I always imagined mealtime as a peaceful, fun, serene moment in our house. My kids would sit pleasantly around the table and share their favorite parts of the day, while happily enjoying the meals we prepared, together, as a family. Then I had kids and discovered that, most of time, mealtime was a raging dumpster fire filled with dashed dreams and crushed hopes. In fact, I think it's safe to say that mealtime is the hardest part of parenting.
When I was a kid, my mom had some standard dinner rules: always eat together at the table, finish your meal, and use your manners. They were generally peaceful and pleasant. Now, I am not going to say mealtimes were entirely without their dramatic moments, like the time I had to sit at the table until I finished my liver. Spoiler alert: I didn't cave quickly, and was still at the table long after bedtime. That incident may have contributed heavily to me later becoming a vegetarian, essentially challenging my mom's traditional Midwestern ideas of what makes a meal.
So I wanted to do things differently when it came to dinnertime with my family, but it seems like no matter how hard I try I can't make everyone in our family happy all of the time. Between my husband and I we have five kids, so we have five different palettes and personalities to factor in. I have had to get creative to make sure my kids at least consume all the fundamental food groups every day. So, yeah, while I envisioned one meal satisfying our whole family, most of the time I end up feeling like a short order cook.
Like most things in parenthood, I am pretty sure we need to find some happy ground somewhere in the middle between "clean your plate" and "eat whatever you want." I'm just not there yet. No matter how hard I try, mealtimes are one of my least favorite parts of being a mom, and for some very good reasons.
I try to always remember that my kids are small humans with their own likes, dislikes, and a distinct lack of impulse control. I repeat these things in my head like mantras to get through the yelling and foot stomping chorus of, "I'm not eating that." My response is generally, "You don't have to," but I have to admit that I sometimes wonder if my kids might starve as a result.
To say I have food issues is to put things extremely mildly. I am an eating disorder survivor, and now struggle with cycles of dieting and emotional eating. I want to pass along a healthy relationship with food to my kids, but it's so damn hard when I sometimes think food is the enemy.
For some inspiration about how to stop fighting with my kids at the breakfast, lunch or dinner table, I consulted the Ellyn Satter Institute, a nonprofit devoted to eating and feeding. They suggests that you end mealtime fights by creating a division of labor between you and kids. Your job is to choose what goes on the table, taking into consideration your kids' likes and dislikes, and to model good behavior. Their job is to eat what and how much they want and learn how to behave at the table.
So far, I am OK with this approach, but would love for them to get at least the essence of a vegetable every day. I try offering them choices they like, but often they say no to everything I offer.
Some days I majorly screw up by asking the kids what they want. Inevitably I will hear "grilled cheese," "burritos," "mac 'n cheese," and "pizza" at the same damn time. I want to be the "fun" mom, and I certainly don't want to make them eat liver, but at the same time, I don't want to make five or six entrees a night.
I absolutely want my kids to know that everything is OK in moderation, food is energy, and they have a right to like and dislike foods. Unfortunately, even at young ages, they pick up on conversations about calories and diets and cheat days. Dammit.
It's so easy to say that "you have to eat your dinner or there's no dessert," but, at the same time, I feel like I am turning food into a reward, which makes it seem like something that holds value aside from fueling our lives. I don't want to do that, but it's so tempting.
What's a mom to do when one or more kids say "no thanks" to the meal they prepared? The experts say you should say, "OK," but what do you say an hour later when they are "hangry" or throwing a tantrum due to their low blood sugar? My solution, so far, is to offer whatever we had at mealtime, or maybe some crackers. But can kids survive on crackers alone? I am not sure.
I hate being the angry and authoritative parent, but when my kids erupt in a loud chorus of fart jokes, scream "I am not eating that," or yell, "Mom, he's touching me!" it takes every fiber of my being to stay chill. Seriously.
My partner and I have five kids, so mealtime is overwhelming. If we can get them to take turns and use their manners, it's a short-lived success. Some of our kids are too young, or honestly not capable, of sitting still for an entire meal, and the others, well, I know they could be quiet, but it's hard when your younger siblings are shouting.
This is why mama needs wine, and why mealtimes are the worst.
Check out Romper's new video series, Romper's Doula Diaries:
Watch full episodes of Romper's Doula Diaries on Facebook Watch.