veggie toddler - a young child learning how to walk and eat vegetables, not necessarily a wobbly vegetarian.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Forks On The Left

Meals aren’t just about the food. Nor are they just about the actual time it takes to consume the food. Meals include a before, during and after the actual eating. Meals are prepared for, the table is set, we come to the table, we eat, and then we clean up. That is a meal.
Getting my kids to sit down for a meal and behave themselves is not an easy task and is rarely pulled off without a hitch. But if I somehow combine my kids’ desire to exert their independence and contribute to the meal time experience, they are more likely to behave. If I do the simple act of letting my kids help bring the meal into existence, then they are proud of it and their role in its making.

I read a lot of blogs and books about getting kids to help out in the kitchen and let them cook with you. I think this concept is fantastic and my kids certainly love helping me cook dinner. But let’s be honest here, not every day is a “let’s all cook together” day at my house. I mean, letting my kids help me with the actual cooking is an activity in itself. I enjoy it and try to do it as often as possible, but most of the time I would rather just do it myself while my kids are playing in another room. Sure my son may run in to the kitchen and ask to give the pasta a stir, but there are other ways kids can help out without standing over hot pots or chopping raw vegetables.

Setting the table is the ritual where the table is prepared for the meal where food and family to come together to eat. It is a task that is rooted in traditions and governed by rules and etiquette. But setting the table, for a young child, also has room for interpretation, spontaneity, and individual flare.

“Mommy, can I help you make dinner?” my 5 year old will ask. “Mommy I am hungry,” my 3 year old will tell me as I am finishing up dinner preparations. “Why don’t you both set the table,” I often say to them. “You put out the plates and you do the forks and napkins.” Some nights this plan results in fights over who gets what plate or which fork or who is sitting next to whom. But most nights my kids go about their table-setting chores with a sense of responsibility and pride. Sure, sometimes not everyone gets a fork or the napkins are on top of the silverware. As a parent, I learn to overlook quite a few details for an overall positive effect.

Setting the table doesn’t only have to happen at the table. Sometimes I wonder why my kids enjoy tea parties and picnics so much. Certainly it’s not only for the love of tea or going outside. No, my kids love to play tea party and picnic because they enjoy setting the table. Whether it is with a play set of fine china or paper plates on a picnic blanket, my kids want to prepare for the food to come, even if it is just pretend. We have bottom drawer in the kitchen with plastic containers, plastic cups and paper plates leftover from previous birthday parties, etc. One of my kids’ favorite make-believe games is literally passing out plates and cups. Sometimes they will find a few birthday hats to go with the place settings. Now we really have a party!

So what does that have to do with food and dinner and eating as a family? As a parent, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get my kids to sit at the table and behave themselves. At the end of the day, nothing I say or do will glue their rear ends to the seat and make them stop fidgeting. My other realization is that I cannot do everything myself. By combining my need for a little help in the kitchen and my kids' desire to do things on their own , usually we end up with a more pleasant meal. Mom is less frantic and the kids feel proud of their work. It would be nice if the forks ended up on the left, but if they are on the right or someplace in between, I smile at my proud 3-year-old and am thankful for whatever calm moments at the dinner table I can get.

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