One of our favorite times of the day is mealtime. I love this time most because we all work together, sit down together and talk together. This time can be a wonderful time of family unity or a tortured time of fighting and complaining! We've experienced both at our house and by far prefer the time of unity and joy over the frustration of arguing and complaining. As is often the case with little ones meal time can be difficult, but, the good news is it doesn't have to be.
We start training and teaching good manners in infancy. When baby is nursing if she tries to bite or pull on mom, I give a firm command, "no, no, bite or pull." As the baby progress's to food we do not allow the child to make mealtime a game. If they start throwing things and trying the pick up game we admonish them again with a simple command, "no, no throw." We also teach sign language as soon as we start solids with our infants. Much sooner than an infant can speak they can communicate. Their ability to speak develops slower than their ability to make signs. Simple signs like please, thank you, more and all done are a great tool for your little one to let you know what they need. You can find the signs for these on line or ask me.
The next stage in childhood seems to be the most difficult to train and deal with at meal time. The toddler years. Our first child seemed to need a lot of training during this time, but, as we have had more children it seems to get easier and easier. It must be from the good example and habits our older children and family have learned. So I would encourage you to really train and work with the first one as they will set the tone at the table for siblings to follow. We have always required that children eat what is put before them. Our explanation is that God provided the food, daddy worked hard for it, mama took time to buy, prepare and cook it, we must always be thankful for what we have. Complaining, making faces, or arguing about our food does not show a heart of contentment or thankfulness. The other item we have tried to impress upon our children is that we live in a blessed and rich country. Our cupboards have never been bare and we have a bounty of nutritious food available. Some ways we have tried to drive this home is by talking about a boy we sponsor in Nairobi, Kenya. He does not have the privilege of abundant food. We recently packaged food for children in third world countries and tasted it too. This was a great eye opener for our two older girls. As they realized that what we cook is delicious compared to the meager fare some children rely on for nutrition. It was also a great way to encourage the girls to serve others.
In the past when we were having a real problem with the children complaining at mealtime, constantly asking for snacks and using poor manners my husband came home one day and decided that we needed, "The Lebens Family Rules for Eating!" I have to say this was such a blessing to me. First, I understood exactly what his expectations were and could submit to and bless him and second I no longer had gray area in our food and manner rules. Our family rules are fairly simple. You will eat 3 meals and 3 optional snacks a day. Mom decides when to serve each of these and you need not ask constantly or there will be no snack. At our mealtimes the rules are you eat all of what is put on your plate if you would like more or dessert. We try and be very realistic with the portions we give the girls so that they are easily able to achieve this, and also get proper nutrition. I can say now that this has been our habit for a couple of years we really don't have many food issues. The biggest one is probably complaining at which our response and encouragement to the children is, "if you are not asked for your opinion, do not give it." Another way we've seen the children develop healthy attitudes is by having them help with the meal planning and preparing. Something happens when they make a food, they want to try it! As often as I can I try and recruit the children to help and explain to them the cooking techniques we are using and nutritional information of the food we are making.
Another area we work on is eating out and with others. There have been a few times when I have been horrified to hear what my little one has to say about the food being served them at someone else's house. That has been enough motivation to train and prepare our girls for the times when they are served something they are unfamiliar with or don't care for. This has really been fairly easy after we implemented our family rules. As they are use to trying a bite of everything it makes trying new foods easier. We try to coach the girls before eating out either at a restaurant or a friends house to eat what is placed before them, and simply say, "just a little please or no thank you," if they are offered food they don't care for or are unsure of. On the other hand we also encourage them to use ladylike manners and not over indulge or overly focus on the fabulous dessert. This is still in the works as they are still little ladies who need training and patience.
There is such a large variety of food available to us and such an abundance it is hard to keep this in balance. But, hopefully with our good habits and manners we can create a good model for our children to follow. We still work diligently on good manners at the table and good attitudes for food. Our hope is our children are prepared to dine with others comfortably, to cook for a family and to take proper care of their bodies. As we look at our culture we can see that the idea of maintaining a healthy body and proper manners has really diminished. It is important to our family that we enjoy eating with our children and aren't disgusted by their poor habits. We can teach them to either learn good habits with some encouragement and training and bless others in the future by their pleasantness to be around; or we can leave them to themselves and watch their health decline and see them make others uncomfortable around their sloppy habits. This is an easy choice for our family. I hope it is for yours too.
The point here is not to have the same "rules" as the Lebens Family. But, to really consider what your families goals are for your children and what the principle is in your home. Too much of what we do is just getting by and not giving thought to it. Let's think through what our future men and women will need and prepare for it now!