Wednesday, February 22, 2012

the way we eat, part 2

I'm honoured to be a featured guest on Little Homestead in the Desert's In Her Shoes series...please pop by KC's blog and leave a comment...even better, become a follower of her lovely blog!

At dinnertime, we go through phases where things are peaceful, we light candles, say grace, talk about the good things in our day, and everyone eats what's on their plates.

We're not in that phase right now. We're in the getting-out-of-your-seat-ten-times, arguing-over-who-sits-beside-mommy, spilling-at-least-one-drink, refusing-to-eat, treat-bribing phase.
It's stressful. And like every mother, in the midst of my exasperation I'm trying to be flexible, open-minded, and resourceful while also trying to make sure my children get the nutrition they need to grow.

Let's face it. Women are busy working outside the home, blogging, trying to keep up with decorating magazines and some weird concept they we about what our lives "should" be like. We nurture our hobbies, have interests and passions, and need more hours in the day.
So, why do we kill ourselves every day creating a meal that a lot of our kids refuse to eat? It creates a shift in the day's energy when daddy gets home and turns into a 1950s disciplinarian; we hear things coming out of our mouths that make us shake our heads (e.g. "You are not leaving this table till you eat what's on your plate"...can anyone say, "Future eating disorder"?) Someone always ends up crying, I get a knot in my stomach and wolf down my food just to get it over with. It's not fun or relaxing or enjoyable for anyone, to be honest.

There are many layers to my discomfort with this normal family ritual. My children have gradually gotten into the habit of expecting a treat after dinner. Christmas kind of oozes into the many celebrations of late Winter/Spring (Valentine's Day, Easter, and all five of our birthdays). It seems we're always celebrating something, and with celebrating comes treats. 
While promising a treat if your child eats their dinner up works in the short term, it intuitively feels wrong. But what mother hasn't fought her intuition in order to get her child to eat, sleep in her own bed, etc? Sometimes bribes and threats are all a girl has going for her.

I've decided I'm done with it. I'm going to experiment next week. Six small meals: 7 a.m., 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m., and 7 p.m, with room for one more where needed. What's the difference? Do we hold on  to this notion of eating a big evening meal because our foremothers did it? 

This pattern of eating small meals throughout the day resonates with my own levels of hunger. It seems to me that by feeding my kids this way, I might help to regulate their blood sugar so that they will eventually stop craving the treats that have become a habit for them, and skip the daily "witching hour" which coincidentally corresponds with the time of day when I'm trying to make dinner. 
Because what is it that we really want? I know what I want: healthy children with healthy eating habits. By 4 o'clock, everyone is cranky and hungry and clamouring for a snack. I'm stressed and trying to get dinner ready at the worst time of day in terms of my children's moods, putting them off, promising that dinner will be ready "soon". I'm teaching them to ignore their hunger to eat at a prescribed (and admittedly arbitrary) time. 
Here are the ideas I've come up with for mini-meals:

*smoothies made with berries, bananas, nut butter, kefir or milk
*granola/cereal with milk
*mini-pitas with tuna salad
*ham slices rolled around pickles!
*scrambled or hard-boiled eggs
*hummus and veggies
*fruit and almonds
*crackers with cheese
*toast with nut butter
*cold chicken with steamed veggies
*dried fruit
*homemade muffins/energy balls/healthy cookies

With a bit of planning and preparation, it seems like it might actually be easier to have lots of little things on hand rather than feeling this pressure to cook a "meal".

How do you feel about this? This might be one of those unexpectedly inflammatory posts. A dear friend who is a mother of five does not feed her children snacks. They eat three meals a day, and because they don't have snacks, they eat what they're fed. I can see how that kind of system would be necessary when feeding seven people seven days a week. I know people who feel the ritual of sitting together as a family is vitally important (and I would agree). Please be assured that we will enjoy these mini-meals together, around the kitchen table as always. 

But can't we sit around a tapas plate taking the foods we prefer, listening to our own bodies when they tell us we've had enough, learning to not eat whatever is on our plate just because it's there? It seems to me that teaching our children to savour and enjoy their food will teach them much more about healthy eating than making them eat "one more bite" will. I trust my children's abilities to decide when they are satisfied; if they are offered only (or mostly) healthy fare, it seems that there would be nothing more to worry about.

Please share your thoughts, experiences, eating habits, and ideas for mini-meals. It can't hurt to try it out, can it? I'll keep you posted.


  1. I think this is a great way to solve the trickiness of feeding three littler ones all with different ideas. I find that for some reason we find it okay to eat more like this in the summer, but in the colder times we gravitate towards heavier meals for comfort mostly.
    Good luck with this - it sounds like a good plan.

  2. This post really hits home with me and my kids. I think it's a great idea to offer snacks through out the day ( if possible). My 3 year old does not like the word
    "dinner" instead prefers a "snack pack" as she likes to call it. If you offer them healthy alternatives to a big sit down meal I am definitely on board!

  3. I have nothing to contribute, really. In fact I'm still drinking my morning coffee so it's a wonder that I'm even coherent! But! When I saw those raspberries on fingertips... I had to share. My kids do that with olives. Everyone who sees them thinks it's the craziest thing ever. (:

  4. In having worked in the eating disorder field for a while, I think what you're doing is really smart. Although I don't "give in" to my daughter's every demand (eg. I want chocolate for snack!!), I DO always offer her choices of food whenever she's hungry. If she's hungry at 4pm and I'm trying to make dinner, I'll give her a healthy snack to munch on. If she isn't hungry for dinner, it doesn't bother me. I just ask her to try one bite and then she can come and sit on Mommy's lap. I know that I do get some criticism for the way I do things, because some people feel that kids should eat what we provide (and indulging their wants/needs is spoiling them). But personally, I'll scarf down a snack if I can't wait for dinner too, so why force her to be different? Our bodies are all different, and I think it's healthier to listen to this, rather than prescribe ourselves to this weird notion of 3 meals/day. I've always joked that I eat 5 meals per day - 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches and 1 dinner :) Plus a snack at night!

  5. Thank you for this post, it's like you popped into my house earlier this week with the photo of a young one spawled across the dinner table. I would like to add cheesy tortilla (with a corn or flour tortilla) to your list, it is one of my kids favorites. In this season of my family's life, little meals throughout the day make more sense. I want my children to be mindful of their bodies needs, to listen to when they are hungry. Planning for these small meals makes me a sane Mama. I was just looking for inspiration for my small meals list and you did all the work for me:)

  6. I think this brilliant and wise. And there is nothing wrong with still making a "real meal" like spaghetti or others and then just have it ready to warm up in snack sizes if the kids are hungry.
    Our stomachs are the size of our two palms cupped together along the pinkies and side of our hands. Think about how little that makes your children's portions? Why on earth would we eat a huge plate of food in the evening, or force our kids to do the same? BRAVO, Mama!! Can't wait to hear how this works...

  7. Hey, it's worth a try. :) I laughed when I started reading because I have a post on feeding my children sitting in my drafts folder (but it depresses me so much that I haven't finished it.). I like the idea of the smaller, more frequent meals-- my children would love it, I think, but it wouldn't work with my bigger kids out of the home for school now. However, this is giving me some pause for thought.
    Have you seen the book Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler? Some of her approaches to cooking might work very well with the small meals you are proposing.

  8. We don't fight this one either - just keep mostly healthy choices and let them eat when they are hungry. Although for dinner they all have to sit down for grace and then stay as a family for around 5 minutes, (that is for the 4 year old).
    Yes, we have some picky eaters, but it was a battle my husband and I did not want to fight.
    Thanks for sharing! So great to read others are similar.

  9. Sounds very European, this new strategy. I grew up with many little meals. Our experience with my own family now, is ever-evolving. Our meals are flexible, and the kids help themselves to healthy snacks throughout the day. If the big 'uns don't like dinner, they are welcome and receptive to making their own. Likewise if the big kids make a meal that *I* don't like. Thankfully, it all flows quite smoothly. But I still don't like cooking.

  10. Hi!
    I've been in this battle for a few years now. I just couldn't understand why my kids wouldn't eat...
    And then we had a family visit where the two girls gulped down their food as fast as I could serve it! They were not used to healthy food. The sick mother shared that sometimes all they ate was sugar while sitting on top of the table. They were so poor and so starving for *real* food.
    It opened my eyes to something important...

    My kids know without a doubt that another meal is coming. There is no rush, no hurry, no hunger to worry about. If they don't like it or want it at that time, there will always be another healthy meal.

    It caused me to relax a bit and to be grateful for all that we have.

    And since going wheat free... Well, can I say that I'm finally getting out of the kitchen! Their sugar levels are more stable now and they can go hours -- yes, hours instead of 90 minutes before needing to eat again. It's meant more playtime with them. More time with mommy focused on them. They love it and so do I!!

    Hope this offers another perspective.
    Have a great week!

  11. I'm really enjoying the recent trend in showing the real mess. Five pm is always a horrible time for us as well. I try to pull through it but it usually ends up with a cranky toddler and screaming baby and a hubby who has lost his appetite. My toddler is constantly eating as well. I do lots of little snacks through out the day, but I have a hard time with breakfasts. Sofia gets up at 6 and my husband gets up at 8 so if we eat breakfast together it's usually second breakfast for her.
    I think the little meals are a great idea though. Best to just go with what is easiest at that moment.

    I try to make all our meals for everyday of the week and I usually end up having to changing things around due the mood of my babies as well as my own energy level. Sometimes I give up and we have organic mac and cheese. :)-

  12. I take a deep breath in and out as I read your post. we often have little meals in the day as well, but as of January, when I decided to stay home (and not work), I was bound and determined to get dinner on the table and start having ritual around our meals. (my son is now 20 months). But sometimes when he wakes up from his nap, second lunch (as well call it) goes right out the window as we are playing and then I'm looking at the clock and it's time to get dinner started. By the time my partner gets home, our little one is asking for pretzels or raisins and I'm finding myself saying, "please do not let him fill up on those, dinner will be on the table "soon"" ... yikes! and my partner comes from a long lineage of eating disorders so I'm so conscious about that, but what have I been doing? I think a little breathing room is what you offered me and I'm offering you a pat on the back for trying something new... for trying to change up what isn't working!

    oh and I just LOVE LOVE LOVE the first picture!!

  13. This really resonates with me - we've been dealing with quite a few food struggles around here lately, and I am all too familiar with the "witching hour." Over the past week, I have been making a big effort to ditch the big meals - the kids really seem to need morning and afternoon snacks in between three regular meals - I've been sticking with healthy eating choices at all times of day, with one sugar treat per day (their choice when they eat it). So far, so good - and I feel better when I eat like this, too. Thanks for the mini-meals suggestions!

  14. Wow. I am lucky to have a dear husband who sometimes has a meal on the table when I get home from work the three days that I am away. Even as it is, we sometimes make three different meals, one to suit ourselves, one to suit our daughter, and usually a snack for my son. It just seems like our son is not a big dinner eater, but he does eat large meals at other times. (At preschool they can get him to eat vegetables he won't touch at dinner time – so I know he's getting some extra nutrition there that he doesn't get at dinner.) I find he eats a lot of one thing at a time: 4 pieces of toast or 3 apples or a tub of yogurt. If I offer him other choices he usually refuses. He’s an all or nothing type of boy!

    My daughter is a choosy eater, letting her choose what goes into her lunch and how it’s prepared (there are specifics that should be followed!) usually helps a lot. Also, we've been teaching her how to cook small meals or snacks. So, for example, my husband taught her how to make scrambled eggs and every day when she comes home from school that is what she cooks herself. Being partial vegetarians, this extra protein is important, so we're more than happy to oblige and just give her a few 'extras' at her dinner meal (when we all sit down to eat) like rice, potatoes, a veggie, or similar.

    We also make a special deal where our eldest tries at least one new food a week. If she doesn't like it, fine, but she ask her to at least try it. Ultimately we never force her – just some gentle encouragement and incentive. She’s usually happy to play the game and often it works out well and she finds that she enjoys the new taste. It's all relative, of course. Anyway, I bought my daughter a cook book for her birthday that is specifically designed for kids and offers lots of great photos and diagrams on how to cook different vegetarian foods (with help from adults if needed) and I think this will be a great tool to expanding her menu and palate.
    Now, as for my son - I can rarely get him to eat a complete meal in one sitting, I just think it's too much for him, he’s distracted, over tired, cranky, or not feeling well. When he’s not at preschool I have found that putting out a plate of fruit with cheese and crackers or other healthy choice while he's watching his favourite film or we’re reading books during quiet time works well to get some extra nutrition - for both of them.

    It is comforting to know that we're not alone in our 'battles' and that many of us mothers and fathers mean so very well for our little ones and struggle to give them the very best that they deserve. I like your 'snacking' idea and it really works well for us with moderations for each child’s individuality.
    Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you're full. It just makes sense. (We do have a healthy choice before 'dessert' rule in our house that both our kids understand - even our youngest now - and are willing to negotiate with us about...)
    After reading your previous post about Jude’s school lunch I was concerned about how my daughter might feel about her own lunch. She said that she felt it was different from other kids at school as they often 'have candy and stuff'. I asked her how she felt about that and she replied "it's because we eat healthy food.." and that was all. She didn’t seem concerned and I think it helps that we’re partial vegetarians so we’ve had open discussions about our food choices since she was in preschool. I was happy to know that she’s comfortable with our food choices and open to discussing those choices with us and with her friends or teachers at school.
    One other thing that I do when I have the time is whizz up some food into a puree and tuck it into other foods that they enjoy. The little bit of extra nutrition is a bonus!

  15. Small meals throughout the day is brilliant! I did it with my kids when they were little, and they continue to eat that way throughout their teen years. There is a lot of science to support eating that way--small, healthy meals evenly spaced throughout the day support even blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar was always the reason for crabbiness at the 5 o'clock witching hour--and that was just me!

    I have suggested this way of feeding kids to many parents of my students (you know, being a teacher makes you the "expert" on all things child related, right?! lol). And was thrilled to see kids who were out of gas at the end of the day with more energy, sustained attention ability and a much cheerier outlook. BTW, I only offered nutritional advice when asked :)

    If more traditional mealtimes doesn't work, then it makes sense to change it!

  16. Love it! You've inspired me to tweak my own approach, I'll let you know how it goes ; )

  17. Having thought about this for a few days-- I'm going to see what we can do with this approach for our family, with the challenge of days at school. I talked to the kids about it and they were actually excited, so... we will see! I'll be linking back. :)

  18. I often lament the lack of respect shown at mealtimes especially if we are in the company of grandparents who did things differently in their day. Mealtimes can feel a little anarchic at our place sometimes! But we do have four boys, and they each have different metabiolic rates and also staggered sleeping times. Our two littlies are always up before 8 am, the two oldies are usually not awake till gone 9, often 9.30. So they breakfast at staggered times, then I serve everyone lunch at the same time generally, they snack out during the afternoon, but dinner is generally the same time for all as well. The older guys will snack late into the evening, because they don't get tired at all till usually gone 9.30. Eating small meals seems perfectly sensible, and once wew remove the emotional or moralistic element of what mealtimes used to represent in the past, we can look for other ways to foster togetherness, other times for conversation, sharing and so on. I think spending times together, lovingly can happen at any time of the day. Great post! I definitely got me thinking to how we can change our own family's way of eating to make it less stressy.


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