The Gleeful Gourmand: Toddler Table Manners Revisited - Part Two

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Toddler Table Manners Revisited - Part Two

So here's the part in our program where I relate to you how we managed to turn our 4-year-old son into the perfect little diner, complete with perfect manners; and how every mealtime is pure joy, a scene right from one of Norman Rockwell's paintings.

But I'd be lying, so here's what I will tell you instead: Teaching your kids how to behave at the table is really, really hard work. I feel like we've been working with Liam ever since he started sitting at the table with us on how to behave, and I guess I thought that by the time we got to 4 we'd have things pretty much under control. I can hear all you longtime parents out there laughing right now. Cut it out.

Part of what I forgot to figure in was that during his 3rd year, he acquired not one, but two baby sisters. At first he took his big emotions over this out on my husband and I. Then when he realized that wasn't going to fly with us, he turned to the next best thing in his mind: Food. Suddenly, the area we had so much success in was up for grabs. He started balking at everything we put in front of him, even foods he had previously loved. There have been more than a few meals that have ended in tears, or timeouts, or both, and conversations that have gone like this:

L: Yuck, I don't like that.
Me: It's chicken and rice, what's not to like?
L: It's gross. I don't like it. Ew.
Me: Too bad, eat it anyway.
L: I don't want to. I want something else.
Me: I'm not a short-order cook, you'll eat what I put in front of you.
L: What's a short-order cook?
Me: It means I'm not making you a separate meal.
L: (squirming, fake crying) Ew! It will make me sick!
Me: It will not. Look, I don't particularly like eating gross food. I wouldn't make you something that I think tastes gross, because I don't want to eat food that tastes bad. This food doesn't taste bad. So eat it!

And on and on it goes, until he finally either eats it, or loses his dessert privileges.

The perfect diner - as long as it's something he likes.
So, where does that leave us? Luckily that doesn't happen at every meal, and he really is great about behaving when we're out to eat. He knows that we expect him to sit still, to use his inside voice and to eat his food. But what's not to love about eating out? He gets all the yummy foods he loves. It's so much easier to behave when you're getting what you want. I do realize he eats much better than a lot of kids, loving things like sausage and bean soup, paella, a good steak with sauteed mushrooms. And when he likes it, his praise is as boisterous as his complaints, so that evens things out a little. But when he digs his heals in, man he digs them in hard. Like a night we had months ago with a scuffle over Butternut Squash that ended in tears and with him going to bed super early without eating much of anything.

I realize that every parent ever has dealt with these struggles, so that at least makes us feel a little better as we soldier on, but some things do make my blood boil, like when he's eating soup and starts stirring it too hard so that it goes all over everything - all while staring at me with this look on his face that plainly says, "I dare you to tell me to stop. I'm not going to, but tell me anyway."

These days we're working on at least trying new foods, and littler things like putting his fork or spoon on the dish when he's not using it, and chewing with his mouth closed. Buck and I are pretty much in lock-step with what we expect from our children as far as eating at the table. Here are a couple of rules we stick to, and are working on:

1) You do not have to finish all your food, but you do have to try everything at least once.
2) You may not eat until we've said Grace.
3) You may not get up from the table until we excuse you.
4) Your napkin is there to wipe your mouth with, not your sleeve.
5) Chew with your mouth closed (I know from my own childhood this one will take forever to master).
6) Do not interrupt us when we're talking.
7) Your fork belongs on the dish when you're not using it, not in your lap.

How about you, readers? Any tips for producing well-behaved little diners? Any rules you're working on? I'd love to hear them!


Shauna said...

We had a rule growing up, prompted by eating spaghetti - no food above your nose. I hear parents all the time make "my kid will only eat____" and the thought in my head is always - And whose fault is that? My kids don't love everything, but they eat everything because they don't have a choice. If they don't like dinner they can have a plain piece of toast after they've tried it, but that's it. I also have to remind myself of some statistic that says kids might have to try something as much as 20 times before they like it.

Jenna said...

Shauna, I so agree with you! I know a lot of parents who decided not to make meals a battle, and as a consequence, their children only eat a very limited repertoire of foods, even now when those children are close to adulthood! To me, it's worth the challenge and sometimes the fight if it means that down the line my kids know a wide variety of tastes. We're constantly saying to Liam, "How do you know you don't like it, when you've never even tasted it?" I love that rule - no food above your nose! :)

Elizabeth Wilson said...

My uncle used to tell my cousins, "Eat it!" We now say it to eat other in a deep commanding voice and then crack up. I know another father who tells his daughter, "Bite it like a shark!" and she'll take an enthusiastic bite!

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