Cold Culture Eating: Why eating at the table together isn’t happening for some American kids, and Seven Tips to Warming Up the Culture at Your Table

Jun 21, 2010 by

A recent “Zits” comic shows Jeremy pointing his cell phone at the steaming dish his mom is holding, while she asks him, “Do you think Pierce would like to stay for dinner?”

We then see Jeremy sending the photo to Pierce, who responds to the photo–and to the invitation–with “EWW!”

“No,” Jeremy replies. “ Pierce hates meatloaf.”

We had a similar experience when my daughter’s friend was hanging around right before dinner one night. To my invitation to join us at the table, her answer was, “What is it?”

She needed a description of all offerings, then decided she could eat one of the three available. So she joined us.

Many times, children have come to our table and thought nothing of openly turning up their little noses at everything that was served. Expressing distaste at what’s been served is clearly considered quite socially acceptable. Few seemed to have been taught otherwise.

This is not going to be a diatribe about manners and the need to teach them to children, though it could be. It’s more than a lack of manners. It’s a cultural factor in the impossibility of family meals at the dinner table for many families.

When it comes to food, the U.S. is clearly a “cold” culture, as described by Sarah Lanier, author of Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures.

More “inclusive”  or “hot” cultures see food as something to be shared. These cultures are generally somewhat less affluent than the U.S. so food is considered precious and valuable: a necessity of survival. The focus is less on eating exactly what you feel like eating and more on the joy of being together and being generally grateful and open toward food. Children in these cultures “get to” eat; they don’t “have to.” Being together with others is more important than getting what you want as an individual. Few stop to consider whether they “like” the food on the table.

In our more task-oriented and individualistic “cold” culture, food is abundantly available. Food’s “gone from primarily being a source of nourishment to being a source of entertainment,” according to Lanier. “Eatertainment,” as I’ve seen it called elsewhere.

Americans feel free to be picky. “Liking” foods is of primary importance. If you don’t “like” it, you won’t eat it. Food is something to assert one’s individuality about. Whatever you want, you can have it. If I don’t like the meatloaf Mom’s serving, I’ll eat some ice cream later. Our personal preference comes before being together for eating.

Could this be why so many parents are asking: How do you get kids to come to the table to eat? Family meals are a rarity; we don’t know why. We used to have them; where did they go?

Kids grow up feeling they must defend themselves against the food their parents are trying to make them eat. We get to be finicky, inflexible, unadventuresome, fearful, fussbudgets about real food and addicted to junk “food.” Asserting one’s dislikes is sometimes the only American way of “being together” about food.

Maybe we cold cultures could learn a thing or two from our “hot” culture global neighbors.

Even though we live in the “cold” American food culture, the culture of the home can be what we parents make it.

Seven tips to warming up the culture at your table:

1. Restrict eating to specific meal and snack times.

2. Restrict eating to the table.

3. Don’t allow random snacking that spoils children’s appetites for meals.

4. Don’t allow anti-social, unpleasant misbehavior at the table.

5. Don’t allow children to gripe and whine about the food.

6 Don’t make them eat, but make them sit with you at the table. Don’t pressure or force children to eat at all. Provide only good choices and allow children to eat what and how much they like at the table. Good appetites will kick in if you follow the above tips.

7.  Instead of saying, “Clean your plate,” say, “Don’t take more than you’re sure you want to eat.” It raises the perceived value of food.

Related posts:

How to get kids to eat at the table: the Push-Pull Principle

How to get kids to eat at the table

Dinner Table Lessons from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 21 June 2010 / All rights reserved

12 comments
Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Thanks for your comments, Diana! I like your plan for conversation at the table. I like the idea of not putting all the attention on them but including them. My only thought here is that I think you will get better results by NOT requiring your son to even taste anything, ever. I think he should learn to say, "No thank you," and choose to eat or not to eat whatever he wants from the good choices on the table. Kids want autonomy and what harm does it do to let them at least have that much autonomy? On the contrary, I think it's better for them. Making him try things sort of positions food as less valuable, as something he doesn't want. It's a kind of pushing that I believe leads to resistance. If foods are presented and he is free to choose among them, he will have no reason to resist you about eating. He'll see food not as something you want him to eat, but just be free to want to eat it on his own. Here is a post about this subject, "Foolish Freedom: Why some kids refuse to eat even to the point of harming themselves": http://sacredappetite.wordpress.com/2009/12/17/foolish-freedom-why-some-kids-refuse-to-eat-even-to-the-point-of-harming-themselves/ Also I had a mom tell me that she went out to eat with a guy once who ordered FOR her. He ordered crab for her. When it came, she told him, "Oh, I'm allergic to crab." But in fact, she said, "I love crab!" There is also a great video I posted about what motivates us, that I find applies well to getting kids to eat: http://sacredappetite.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/how-to-motivate-kids-to-eat/ I'd love to hear more from you!

Diana
Diana

Thanks for the reminders! My 6 yr old is pretty good about coming to the table and eating. But we have a rule (especially for new foods) that he must take "No Thank You" bites. If he isn't hungry, it's one thing. But if he is turning up his nose he has to at least give it a try. :) I also think it's important to make the table 'hot' once the kids get there! They need to be included in conversation, but not necessarily be focused on. We've started a tradition that we go around the table and say (a) the best part of our day, (b) the worst part of our day, and (c) what we are looking forward to tomorrow. It helps the children be included but not all the attention is focused on THEM. I just found your blog (thanks to Fight Back Friday) and I will be checking back often! :)

Christy
Christy

She had to come to the table and be polite. I never make anyone eat a lot - a taste will do. Like you said it is just polite. She does know that it is never acceptable to be rude in another's home. BTW she wasn't too happy with me. It must mean I am doing my job!

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

thanks, Christy! So did you make her come to the table anyway? My mom would tell her, "Good. Leaves more for the rest of us." I think kids get a lot of attention for "not liking" stuff. I would rather see kids grow up to be gracious adults, maybe not necessarily eating everything but being sociable, and not making a fuss and drawing attention to themselves about what they "don't like." They can start being this way quite young.

Christy
Christy

Just the other day my 17 year old didn't want to come to the table -she doesn't like meatloaf. When I told her she couldn't make herself something later she was SHOCKED! Was I going to deprive her of food? I had to (as calmly as possible) explain that no she wasn't being deprived she was choosing not to eat. A huge difference. Great post!

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Thanks for your encouraging comments! I've started to realize how many people are having trouble not just getting their kids to eat, but to get them to even come to the table in the first place. I like your technique with the overeating and how that worked for him.

Suzanne
Suzanne

GREAT, GREAT, GREAT advice. It's amazing how far away we've gotten from this simple system...that WORKS. On the flip side, I had a "five minute" rule when Chase was little. Sometimes he'd wolf down several portions of some of his favorite foods. If I thought it was too much and he still asked for more, I'd ask him to "wait five minutes" and if he still wanted another serving he could have it. Almost invariably he would realize he was full and even, on occassion, thank me for heading off what would have almost certainly been a stomach ache.