Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mealtime Fun

Mealtimes are fun. Good food, family conversation, developing manners. We all eat and talk together, sharing one to three meals around the kitchen table, every day. Great family time.

Wait. No. That whole paragraph is a typo.

Lately, mealtimes are the opposite of fun. Conversation is nearly impossible. Food is a delicate balance to appease all parties involved. Manners are, let's say, a work in progress. Eating and talking together is more like negotiating. They could not be called relaxing.

First of all, let me get this out the way. We have eaten together as a family since the girls were born. Even before they ate actual food, they joined us at the table. Once they started eating, they ate off their own plates - not from ours. I make one meal and that is the only meal that is offered. Manners instruction has happened organically from the very beginning. They have been to restaurants and know the expectations. In other words, if you want to go by the book, we've done everything right to make mealtimes run smoothly.

But over the last few months, all our good set up, our good intentions have deteriorated.

Let's start with Madison.

Oh, Madison.

Madison has never been a picky eater. Steak, shellfish, veggies, chicken, pork, soups, casseroles, seasonings, she would always eat it all. I remember sending her to daycare with a tiny tupperware full of the previous night's dinner, and she would gobble up the leftovers just as she'd gobbled up the dinner the night before. We'd go out to dinner and order her a kid's meal, and she'd ask for more lobster from my plate. Every night she would eat, and then, just as we'd taught her, ask to be excused, clear her plate, and push in her chair.

Yeah, that's all gone. Over the past few months dinner is merely a time of strategic negotiation for dessert.

"How much of this do I have to eat to get dessert? Did I eat enough to get dessert?  Did I eat enough beans? Did I eat enough chicken? Is this enough rice?"

We remind her that we eat until our tummies are full and getting to dessert shouldn't matter. Dessert (which is not always a gooey, sweet treat) will happen later, after the toys are cleaned up. But if your tummy was full after only a few bites of dinner, you must not be hungry for dessert.

Then it's negotiation to get down without officially ending mealtime.

"I have to get down and find my water cup. I have to go potty. I have to go potty again. I just remembered that my baby needs to eat dinner too and I need to go get her. I dropped my fork. I dropped my fork again. Don't clear my plate - I'm not done! I'm just going potty again".

Then it's the new found preferences - new found as in these are foods that have been enjoyed up until that day.

"I don't like tomatoes. I don't like pork. This rice is too spicy. I don't like soup. It's too hot".

As I set down her plate I always make sure to tell her what's on it and point out that it is full of things she has eaten and enjoyed before. Then if anything is new we sing the little Daniel Tiger songs about trying new foods.

All of these new habits and negotiation have dragged her dinnertime out for hours. She doesn't want to put her full plate in the sink, because she knows that removes the possibility of dessert. But she doesn't want to eat either. It's not a picky thing, it's not a lack of hunger thing. It's a power play thing. And it monopolizes the whole dining experience.

Then there's Reagan.

Oh, Reagan.

Reagan is a perfectly proportioned peanut of an almost two year old. She's little, but she's sturdy and strong.

How she manages to grow, however, is a mystery to me.

Because the kid almost never seems to eat.

It's not that she's picky either. She seems to like most of what she tries. She loves fruit and veggies and will eat eggs by the carton if given the chance.

But with Reagan, it's asking her to eat at the table - ever. 

She is absolutely, positively, not interested in eating a meal with her family at the dinner table. If it's a favorite food, a new food, a breakfast food, a dinner food, heck even a dessert, she's not an eater. On a good day, she'll play with her plate for a while, then hop down from her chair and go back to whatever she left on the floor. She'll leave a dinner without ingesting a bite, never come back to her plate, be completely happy to go to bed without dinner, sleep a full night and still do the same thing at breakfast. She poops, she pees, she grows, she's it's clearly not hurting her. But the cavewoman mommy who feels responsible for raising a strong child is completely freaked out by this lack of, well, sustenance.

So far, we have tried the following things:


Taking the dessert option completely off the table and serving a small amount of fruit with dinner. There is no dessert to negotiate for.

Setting a timer. She gets twenty minutes (well, usually) at the table. We set the timer in front of her so she can check in on how much time she has left. When the timer goes off, the kitchen "closes" and everyone clears their plate.

Having Madison assist with the menu planning, and even part of the cooking. She loves to cook and loves to have a say.


Limiting her milk and water - she gets one cup of milk and one milk based smoothie - max. She gets one cup of water in the morning and one in the afternoon. This way we know she hasn't filled up on liquid.

Limiting snacks to twice a day - and either fruit/protein/veggie based. Greek yogurt, banana, turkey and cheese, a fruit and veggie pouch.

Cheering for her pretty much whenever her fork touches her plate at the dinner table, or even when she just sits there. Yay - Reagan is sitting at the table! Yay - Reagan is eating potatoes!

So far? Moderate success.

Madison is still devastated over the loss of dessert and continues to negotiate, even after we remind her. The night she cleaned her plate easily within the time allowed and then cleaned up her toys without argument we surprised her with a "treat" - not dessert, but a piece of her leftover Halloween candy (don't judge). She loves to help pick the meals and shop for the ingredients, and loves to cook, but her involvement in the process hasn't made much of a difference. Yet.

Reagan is fine with the snack and beverage allotment, although she has had the occasional bowl of goldfish, popcorn, or veggie straws - usually because Madison is having that as a snack and she'll just steal Madison's. We get a few minutes and a bite or two when we cheer. She does love to clink glasses and say "cheers!", so that gets us some table time. But I'd still say she's eating less than 25% of what she gets.

My hope is that they are just going through those typical toddler power play stages, and it just happens to be that they're each going through their own at the same time. And they'll grow out of it and one day we'll be able to enjoy family meals again.

How about you, readers? Any suggestions for making mealtime with toddlers something we enjoy and less of a terrorist negotiation strategy?

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