Mealtimes with kids look a lot of different ways for different people and times. I’m a big believer in the idea that we are all trying to do the best we can, and different routines and choices look better for different people. Whether it’s work patterns, community or family commitments, extra-curriculars, cultural preferences - there are a lot of reasons why meals can look different. Underneath all those differences, I’m optimistic we share the value of doing the best we can for our kids.
In my house, that amounts to something I’m calling “purposeful mealtimes''. It’s not set in stone, but generally speaking, mealtimes come with a few rules:
We all sit at the table for the meal to start
We all eat the same meal, even if it’s slightly adapted for the kids (like an extra dollop of yoghurt or a low/no-salt portion)
Waiting til everyone is finished before anyone gets down
This might seem a bit ~extra~... and to be fair it doesn’t apply to all meals. Breakfasts are more haphazard: the kids eat with their dad (they all seem to wake up at the crack of dawn and I take a minute or two to warm up in the mornings…) or we might each have different foods. We get up when we’re done and go about starting our day.
Lunch, I usually do have with the kids - it more closely resembles what I describe above, but we’re not necessarily all together, depending on work, nap, and nursery routines.
But dinnertime nearly always looks like this, or as close to this as possible. Whatever Brook’s work situation has been over the last few years (I quit full-time work after my first baby so I’m in uncharted territory here - more on that below), getting home for dinnertime with the kids is a top priority for him, even if he then returns to work after they sleep. From the kid’s perspective, dinnertime is family time.
Purposeful mealtimes are so important in this house because they’re about so much more than getting fed. It is a time to connect and touch base as a family, to find out what’s going on in the others’ lives, what’s on their mind, to share in the highs and lows.
It is where the kids get to see most clearly our principle that they have come into the lives of their family, into a world that doesn’t revolve around their physical needs. It’s about being thankful and happy together, or empathetic towards or even challenging each other, about praying together. It’s a place for them to remember they are joining rhythms and routines of a world bigger than themselves.
It would be so easy - and, I’ll admit, it is irresistible at times - to occupy the kids and keep them out of the way, so I can have that elusive five minutes to myself. It would be a relief to busy them with screens, or “simpler” (read, beiger) more palatable food that they can shut up and eat up, while I take my focus off them for a bit..
But rather than planning our escape from the kids we signed up to raise, counting quality time with them as something to maximise makes clear why purposeful mealtimes are a big win.
First - and this is true of not just mealtimes but so many aspects of a child’s day - children just thrive on routine. Purposeful mealtimes where they know they are going to get facetime with the grown ups raising them is a massive rock of stability. No matter how turbulent the day, kids can know it will end with a time when they can share their rollercoaster emotions and be reassured and listened to. Knowing that that is on the horizon before the sunset makes any of their little life’s big events more palatable.
Second, building up a habit of doing at least one meal this way helps kids know what is expected of them. Everyone has their own approach to feeding little ones, but I know for me, setting the boundaries of “this is what I’ve made and therefore this is the only thing available” has led my kids to be relatively adventurous eaters. They can either get on and try something they have doubts about, or otherwise they can focus on the other things people are talking about - but the aim of the game is not to be preoccupied with getting *exactly* the food they feel like at that moment.
Easier said than done, I know, but there isn’t a magic day when they turn 7 or 12 or 18 when they will start eating “grown up food”: it starts now. Inspired by a couple of instagram accounts (ambitious kitchen and newwaysnutrition are two faves), I follow the principle of offering at least one thing they like and one thing they may find less familiar; and one portion each of foods high in calories, iron, and fruit/veg. They can eat a little or a lot, but they have come to honour the expectation that they eat essentially the same as everyone else at the table. (Lowering the salt when I’m cooking and being mindful of fruit and veg has definitely done my own diet a favour too.)
The bigger picture
In a similar vein, I guess mealtimes also do provide them with a snapshot of the world *out there*. It’s a safe space in which to understand they are part of a bigger society and not entitled to special treatment. This includes modelling to them that:
Food is not the biggest concern. We live in a society where a preoccupation with food can become unhealthy in two extremes. Hopefully, by simplifying the food-related decision-making a bit, I can encourage my kids to learn to be present with the people around the table, even if they don’t get exactly what they want on their plate.
Listening is valuable. I can tell you now that the best conversations you have are where you’ve been struck by hearing a new perspective on something, or you have felt heard by the other person. Starting with encouraging one kid to ask the other how nursery was seems a good place to be in at the moment.
It’s not all fair and equal. Sometimes we will spend all the time we have talking about something major on one person’s mind. Sometimes we’ll run over time and there’s less time for stories at bedtime. That’s the way the world goes, and that’s okay!
They’re expected to participate. I’ve started asking my 3 year old to get cutlery out for him and his siblings in the last few months. Occasionally they can chop some veg. In the future: they can help with the dishes, or something else. The specifics are less important to me than helping them get a taste of contributing to a thing we can all enjoy together.
As I describe it, I know it sounds like a slog - and it is! But I do believe it’s worth doing. Already I can start to see these routines start to bear fruit. I spend less time making different meals for one thing! … But our time as a family is also benefitting. I hope it pans out this way as the kids grow up!