Teach them to respect and eat everything that is on the plate. Photo: Dreamstime
The one subject that I never get tired of talking about is our fractious and frisky relationship with food.
Unfortunately, it has become a touchy topic for most of us. We associate negative words like ‘bad’, ‘guilt, ‘sinful’, ‘decadent’ to an act that is meant to ‘nurture’, ‘sustain’, ‘energise’, ‘enjoy’, ‘celebrate’ and ‘comfort’ us. And it is only a matter of time that we pass this tetchiness to our children and they pass it on to theirs.
We tend to swing to the extremes – cake is bad and bottle gourd is excellent – knowing fully well that given a choice between a slice of chocolate cake or a plate full of gourd even the bravest and ‘healthiest’ of us would gravitate to the chocolate cake.
So, what if we were to suspend our judgment on food while I share some of my hypothesis, and tried and tested ways to help children forge a good relationship with food.
Fussy children make fussy parents: If your child is being too picky at the table or is extremely unreasonable when it comes to meal times; if you dread meal times with your children where practically every meal ends in a yelling match, replete with negotiations and tenacious deal-making that would put the toughest venture capitalist to shame, it is time for some introspection on your behaviour and attitude at the table and beyond.
Hate is strong word: There are quite a few foods that I associate with certain unhappy phases in my life or simply don’t quite like. I am sure all of us have our own list of preferences. And every now and then, when I am helping myself to a vegetable or dish that I don’t quite enjoy, I am reminded that I have two pairs of tiny eyes watching my actions.
Sometimes, I gently shush my mother-in-law when she regales us with tales of her childhood and how she simply ‘hated’ certain vegetables. We need to teach our children that it is fine to prefer one food over another, but it is important to eat a range of vegetables, fruits and foods and more importantly, it is an act of respect to eat everything that is on the plate.
Mealtime is family time: You have the power to instil good habits in the formative years of your children’s lives. Avoid watching TV while eating – save those for a big game or the live coverage of the Oscars – make them rare events in a year. Given our busy schedules with work and long commutes, it can be challenging, but try and set aside time for at least one meal in a day together as a family – it could be breakfast or dinner.
Talk. Eat. Laugh.
Share highlights of the day, listen to the children talk about school and their friends. Keep your mobile phone on silent or away from you for just those few precious minutes. Eat your meals with your spouse or significant other. Children who see their parents eating together and waiting for each other at the table or clearing up after a meal are bound to develop a healthy perspective to relationships.
Expect gratitude: Every meal is not going to resemble King Louis the XVI’s wedding banquet! Sometimes the cook of the house may have a bad day, the dishes may not be the tastiest on some off-day.
It's OK, we will survive!
Let’s cut the cook the slack. Some toppings rustled up at the last minute, additions like a jar of pickle or dip, some papad or salad could save the meal. Don’t complain and don’t encourage it either – just get on with it, a piece of chocolate or fruit at the end of the meal will make it all better.
Allow for some autonomy: Let children serve themselves. I know it’s hard – but let them. Set one golden rule – and that is they will have to eat everything that is on their plates. We fret too much – every now and then they may misjudge the distance from the serving bowl to the plate – sometimes, the ladle or serving spoon might be unwieldy, they might hit a glass or elbow every now and then but they will learn.
You might have to change the table cloth more frequently, but in the process you will discover that your children will get a better sense of portions, feel more participative in the process and overtime improve their eye and hand coordination.
The action of doing something grown up is so enjoyable that they may end up taking extra helping without you yelling at them to eat. Encourage them to set the table and expect them to pick their plates and leave it in the sink.
Everything is good as long as it is in moderation: Once in a while let that glass of cola pass; chocolate pudding can be one of the options for dessert in the week. A stray butter naan or slice of white bread with cheese is not known to have caused a war.
Relish a bowl of fruits with ice-cream with the children after a nice long Sunday lunch. If it's waffle, do not banish the melted butter and substitute it with some ridiculous – ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ placebo and maple syrup. If you are going to eat – eat it right and if any thoughts associated with guilt and shame pop in your head – tell it to take a walk. And don’t forget to tie up your running shoes at some point. After all healthy parents are a bonus for children.
The author is a working mum-of- two. When she is not drafting a marketing or communications plan, you can find her writing about food and parenting or reading books on food, fiction and fact.