What is a Meal?
A meal is a coming together of a group of people, sharing their day with each other, valuing each other’s presence, being grateful for the food that they are eating and leaving everything else to just be there for one another! A meal is so much more than eating; a meal implies a family!
In the book Cooked : A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan says, “The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilisation: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences and arguing without offending.
When a meal carries so much value, why is it that children, who are learning what it means to be a family, have little to no experience of eating as a family?
The Real Struggle behind Eating
With young children, eating is a continuous and isolated activity that is done at a different time from the rest of the family. It always begins with a parent taking a spoonful of food to the child’s mouth and ends with the child turning their face away. This is when desperation and impatience set in and to somehow navigate this trying time, we devise techniques and strategies to ‘trick’ our children into eating.
The first is to try and distract them with a toy or two, or point to different things in the room and feed them without their conscious involvement. If this doesn’t work, we resort to the Ipad technique and while the child is completely engrossed in the visuals, we quickly sneak in one too many spoonfuls. If neither of these work, we resort to threats! Now, threats always come in varying degrees of intensity, from denying them access to their favourite toy to telling them that they will be left behind while the rest of the family goes to the park. The other technique is chasing them around the house while they distractedly run from one object to another with no recollection of having eaten. If none of these work, we resort to pleading, “Please have just one more spoonful for me” or “See, I am sad now that you are not eating.” After much coaxing, cajoling, tears and threats, our children finish one bowl of rice only for us to realise that the same techniques have to be tried again, in exactly a few hours!
While these techniques that we employ may temporarily do the trick and even seem harmless at the moment, they leave lasting impressions. If we want our children to value meal-time as family time, eat more consciously and develop a holistic relationship with food, we need to first have a place for them at the table and share our meals with them!
Share a Meal with your Child – Why?
- Being Valued
Having a place at the table communicates to children that they are an integral part of the family and that their presence is valued. Families must make the effort to eat at least one meal a day together. Regardless of the age of the child, we can seek participation at the table. Even a six month old can nibble on a piece of fruit while being a part of the table. By having a place at the table, we communicate to the child that meal-time is family time.
- An Opportunity to Imitate & Imbibe
At the table, children get to watch how different members of their family (& friends) eat, how they pass around food, and take turns serving. Eating by themselves at the table also gives them the opportunity to watch other members and practice repeatedly. It is important to remember that children learn purely by observation and repetition! So, the more effort we take to eat together, the more opportunities for them to observe and learn.
- Seeing Food as a Whole
Children often eat without ever knowing what they are eating. In chasing and running from one room to the other and watching the Ipad whilst completely unaware of what is going into their mouth, children never get to actually see food on a plate. At the table, they get to see rice and beans, roti and dal, the various eating utensils and cutlery all come together as a whole. Meal-time is also when we can give them tiny tastes of the different dishes and let them experience the variety of our culture.
- Learning the Art of Conversation
It is important for children to be part of the conversations that happen at the table. While eating, we can show them how to acknowledge the effort and love that has gone into cooking. As children grow older, they will also begin to participate and contribute, thus becoming grateful for the food and each others contribution. At the table is also where we can draw attention to the different dishes and the ingredients that have gone into it. Involve them and acknowledge their response whether it is a coo, a babble, a nod or a phrase. This elevates the experience of eating and makes it joyful and something to look forward to.
We must help children create a healthy association with food and cultivate a love for it. When eating comes with conversations, a place at the table, an opportunity to taste different dishes, it becomes much more than a dreaded affair that ends in tears. By sharing a meal with our children, we not only show them what it means to be a family, but also give them the freedom to take food to their mouth! We respect and value their presence and gradually, they begin to associate food with family time, conversations and an opportunity to feed themselves.