Smile - Dinner is Ready
By Jesper Juul - English adaptation by Hayes van der Meer, FamilyLab ANZ
The food we eat is obviously important because of its nutritional content. In terms of our physical survival it does not really matter how we eat it, with whom or under which circumstances. We need food to live!
Shared meals can be an important psychological and emotional event within the family:
- Sharing family meals has an important psychological impact which cannot be achieved by serving take-away pizza or pie heated in the microwave.
- We know the psychological importance of food from the fear we experience when our baby does not eat.
- We also know the psychological importance when older children become ill. If they would just eat a little bit, we would immediately feel less helpless - because then we are able to do something.
Subconsciously, children will often use a meal as the means of announcing how they are coping. Their appetite changes more than usual no matter what is for dinner.
Shared meals are a concrete demonstration of how the individual is feeling and how the family as a whole is thriving. If either is in chaos there will be chaos around the table.
If there are hidden conflicts between two of the family members these will either become open conflicts or lay a depressed mood around the table.
Therefore, it is a good idea not to spend much effort on criticising and correcting. "Eat properly!", "We have to enjoy ourselves!" and similar comments are fruitless.
- Who has not eaten much the last few days? How are they going? Do they feel there is some friction between the adults who really need to talk? Do they feel neglected compared to the older brother or sister?
- Is anyone constantly negative & creating conflict? How might they feel at the moment? Are they just ringing alarm bells signalling that there are conflicts, which they hope someone will take responsibility for?
Dad in the Kitchen
Unfortunately, the gender role debate during the past 30 years has reduced cleaning, laundry and cooking to practical tasks. This is unfortunate because one of the most important aspects of these activities is that they create an "atmosphere". Many home-working housewives have rightly felt reduced to cleaning ladies or cooks. Often both adults work outside the home and children are therefore at an institution. This makes it difficult to create an atmosphere in the home.
It is important that these so-called practical tasks regain their recognition as atmosphere creating activities. Shopping and cooking are some of the key atmosphere creators.
Women are often more focussed on the atmosphere than men are. At times men get into situations where their contributions are on the shallow side. They will then lose the feeling of being valuable contributors to the family. It is not about ticking a list of duties or about an equal split of the tasks. Many people complete plenty of tasks without actually contributing to the atmosphere. It is more about how we carry them out.
I would therefore like to suggest that men become the ones who are primarily responsible for shopping and cooking. This is a unique opportunity to make a key contribution to the family atmosphere and its wellbeing, and thus to their own wellbeing. Why is this so?
- Because the kitchen is the "heart" of the home. It is also the "control room". It is here you will be able to get in contact with every family member while completing a meaningful function.
- Because it is a very practical, action-oriented (masculine) way to give the family something nutritious & useful. It is an almost stereotypical masculine way to deliver a typically feminine contribution.
- Because it is a way of practising how to assume responsibility for the community. Something that many men find it difficult.
What happens then if you as a man do not like shopping or cooking?
Well... do it anyway, and try doing it with the above in mind. Try to see the meaningfulness of responsibility instead of seeing a stressful duty. Cooking is one of the most effective "stress releasers" when done with love and care.
What happens if the others are not helping at all? It would be good if they did, but do not assign fixed duties. The more you enjoy being in the kitchen, the more it becomes a magnet, which others will feel attracted to. The assistance will come if you can create the atmosphere.
What happens if we both work and arrive home late? This is a difficult argument but consider what you want to do with the time you save by getting take-away or using the microwave. You may come to the conclusion that your time is better spent creating good food and good atmosphere.
The children do not care - do they? They do! They might not line up wanting to praise you. Nevertheless, you will be giving them something highly valuable. They will appreciate it when their time comes. Give it a go! Give yourself 12 months and you will end up agreeing with the man who wrote the book "Women out of the kitchen!"
Myths about Children & Food
Food and sharing a meal is very important. Perhaps this is why it is also one of the areas where we find many old prejudices and outdated rules. Some are so old and so meaningless that a thorough clean-up is well overdue. Experience has taught us that this is a very sensitive area for many parents.
Let us look at some of the most common statements: "You must eat up!" The responsibility for our own appetite and digestion is one of the things that is taken away from us at a very young age. Why is that? Well-nourished children are considered to be healthy children - who therefore must have good parents.
There is no limit to our imagination when our children are not hungry or not as hungry as we would like them to be. We are ready to try anything from: "Come on darling... just a little bite more!" to "Brooom... look here comes the airplane".
Later this changes to: "Eat up... otherwise you will never grow big and strong!", "You were the one who served up, so just get started!" or "No dessert until you have eaten what's on your plate!"
No wonder so many of us are overweight. Children try to protest but they end up pleasing their parents who have a need to feel like successful parents. Ultimately, the children's integrity is violated and they learn to be hungry when it is time to eat, they learn to eat well, eat up and eat things they do not like or maybe even make them feel sick.
Just so that the parents can enjoy their success as parents without realising how dearly the children will be paying for it later on. Some parents use "finance" as the argument: "It is too expensive to throw away food!" Yes, this is true but it can so easily be prevented.
Serve about half of what you think children can eat. When they begin to serve themselves, guide them gently and be aware that it takes some years to learn. It is with food as with so many other things: the less the adults interfere, the sooner the child learns to do the right thing.
Some will say: "This might be true, but what happens when they eat out? They will be frowned upon if they don't eat up!". Children can easily handle two different realities - one domestic and one social.
The more we can give them a feeling of being all right the way they are, the more confidence they get and the better they "behave" when they are out. This also works the other way. The more we criticise them at home, the more inappropriately they will behave when they are with strangers.
The appetites of children fluctuate as much and as frequently as adult's appetites do - and perhaps even more. Your child might sit and only nibble at whatever you serve for dinner. Then they might howl down two big bowls of corn flakes later that night. Try not to take it personally - it is not meant as a comment about your cooking. The alternative is not good: "You have to eat what is on the table! You don't live in a hotel!" It is tempting but we would not say that to friends.
Children have a well developed sense of what is good for them at different stages as they grow. We mistakenly think that they would like to eat corn flakes eight times a day for years on end if they were allowed. It is true that children might eat only a few things for a period of time but if they are not criticised for doing it these periods will rarely last for more than a few days.
No child has ever been permanently damaged - neither in their body or soul - from eating corn flakes, bananas, spaghetti or honey sandwiches for a month or two. As parents, we do not need to do much about it. We are in control of what we buy and put into the pantry. Use your energy on cooking food, which is varied, taste well and looks nice.
It is with food, as with so many other things in the family, there is no need for parents to go through too much trouble to constantly try to "educate" their children. It is far more effective - and more peaceful - if you quietly set a good example and focus on your own behaviour and thereby create a good atmosphere.
Remember, a good atmosphere also leaves room for meaningful conflicts. There is no point in saying or demanding: "This is the time we must to enjoy ourselves!" If you yourself eat "nicely", eat healthy and varied food, appreciate the chef's efforts and like to be with your family - then the children will most likely do the same.
Of course, every now and then your children must experiment:
- They must try what it is like to eat in front of the television
- They must try to survive on corn flakes, chips and/or burgers, etc
- They must try to eat very slowly, just like they must try to howl it all down in no time at all
Relax! Enjoy the food, each other and your children! There is not better way of educating them.
About Jesper Juul
Jesper Juul is a family therapist and the founder of FamilyLab International. He is a renowned author and sought-after international speaker. Jesper Juul's international best-seller and must-have book for parents and educators is now available in an Australian/New Zealand edition.