Kids Who Eat & Run: What’s a Mom To Do?

May 20, 2012 by

A MEAL TOGETHER as a family can be one of the happiest moments of the day. — photo by Anna Migeon

In response to my recommendations on how to get kids to eat instead of dawdling at the table,  a mom named Laurie asked me:

“What about the opposite problem?  I tend to be the last one to sit down and the kids are often done and gone before I’m finished. How can I entice them to stay a bit longer, or wait for me before eating and running?”

This problem is not so much a question of how to entice the children to do what you want them to do. It’s rather a problem of habits and training. And giving no choice.

For everything, there is a season. Sometimes it’s time to let a kid choose, and other times it’s not. Making a kid eat anything at all is out, but requiring a kid wait for others to begin eating, or to sit at the table and be sociable for a certain amount of time for a meal is right and good. Letting a kid choose what to put in his own mouth (among the good choices) is in — it’s his body, after all— but letting a kid choose how to act and treat others (unless they naturally make good choices that way— few do) is not. I’m sure your kids are nice kids at heart; they just need to be instructed here how to show it.

Laying Down the Law on Behavior

If you don’t like the way things are going, you should let your kids know. Tell them how it feels when they charge off after you’ve cooked for them. Tell them your vision for meal times. It’s not asking too much to require some changes. But don’t just nag. Lay down the law. It’s good for them and good for you.

Here’s the deal: We don’t start eating till Mom gets to the table. We wait and eat together. Eating is family time. We wait at the table till everybody is done eating. We ask to be excused. We don’t wolf down the food our parents made for us and then leave them alone at the table.

These are the basic manners that you would surely appreciate seeing in children who visit your house. You would probably like knowing your children would follow these rules at someone else’s home, when they are guests. You probably hope, if you have a boy,  that he wouldn’t start eating before his wife got to the table and then run off and leave her alone to finish her dinner. If you have girls, you probably hope they are treated better than that by their husbands than you are letting your kids treat you.

It’s a question of habit. What you let them do every day for months and years becomes a way of life. For better or for worse.

Grease & Tighten

Laurie, if you want to have a particular way of doing things at your table, it’s up to you as the parent to establish it. The atmosphere at your table is important and the parent should be the one to lead it. It’s in the children’s best interest to make meal time a social time, when parents and children spend time together pleasantly. The table is where children learn to be humans, not just fill their bellies.  So be firm yet cheerful, and lay down the ground rules. You’re right to and have the right to, even the responsibility to do so. What’s good for them is good for you, as is generally true with child rearing.

Trying to change your table from a chaotic, filling-station situation to a more civilized time focused on family bonding may cause some resistance in the troops.  In that case, it’s time to both grease and tighten: make the change feel rewarding at the same time you stand your ground and enforce. Let them know you’re serious, and don’t back down.

According to Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, we Americans don’t teach our children to wait. That’s a major element of our parenting mistakes, compared to the French, Druckerman tells us. Instead we wait on them, hand and foot. Then we wonder why we don’t enjoy our children. Other people probably don’t enjoy them much more than we do. Waiting for others and making meals social occasions is a ritual that can increase the enjoyment of a meal for everybody. The youngest children can be taught that they can wait, that they are capable of waiting. Waiting is good.  It may even get them better scores on the SAT.

But also make meal times enjoyable. This part is where both enticing and enforcing makes good sense. Make great meals and make them festive. Bring out the good dishes, or set some flowers. Bring up interesting topics of conversation. Insist on kindness from everybody. Make it a time to model good conversation and loving relationships. I am confident everyone will see the value of the change eventually. It’s worth making.

Sacred Appetite’s Recommendations for the Eat-&-Runs

1.  Make it a rule that no one starts to eat until everyone is at the table. If you begin your meals with a prayer, do that consistently and make it a rule that all wait until all are seated and the prayer is finished to begin eating. Or do as the French do, and say to one another, “Bon appetit,” as a signal that one can begin. Or create your own positive family tradition.

2. Serve your meal in courses, the French way. Make meals leisurely whenever you can. TV can wait. Video games can wait. Meals are some of the best times to build a relationship with your child.  Start with perhaps a salad or a bowl of soup. When all are done eating that dish, bring out the main dishes. If you serve dessert (fruit salad with a little plain yogurt is a good one), wait to serve it until all are done eating the main meal.


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