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