When I fed my newborn daughter in my arms, my husband and I had the most beautiful conversation about our future. She had only been part of our family for less than four hours, but we were already talking about how much we looked forward to sitting around the dinner table at the end of a day and sharing that special time together.
And for a while, it was special—until our children could talk and have opinions—then feeding took on a whole new meaning. What started as adorable messy faces and slurping morphed into 45 minutes of complaining, negotiating, failing, crying and general disappointment just because I dared to let two different foods touch each other. The beautiful image I once had in my head of what dinnertime would look like was replaced by a dark, ugly picture of stressed-out parents and stubborn children. It had to change. But how?
Everywhere I went, people offered different pieces of advice. It seemed everyone had an opinion on how to make feeding children more enjoyable. My mind was filled with confusion. That's when I came up with a family experiment. Instead of trying just one piece of advice from a trusted source, what if I tested out a different piece of advice each night for five nights? The trick was, no one could know I was doing it—not even my husband. Here's how it went:
The advice from a mom-friend: "Make them stay at the table until their plate is empty."
Before the meal began, I issued the following statement: "You have to stay at your seat until you have eaten all the food on your plate."
They stared at me in confusion, but I stayed strong. However, I hadn't anticipated that this course of action would require me to sit at the dining room table for two hours. Each bite felt slower than the next. After 45 minutes, I told the kids that they couldn't talk again until they finished their food.
The result? They just kept sitting there, and I was ready to go to bed. On top of that, the crying had begun, and I felt like a horrible person for not letting my children speak and forcing them to eat cold food I wouldn't serve to my worst enemy. MISSION FAILED.
The advice from the local television parenting expert: "Make dinner a time to talk about your day."
With a fresh new approach and attitude, I sat down at the dinner table and turned to my 7-year-old daughter and asked: "What project did you work on in art?"
"I don't remember," she replied.
I tried again: "How about in spelling? How did you do on your test?"
She shrugged and said: "I don't know. But John puked broccoli all over the lunchroom floor."
Ah yes, this was enjoyable. After several rounds of questions that only led to more "I don't knows" or worse, further discussion of vomit, none of us were left wanting to eat. MISSION FAILED.
The advice from a parenting book: "Give them their vegetables as an after-school snack instead of at dinner."
"I'm starving," my daughter said as she reached for a cheese stick from the refrigerator when she got home from school.
I closed the drawer quickly and instead offered her a bell pepper strip or bowl of carrots.
She looked at me as if I had seven heads and promptly told me she wasn't hungry. I stayed firm and told her that she couldn't have a different snack; it had to be vegetables. She and her brother staged a full-court food strike until dinner, when they ate everything on their plates—except the vegetables. MISSION FAILED.
The advice from a parenting forum online: "Let them cook with you, and they'll feel excited to eat the food they helped make."
This doesn't take into consideration the mess, fighting, and massive clean-up that will be required when you agree to cook with two kids younger than 7 years old. It also doesn't recognize that when your children see what raw chicken looks like, there's less than a 1 percent chance of them actually eating it. MISSION FAILED.
The advice from my own mother: "Let it go. Life is too short to stress about food. If they don't eat, save it. They'll eat when they're hungry."
As we sat down after a long week of failures, I simply said, "Eat what you can; we'll save the rest for later if you're hungry."
Everyone looked at each other. Even my husband cocked his head and shot me a confused glance. I shrugged and threw my arms up.
And when they told me they were full with half a plate of food still left, I smiled, nodded, and waited. And exactly like my mother predicted, they were hungry an hour later. Although they fussed for a few minutes about having to finish their dinners, they finally stopped complaining, and the miracle of all miracles occurred—they finished their dinner.
No tears, no yelling, no dreading the dinner hour of the day, and the only advice I needed was from the person who went through it with me.