(The following is a blog by food blogger, Christine Berglund, from her website,
Christine’s Taste of Heaven. Check out her website for wonderful recipes.)
In the early days of my parenting, I struggled. A lot. (Still do many days.) To give myself a little bit of grace, it is probably reasonable to expect that I struggled a bit; I took custody of a 3 year-old and a 4 1/2 year-old and then six months later added their 14 month-old baby sister to our family. I was also teaching online full-time. There was a lot going on, but I somehow expectedeverything to go perfectly. I somehow expected that I would do everything perfectly. It didn’t happen that way. And then I believed that everyone else was parenting perfectly, and I was doing everything wrong.
One of my biggest struggles was mealtime. You might think that strange since I obviously love cooking and baking, but I would often go off the deep end at mealtime. I had issues.
This is how it would go: Sometime in the afternoon I would start making some wonderful homemade meal such as chicken pot pie. I was in my happy place chopping up vegetables and making a roux, congratulating myself on providing nice healthy homemade meals for my children. I might even spend a little time imagining the meal to come with my adorable kids happily devouring every last bit of food, thanking me for making something that is both delicious and healthy… Guess what? It never happened.
Instead of the idyllic dream above, something more like this would happen:
I put plates of food down and then it begins…
Child 1: “What i-s-s-s-s-s this?” (Note that the look on her face and the tone in her voice suggest she has something from the garbage truck on her plate.)
Me: “Chicken Pot Pie. It’s really good. I think you’ll like it.”
Child 2: Takes one bite and then gagging noises ensue. (Note: This one has an incredible knack for making self gag; strangely, it only seems to happen when vegetables are involved.)
Me: “Are you o.k.?”
Child 2: (He looks stricken and can do nothing but stare at me. I’m wondering if I need to start doing the heimlich maneuver.)
Child 3: (Immediately sticks her hand in the food and starts screaming.) “Hot! Hot! This yucky.”
Me: (All kinds of emotions rise up in me: fear, rejection, anger, frustration, hopelessness, etc.) I look at these children and think to myself, “WHAT??!! You people have been known to put sand from the sandbox IN YOUR MOUTH, you people lick Walmart carts, and I vividly recall having to drag a certain someone away from some stray goldfish ON THE GROUND under SOMEONE ELSE’S picnic table at the zoo! And YOU are going to turn your nose up at MY homemade chicken pot pie or lasagna or soup??!!” And then I would have to leave the room for a little while and I would question God’s decision to have ME raise children. Surely, I was the wrong choice.
Clearly, I was not dealing with food critics from Bon Appetit, but I took it all so hard and so PERSONALLY. And I didn’t know what to do. Do I make them choke it down anyway? This was my first instinct because that was how it was growing up. You eat what you are given. Do I have them do a “no thank you” bite and then let them be done? I knew this was some people’s strategy, but it was really HARD to imagine just throwing all that food away, not just the wastefulness of it but my hard work too. Do I give them something else to eat–maybe a bowl of plain cereal? Should we just go to McDonald’s and call it a day? And what about the gagging? It would be so embarrassing to be invited to someone else’s house to eat and have my child do that gagging thing. I needed to teach them to be polite…
When it was not mealtime, I would mull this whole situation over, and I could see that my reaction was ridiculous and childish and even kind of insane. Why would I take it personally when the kids disliked something I made? Why did it feel like such a rejection of me? I would even have rational thoughts such as, ‘I don’t like every single food either. People have different likes and dislikes.’ I would remember that my parents used to make liver a few times a year, and I HATED it. We would be required to eat a certain minimum number of pieces at the meal which we would try to drown in ketchup or plug our nose while eating. It was a mental game too. If we only ate the minimum amount, we were guaranteed to have at least one leftover meal or more of the stuff. If we ate more at the first meal, it would be gone sooner, but we might also die from eating so much of something so disgusting. What to do? What to do? And I could confidently know that just because I hated liver did not mean I hated or rejected my parents. If anyone could take my distaste for liver personally, maybe the cow could?
The kids didn’t hate every meal I made. Here’s another scenario that would happen:
Child 1: “What are we having for lunch?”
Me: “Ramen Soup.”
Child 1: (Loud cheering, fist pumping, and maybe even a shriek of pure joy and then she would scurry to the living room.) “Guess what, Joe and Nina? We are having RAMEN SOUP for lunch!!!” (More cheering and shrieking from all three of them as they rushed to their spots at the table.)
Child 2: “Are we really having Ramen Soup?”
Child 3: “Yay! I love Ramen Soup!”
And then they would slurp soup happily and beg for more until the pot was scraped clean.
Child 1, 2, and 3: “Thank you for lunch, Mommy. It was REALLY good!! Can you make this some more?”
And then I would have to leave the room for a while because I was so angry. Now what was the problem? They ate their food. All of it. This is what I wanted, right? But it was prepackaged junk food that I made because I didn’t have the time or energy to make something better that day or I knew I was too fragile to handle their gagging at something I made. I fed my children food that is not good for them, that is packed with sodium and probably a bunch of chemicals that do who knows what to their bodies. I was sure ALL the other moms were feeding their children organic whole foods only. I was a FAILURE as a mom. I felt guilty for selling out. And I was REALLY mad that they would love something like that instead of the food I made myself that was clearly so much better. I had no idea that mealtime with children could be such a mental and emotional exercise, and I had no idea that it would draw out my inner lunatic. I HATED mealtime most of the time. Once again, I would question God’s decision in having ME raise children. Surely, I was the wrong choice.
Again, away from the meal, I would try to talk myself down off the ledge. I remember that my mom made mostly homemade food while growing up, and I think of those meals with fondness and make many of those recipes now myself. (No, not the liver.) But I also remember being THRILLED when my parents would go out with my aunt and uncle for an evening and we kids would get to eat BANQUET CHICKEN for supper. Yes, that boxed fried chicken that was probably one of the worst things for us. Do they still make it? For some reason, we LOVED it. We thought it was the greatest thing ever. The skin was all crunchy and delicious. I would probably find it disgusting now, but it was such a thrill to eat something out of a package, something that otherkids got to eat all the time, or so I thought.
Another piece of the insanity was that, apparently, my kids were really good eaters. We go to a meal at our church every Wednesday night during the school year, and no matter who we sat by in those early days, the kids almost always received a compliment for how well they ate. They still do. In the great scheme of things, they are good eaters. They love salad, not all of the vegetables, but a lot of them. They are always willing to eat the constantly changing menu their try-new-recipe-fanatic mom makes for them. They don’t love everything–one hates chicken and can pick imaginary fat off of even the smallest piece for at least thirty minutes before putting the tiniest morsel in her mouth and one despises corn and will do that gagging thing even over one kernel and another one just can’t accept cooked tomatoes most of the time. They love boxed macaroni and cheese, frozen Party Pizza, and of course, Ramen Soup. They have also come to love some of the things I make (not the chicken pot pie)–lasagna, homemade soup, crepes, and many other things. My perspective was way off. In my perspective, no matter what happened, the end result was, “I am a FAILURE as a mom and as a human being.” I couldn’t win.
Now that I am a little farther along in my parenting, I know that I am still no expert, but I have learned some things. I have learned that parenting is hard and that it, more than anything else in my life, has challenged me and caused me to grow and to discover new things about myself (some good and some not). I have also learned that I am probably not the only one who is struggling with any given thing. One of the hardest things about parenting, in the beginning, was absolute shame and horror that I wasn’t doing everything right while I thought everyone else had it together. I didn’t want anyone else to know the dirty secret that I was failing so miserably. I yelled too much. I got angry about really petty things. Once I was willing to talk to some other moms, though, I learned that kids and food is a common struggle, and I learned that talking about my struggles led to more authenticity and better relationships. And you know what? I learned and really began to believe and understand that we are ALL broken in some way or another. Most of the time I don’t question God’s decision to have ME raise children anymore. I think He knew exactly what He was doing. For the first time, I was truly brought to my knees and had to confess that I could not do something on my own. Trying harder didn’t work. Committing to doing better the next day did not work. Admitting that I was broken and needed help was the critical piece to getting better. I have gone to church my whole life, but there were and probably still are some things I didn’t truly “get” until I started this parenting journey. I now believe God wanted me to raise children because he wanted to raise ME as His child. He wanted me to have to come to Him for help. He gave me more than I could handle by myself. And it’s actually a good thing.
And you know what else I have learned? Kids are a little bit nuts too. They are fickle and change their minds a lot. (They also grow up and develop broader tastes and opinions.) I made a homemade chicken noodle soup a few years ago, and whenever I try a new recipe or adjust it in some way, I make notes on the recipe about it, so I will know for the next time. The chicken noodle soup has a clear note that says, “Joe hated it!” I made it again (several times) anyway, and, I kid you not, he now occasionally asks me to make it and says he “really likes it.” I tried a recipe for homemade baked chicken taquitos a while back, and I expected going in, that my chicken hater would not be a fan. Guess what? It is one of her all-time favorite meals. Sometimes I look around and ask myself, “Is this real life? Did that just happen? Am I actually in a play?” Kids grow and change their minds and learn new things. Grown-ups do too, thankfully.
So has mealtime improved? I like it a lot better now, but there are still days when it is best for everyone if I walk away to another room for a while. Things have improved as the kids have gotten a little older. Their tastes have changed and matured. I also started something a year or more ago, accidentally, that I think has really helped. I keep a little dry erase board in the kitchen that has a title of “Meal Wish List.” I have each kid’s name on it and then they are allowed to list two things that they would like me to make sometime. When I started this, I told the kids I was not promising to make the things on the list tomorrow or the next day or even in the next week, but that I would make them sometime in the near future. They could put any regular main dish food on the list that they wanted (no ice cream, candy, or cookies), but they could not duplicate items. As I made the items, we would cross them off the list, and when all of the items were crossed out, we would erase and make a new list. For the new list, they had to pick something different from the previous list. The kids love this. They are thrilled to fill the list with mostly packaged foods, but sometimes they will list something that I make. It seems to make the homemade meals go better because they know we are going to have one of their favorites soon. And, honestly, it has helped me too. There are days that I just don’t have time to make something entirely from scratch. I can look at the list, and somehow not be so harsh with myself if I decide to make the mac and cheese. We don’t eat that kind of stuff all the time, but we do have it sometimes. We are not going to die from a little too much sodium once in a while. Maybe someday we will be eating all organic whole foods that we grow in our own garden, but we are not there yet, and that is o.k.
[The last time Grandpa and Grandma were here it was time to update the list, so we got their input too. Notice that Grandma did not follow the rules for only listing main dish items; she listed caramel rolls and cookies. Being a grandma has its perks. :)]
A couple of other tips that I have found helpful:
- If possible, let the kids help with the cooking. Some days I just don’t have the patience for this, but when I do, the kids are so excited and proud to have helped with the meal. They seem more willing to eat things they helped make.
- If possible, let the kids make some of the choices. For example, I might ask them, “Would you rather have carrots or beans as our vegetable with supper?”
- Try to balance a meal with something that they do like paired with something that is new or not liked as well. For example, I know my one daughter hates chicken, but she loves rice, so I try to pair those things together. I also give her a minimal portion of the chicken and a bigger portion of the rice.
- If you don’t like the prepackaged meals yourself (I don’t), make them on a day when you know you have some really good leftovers. You happily eat the leftovers while they relish the
craparoni,I mean macaroni and cheese.
- It makes me feel better to add something healthy to the prepackaged meal. For example, my kids actually like their macaroni and cheese with some cooked broccoli florets added. I just add fresh or frozen to the pasta while it’s cooking. You may need to add more milk or butter to the finished product to account for the extra food. I also always add carrot slices to Ramen Soup and boil it for a little while before adding the noodles. Until recently, the kids thought that was how Ramen came. I also will serve the pizza with a side salad or baby carrots or something else healthy that I know they like.
- Some meals are just not going to go well no matter what you do. Accept it. Walk away to another room for a while. Complain to a friend. Try again tomorrow.
- Give yourself and your kids grace. I am writing this one as much for myself as anyone. We all make mistakes sometimes, and we all have weaknesses. Confess it, acknowledge it, ask for forgiveness if need be…
If you have any other suggestions for me or other parents for how to improve mealtime with kids, please add a comment below, so we can all learn from you. Thanks!
Here is a link to Christine’s Sopapilla Cheesecake recipe.