Providing nourishment for your family every day, several times a day, is one of those experiences that is sometimes tender and connecting, and sometimes tedious and stressful. Whether you are nursing an infant, spoon-feeding a baby, getting snacks at a drive-through, sitting down at a table with your family to enjoy a meal together, or serving a few different dishes to family members at slightly different times, how can you make meal times be about bonding and building the connections between you and your family? It’s a daily ritual that can strengthen the roots of resilience.
If you are like most families, there can be significant challenges to coming together around food to enjoy and support each other. Things like food pickiness, food refusal, difficulty in self-feeding, disruptive mealtime behaviors, feeding tubes, reflux, food allergies, disagreements about eating routines and habits, and busy hectic schedules, can turn opportunities for nourishment of family relationships into a sense of anxiety, frustration, or failure for children and parents. How do we begin to establish the kind of meal-time experiences we want?
Even though I feel like I have bitten off more than I can chew for this post, let’s look at it from the same “Interpersonal Neurobiology” perspective as we did with bedtime routines.
But first, if things are not working for you, you may need to give yourself permission to do meal times differently than you have been doing them, and differently than your mother did. Set your expectations for meal times with something that makes sense for you and your family, now, not for Ward and June Cleaver in 1958, and not for Pinterest tomorrow. If meals need to be less about 3 Square Meals a Day, less about the Food Pyramid or MyPlate, and less about a beautiful, home-prepared, or organic dinner on the table at 6:00 every evening, so they can be more about tending to each others’ needs, more about giving and sharing, and more about making ourselves available to each other, then Ward, June, and your mother will have to understand.
If you need an expert to back you up, Ellyn Satter is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a Family Therapist. She does a great job of combining the research of these two fields in a user-friendly website and several books. On her website, she describes what meals can provide for us: a place and time for building resilience, as well as a way to create a healthy relationship with food.
Meals give a time and place to do the work of the family: Keep up with what is going on with everyone; help each other out, tell family stories.
Meals keep food in its place as only one of life’s great pleasures. You pay attention and enjoy it when it is time to eat, forget about it between times.
Ellyn calls her approach to feeding children Division of Responsibility. If you want to decrease your child’s and your own anxiety about feeding, here is a great place to start: You are responsible for what, when, and where your children eat. They are responsible for whether they eat, and how much. It may be different from the Cleaver approach, or even your mother’s, but it has a lot of good research to show that it works.
Now, back to our two questions of Interpersonal Neurobiology!
1. What do I want my child to learn? 2. How do I want to teach it?
1. What do I want my child to learn? You may want to start with a mental image of what you would like meal times for your family to look like. Who is there? Where are you? What is the mood? How did the food get there? What are the children doing? What family relationship work is getting accomplished? What relationships with food are being learned? Then look at the challenges or barriers to really experiencing that imagined meal. You will likely find that some of the challenges are skills that your child needs to build, and some of them are opportunities for parental change and growth.
2. How do I want to teach (or learn) these new skills? First make sure that your expectations are appropriate for yourself and for your child’s developmental level. Some meal-time issues stem from not expecting enough from ourselves or our children, but many meal-time issues come from parents expecting too much of themselves or their children. Don’t be afraid to ask others for help, read a relevant book or article, consult an Occupational Therapist, or ask your child’s doctor. Then remember the key goal of resilience and skill-building: soothing connection. What emotions (child or parent) need to be recognized and acknowledged? How can you connect with those emotions and soothe them so that everyone is ready to learn something new?