’ll wait awhile before making this soup again.)
Laurel (18 months), on the other hand, doesn’t understand the words “if you eat all your soup, you can have your chocolate mousse.” She hears “have your chocolate mousse” and becomes angry when it doesn’t come right away. She also doesn’t have the attention span to eat the whole bowl before she gets dessert. To keep from overly frustrating her beyond the breaking point, I simply told her she could have a bite of mousse when she ate a bite of soup. She didn’t understand that, so I got a spoonful of mousse and put it on her tray. Then I tried to give her a spoonful of soup. She finally understood, but she didn’t like it.
No problem. I have defined the winnable battle: first soup; then mousse. She cried for a few minutes (it was hard, but I ignored her), but she really wanted that chocolate on her tray, so she finally picked up the spoon full of mousse. I then gave her a tiny spoonful of soup, which she reluctantly ate. Then she ate her mousse. She wanted more, so I got another spoonful of mousse, put it on the tray, and offered a bite of soup. Again, she ate the offered soup. In this way, she ate the entire bowl of soup.
Later, I’ll require two bites, and then a bite of dessert. When she can handle that, I’ll keep increasing the goal until she eats the whole portion like her older brother and sister.
There are other ways of handling mealtime challenges. Want to share?
Good thoughts, Michelle. I’ve never put these kinds of ideas into words before, but we’ve taken a similar approach, based on our children’s developmental level.
One thing I learned: I used to put my son in his high chair with a cup of milk while I finished meal preparations. It kept him out of the way, within sight, and happy. I learned, though, that the milk filled him up, and then he didn’t want to eat his supper. But by the time I figured this out, it was a habit, and one that wasn’t easy for either of us to break. Thankfully, we broke the habit, but I’d encourage parents not to hold their kids over with snacks or drinks if you’re expecting them to eat their meal. (Maybe this is obvious to most people, but for me it was a learning experience!)
You’ve got a good point, Addy. I’ve not always minded if they’re snacking on vegetables, but then they’re sitting at the table and bored while everyone else is eating. I should probably think through this some more to see if that’s a problem. Thanks for your comments.