Freed From Food Fights

I was the world’s pickiest eater.

For years, all I wanted was cereal, pasta, bread, cake, muffins, croissants… Anything bready, and I wanted it. Even better if it was bready AND sweet.

My mother watched in despair (and amazement) as I somehow managed to grow without seeming to eat a single vegetable. That all changed, however, when I went to boarding school at age 14.

Faced with how gross the food was at school, I suddenly realized how good I had had it at home. I returned after my first semester away and would eat anything. (Or, at least almost anything.)

I am happy to report that I now enjoy a varied and balanced diet (though I still have a weak spot for all things bread…).

What Goes Around…

I can only imagine my mother’s smug reaction to the fact that the Bear (our second son) is just such another picky eater.

He would forgo all vegetables, and even most fruit if he could. Like his mother before him, it seems he would happily live on bread alone.

Following my mother’s approach with me, we instituted a “one bite of everything” rule. That has always worked remarkably well for the Bug, and we figured that way at least the Bear would get the occasional vegetable.

Oh, how wrong we were!

What works for one child, does not always work for another.

Dinnertime became a battle of wills. At first, hearing what was for dinner would make him cry. Eventually, just hearing the call of, “Dinner time!” was enough to set off tears.

It was a battle to get him to the table. It was a battle to get him to eat even one bite of each thing.

Finally, it came down to his choice: calm down and take one bite of everything, or go to bed. He would usually calm down and sniffle through the meal, but it made dinner time (and even lunchtime) stressful and unpleasant.

The Breaking Point

Things finally came to a head one evening. The Bear had been particularly threenager-ish all day, and when I called down to the playroom: “Dinner time!” a howl emerged from the basement.

The wailing mounted the stairs and burst forth through the basement door as his tear-streaked face came into view. We wrestled him to the bathroom to wash his hands, and got him to his chair.

When we were finally gathered at the table, he was given his usual choice: calm down and take one bite of everything, or go to bed.

He threw down his fork and screamed.

I snapped.

I jumped up from my chair, swiftly (but calmly) rounded the table, scooped him up and whisked him upstairs. I bathed him (by which time he had calmed down), got him ready, read him his story and put him to bed.

The following morning, what he hadn’t eaten at dinner was on his breakfast plate.

There were a few quiet tears, but he had understood the point and quickly took one bite of each before having his breakfast.

Then, Relief Came

I was fed up, and in my frustration I vented on a Facebook group. I got lots of sympathy, but then, relief. A friend shared with me the Ellyn Satter Institute Division of Responsibility in Feeding.

This. Was. A. Game. Changer.

The basic premise is this: parents are responsible for what, when and where to eat. Children are responsible for whether and how much to eat.

From the Ellyn Satter Institute website

Important to the process is establishing regular meal and snack times, and not letting children eat between meals.

Luckily, we’ve tended to do this anyway: we sit down together at table to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Snack times are mid-morning and mid-afternoon. I have a pet peeve about crumbs on furniture, so we’ve never let the kids eat anywhere but sitting at the table. That’s a firm family rule.

With that already established, putting this into practice was relatively easy. Chico and I talked about it, read through the materials on the website, and agreed to give it a try. Anything had to be better than what we were dealing with now.

Freed From Food Fights

What a relief to be freed from the responsibility of making my child eat!

The first time we sat down to dinner after reading about the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, we made a quick announcement:

“Boys, Mamá and Papá will give you food at mealtimes. We’ll decide what to give you and when. But you guys will decide whether you want to eat it, and how much you eat. All we want is for us to sit together and have a nice time as a family.”

There was a little complaining at first, but as soon as they realized they could choose to NOT eat certain things, the fussing stopped. We try to make sure there’s at least something on the table that they’ll like, but we don’t cater exclusively to their tastes, or make a separate meal for them.

Oftentimes, the Bear has nothing more than a glass of milk and a slice of buttered bread for dinner. It’s hard to take. But we’re working on trusting him to eat as much as he needs to, and on the whole mealtimes have been SO MUCH BETTER.

Pleasant Mealtimes

Now, we spend our mealtimes talking and laughing. Instead of nagging and arguing, we’re listening and chatting. We’ll talk about our days, talk about our plans for the days ahead, and just enjoy time together.

It’s just so freeing. Old habits die hard, and I do sometimes slip back into the occasional nag. But Chico and I encourage each other, and it’s so much better than it was.

According to the Ellyn Satter Institute, following this method will teach children by example how to eat a variety of foods. She does say it can take years, and sometimes it feels like it will never happen for our Bear.

But we must have faith and persevere. As long as mealtimes are a joyful time that we spend together, we’ve got to be doing something right.


Culture Shock

As I wrote recently, I’ve been enjoying some serious brain candy reading these days.

I’ve read several books in Jasmine Guillory’s Wedding Date series. These books aren’t quite romance novels, but nearly. They’re rom-coms!

Girl meets boy, they fall for each other, their relationship moves along swimmingly until there’s some kind of conflict or crisis that splits them apart. But soon they realize they were made for each other and make it up in a funny/romantic way. Happy endings all around!

From Here But Not From Here

Guillory is from California, and all of the books I’ve read have been set in L.A. or in the Bay Area.

I live on the east coast of the U.S., and while it’s the same USA, there are a lot of cultural differences between east and west, north and south in this country.

Also, though I am American, I have lived the vast majority of my life outside of the United States. My husband is European, I myself and a dual citizen.

So while I’m here, I never feel really from here.

The Biggest Culture Shock

The biggest element of culture shock that has hit me since being here, and since reading these books, is all about…


Food is a big part of Guillory’s novels. Of course it is! Her characters are going on dates, which most often involve eating together.

But what strikes me as so strange is WHAT and WHERE they eat. And all the snacks!

First Off: What.

Donuts. Pastries. Pizza. Tacos. In-N-Out (a California thing, I think?).

Even the one character I’ve encountered who likes to cook (Carlos in The Proposal) mostly eats takeout.

Granted, Guillory’s characters are busy 30-something-year-old professionals. They’re career-driven doctors and lawyers. They start off single in the books, living in their own flats or houses.

When I was a single young professional, I didn’t do much cooking for myself, either. It’s no fun to cook for one!

But damn. Reading these books and seeing what they eat, I wonder how her characters stay so trim in their mid-thirties.

Secondly: Where.

Here’s a list of where Guillory’s characters eat:

  1. On the couch
  2. In the car
  3. At their desks
  4. In bed
  5. In a restaurant

Taking most of their meals on the couch?? This, to me, was the biggest culture shock. In all three books I’ve read, she’s specifically said that someone or other doesn’t even own a dining table.

Even when I lived in a tiny one-room studio flat, I had a dining table. Every meal that I ate at home, I sat down to eat it at the table.

Not Just In Books

And this has been a general theme in meeting new people and going into other people’s homes in the States (something we haven’t done since February, mind you…).

Dining tables are covered with stuff. They’re clearly not where the family eats.

I remember living with a college professor and her family one summer during my undergraduate studies, and I was deeply surprised to learn that their family of three rarely sat down for a meal together.

Mostly, they ate take-out on the couch.

I thought this was just a weird quirk of that one family, but I have since encountered it so many other places.

And What is With the Snacks??

Reading Guillory, I’ve learned about “bag snacks” (snacks carried in one’s purse), “desk snacks” (snacks stored in one’s desk drawers) and “car snacks” (presumably, snacks stored in… cars).

Elsewhere, especially among families with kids, I’ve noticed that snacking is a HUGE thing in the States.

Parents on the playground are always armed with food distractions like Goldfish, cookies, crackers, gummies and more.

Don’t get me wrong: we eat two snacks a day. One mid-morning and one mid-afternoon. Sometimes our snacks are on the go, like at the park or the playground. But as soon as it’s time to eat, my boys are washing (or wiping) their hands, they’re sitting down and they’re staying on their butts until their food is done, or they’re full. This, I’ve learned, is unusual (“How do you get them to sit still and eat?” one mom asked me.)

Food as an Event

Really, the key thing that brought on culture shock for me was the fact that eating in this country doesn’t seem to be much of an event.

Growing up in Switzerland (with American parents, mind you!), eating was An Event.

For all meals (and most snacks, too!), my family would sit down together. They happened at about the same time each day, and each meal had a clear beginning and end.

Dinner, especially, would begin with grace and end with asking, “May I please be excused?” and carrying our plates to the kitchen sink.

The act of sitting down to eat together was so important to my parents, that I still remember the year we didn’t take any summer vacation to the States. It was because that year, Mom and Dad had paid for a nice dining room table with 8 chairs and a matching sideboard.

Sticking With It

Even though I’m learning that this is not how many Americans approach eating, I’m sticking with it.

Maybe it’s because I absolutely hate the feeling of crumbs on a couch or on a bed, but I will NOT STAND for food anywhere but on the table.

It’s also how Chico grew up, and to us, it’s a natural thing for our family to gather together to eat.

The Beauty of Culture…

…Is that you can take it anywhere.

And the beauty of the United States is that there are so many intersecting cultures here that you can go from one house to another in a neighborhood and experience something of culture shock.

Who knows? Maybe when the pandemic is over and we actually have people over to our house again, someone will experience culture shock in our house.