It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Food, Meals, Food Culture

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to eat with the daycare children.

Well, a long time until two weeks ago. For the past two weeks, I’ve sat down every day. Eaten with them, corrected manners, modelled my own, chatted about the day’s events and Important Things in their small lives. Now, it wasn’t that I was ignoring them before. I did a lot of this even when I wasn’t eating with them. But, though I’d started off eating with the daycare tots, years ago when I began a home daycare, I had drifted out of the habit.

Gradually, I started doing chores as they sat around the table. Chores that I could do while supervising them, in a fairly casual, in-and-out-of-the-room sort of way. I’d start the dishes. I’d sweep the dining room floor. I’d get out the craft supplies (many of which are stored in a cupboard in the kitchen) for the afternoon activity. I could refill bowls as required, wipe spills, help a wee one load peas into a spoon … but I wasn’t sharing their meal.

Why the change? I’ve been reading Jeannie Marshall‘s “Outside the Box“, a book about food culture. She was in Ottawa not too long ago, and I recommended to my parents that they go hear her speak. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go, but one of my Lovely Clients bought the book for me! (I am so lucky. Yes, I know it.) I’ve been reading it slowly, rather than my usual break-neck speed, so that I can absorb the ideas. The ideas in the book include the difference between “food” and “food products”, something I’m familiar with from Michael Pollan‘s excellent “In Defense of Food“, and, come to that, from my very own mother.

(Was it from her I first heard, “If I can’t pronounce the ingredients, I don’t want to eat them?” It may have been. She was — and remains — far from a health nut. Back then, she was a pack-a-day smoker, though she quit many years ago now. Her favourite treat was crunchy pork rinds (remember those? packaged like potato chips? god knows what was in them) but she knew, we all knew, they were damned unhealthy. For eating once in a while, not for every day. Vegetables, fruit, protein, grains — those were for everyday.)

So I’m familiar with the ‘food/food product’ distinction, and (not to put indulge in any false modesty here) I do a kick-ass job of providing food, real food, to the daycare. These tykes essentially never get food products when at my home. Essentially no packaged foods, no ready-made stuff, very little fake-food-masquerading-as-healthy, like storebought granola bars. We made our own cheese crackers last week. (NOM!)

I cook with the children, but I admit that until a couple of weeks ago, that was pretty much limited to muffins and cookies (read: treats). Crackers are still borderline treats, but at least they’re not sweet! I’ve brought chopping board and a heap of vegetables to the dining room table (so they could sit around and watch) to make a big batch of gazpacho. We talked about the vegetables, they nibbled bits of this and that, they smelled the garlic and the onion, and cheered when I slammed the garlic to get the skin off. And when it was done? They were falling all over themselves to have a taste.

But still, I didn’t eat with them. And the more I read Marshall’s book, the more I realized how critical that is to instilling in children the idea of how to deal with food. I was good at providing healthy, real food, and getting them to eat it, but I wasn’t putting it in context.

A quote from my then 11-year-old daughter springs to mind, something she said during her first term in school, having been homeschooled to that point: “It’s like they [the other kids] see learning as some sort of bad-tasting medicine. It’s good for them, but they don’t have to like it.” Was I giving the same sort of message to the tots, regarding food?

So I’ve been sitting down and eating with them, and (another idea from Marshall) not hurrying them through the meal. A meal is not a hiccup in our day, something to be rushed through so we can get on to our next Important Learning Activity (or, I wryly confess, naptime, blessed, blessed naptime). No, a meal is an important activity. It’s not just a nutritional pit stop, a filling of the gas tank as quickly as possible so you can roar back into the race of life.

It’s nice, you know? Our lunches now take close to half an hour, instead of ten or twelve minutes. They don’t eat any more than they ever did. They just spend more time chatting. And — wahoo! — less time pouting about what might be in their bowls. (Well, except Jazz. Jazz is just not a food-oriented kid, and this is not a miracle cure. But who knows what the results of relaxed, social meals will be, even for food-indifferent Jazz, long-term?)

Last week, they tried roasted asparagus and mushrooms (even Jazz!), because I was sitting at the table, eating with them. We’re having fun, we’re enjoying our food and each other’s company.

And I haven’t even finished the book yet! Who knows what we’ll discover next??

June 7, 2012 - Posted by | books, food, health and safety | , , , , ,


  1. You can’t imagine how good this makes me feel. I’m so glad something I wrote made a difference. Clearly you are receptive to these ideas already, but it’s true that we often forget about the social importance of eating together. We live in a goal oriented world and taking the time to sit and eat lunch with a bunch of preschoolers when you could be knocking off tasks on your to-do list might seem inefficient. But look what you have accomplished with those children – and avoided heartburn as well …

    Thank you so much for writing about your experience. Those children are so lucky to have you.

    You’re welcome! It was a paradigm shift to see that lunch is an item on my to-do list. More than simply ensuring that they eat well, my job, with their parents, is to form and inform their whole relationship to food, and in the rules of healthy eating. This is not accomplished by posting a list somewhere (assuming they could read!), but by showing it to them, living the rules, making all these things part of the unconscious web of ideas, emotions, and attitudes that will carry them through their lives. I’ve always eaten well, and seen to it my children do, but I haven’t always done it with this larger perspective. I’ve been moving toward that larger understanding for the past few years, but your book really helped the ideas coalesce. Thank you!

    Comment by Jeannie Marshall | June 7, 2012 | Reply

  2. Great ideas! I’ll have to pick up the books. I had started out eating with the dc kids, but like you, fell out of the habit. Mostly because no sooner would I sit, then someone would spill a drink, or lose their napkin (how does that happen?!) or drop a fork and need a new one…I get indigestion just recalling it…It seemed easier to just wait until nap time to have lunch. But I’m feeling inspired.

    I hear you. Mine don’t seem to spill much (the two-year-olds have sippy cups), and if a fork drops, we observe the 10-second-rule. πŸ™‚ The one thing I am not enjoying about eating with the children is the way three of the five of them chew with their mouths WIDE OPEN AND LOUD. It is So.Gross, and absolutely unavoidable when you’re sitting directly across from it. (Small shiver of revulsion…) However, they are now getting VERY CONSISTENT reminders to keep their mouths shut and chew quietly. All in all, the pros far outweigh the cons.

    Comment by Kate | June 7, 2012 | Reply

    • I hear THAT. Some days, if everyone is having a “good” day, I’ll eat with them. If they’re having one of those days, I don’t. I’m realizing that’s probably backwards. πŸ™‚

      I put some thought into how to react should someone’s bad day make the meal miserable for the rest of us, and have decided that the offending (and offensive!) child will be given a chance to turn it around, and if they’re not willing, they will go to the quiet stair until our happy, social meal is over. They will come to the table for a very quick (10-minute) solo opportunity to refuel, and then it’s off to nap. That way, my company (and everyone else’s), and the opportunity for a leisurely meal will be a reward for good, pro-social behaviour. So far it’s theoretical, though: no matter how rotten they’ve been during the morning, they’ve all managed to pull it together for lunch!

      It does make lunch a Learning Activity, and means I have to be “on” more than I did when I spent the time doing chores, but I’m really enjoying it. Once they’re all packed off to bed or quiet time, I reward myself with a cup of tea on the front porch — no children allowed! πŸ™‚

      Comment by Hannah | June 7, 2012 | Reply

  3. Reminded me of this article I read not long ago…

    In our busy lives it’s so hard not to rush my kids…I feel like they would never ever finish dinner if I didn’t remind them to stop talking and take some bites! But, as we’re transitioning to a more whole foods approach and expanding our meat (marinated chuck steak)and vegetable (roasted beets) vocabulary, they are trying new things with us and enjoying healthy food! It’s been very rewarding.

    I give them a very modest portion to begin, and, until they reliably try everything, always start with the vegetables. So, a tablespoon each of vegetables, rice and beans (or meat), say, for a total of three tablespoons. If they manage just the vegetables, a mere tablespoon of food, that will satisfy me. Of course, the problem is it might not satisfy them! I admit that though I’m going for a slower-paced meal, I’m not willing to spend an hour at the table with a bunch of open-mouthed-chewing toddlers. (We’re working on the whole “keep your lips together” thing, but it’s hard!)

    There are the logistics of the day to consider, too. We start nap at 12:30 (one child sleeps for three hours, I kid you not), so there’s only so early we can feasibly begin lunch without having it intrude on breakfast!! I figure 30 – 45 minutes is plenty for lunch. If they can’t/don’t finish 3 tablespoons in that amount of time, well, I guess they weren’t that hungry!

    If they are that hungry, their own experience with being hungry will quickly teach them to ingest what they need in the amount of time we have.

    Comment by Meesha | June 7, 2012 | Reply

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