Bringing Our Best to the Table: How my own stress messed up family dinners

There have been a lot of powerful posts going around recently about feeding kids. Two that really spoke to me were one about the pitfalls of pushing the “one bite” and another about the importance of focusing on making family dinners an enjoyable time rather than a time for pushing food or other table manner agendas. Both of these pieces, and many of the others, got me thinking about what life had been like around our dinner table. As I took some time to look honestly at what had been going on I realized three things: 1) we had fallen back into old patterns of pressuring our “picky” eater to try foods, 2) that he had slid backwards in terms of what he was willing to eat, and 3) that this was really a projection of our own, outside stresses that we were putting onto him.

Now, to be fair to us, the pressure looked very different than it did before because we were trying to do and say the right things. In the past it might have been, “just take one bite and then you will see that it is yummy.” It had become, “here’s a tiny bite! Remember, you can always spit it out…” The differences show that the expectations had changed (just a taste or lick is fine, spitting it out is acceptable, there is not promise or expectation of liking the food, etc.), but the pressure had definitely crept back in. And let me tell you, he reacted to it! His interest and curiosity in trying foods plummeted and he even stopped eating certain things that had been solid contenders before.

So then I started asking myself why the switch? We had been doing so well with just offering the foods and leaving it to him to try what he was ready to try, and it had been working beautifully—his interest in food and cooking increased, he was eating more foods, and meals were much more pleasant.  So why had we started pressuring him again? And then I realized, it was because we have been stressed for other reasons and wanted this one thing (i.e., family dinners) to be going smoothly.

We wanted our family dinners to be this perfect respite from other concerns. In short, I was feeling a need for more control in some way and had been expressing that through the foods I was offering. I had been making a lot of new dishes and not many safe, familiar favorites. I also realized that I had started taking some of the rejection personally—here I was trying new things I thought my kids would be excited about and they weren’t going over so well—and my husband picked up on that and was trying to be an advocate for me.

So I decided to pull back a bit and redefine my expectations, approach, and balance. Here is what I did:

  • I stopped trying so many new recipes and instead created meal plans that had more of a balance between new things and safe favorites, but always with foods that I felt good about feeding my kids.
  • I made sure to have more safe foods on the table.
  • I talked to my husband, thanked him for the support, and we agreed that we were going to go back to simply offering the foods but not pushing them in any way.

And do you know what happened? It was like an overnight miracle! Within 24 hours he was trying foods again and asking for condiments to make things more palatable to him!

mac n cheese 2

And that’s when I realized that bringing our best to the table isn’t about the food that we offer, it is about the attitude we bring. Yes, food is about our health and well-being, but it should also be about sharing, about community, and about enjoyment, and when stress and agendas start to creep in, our kids feel it, know it, and react to it.

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