Finding balance with food, movement, and community for my (dairy-free) family.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Six Ways Eating on a Schedule has Improved Our Lives

Reading French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billion inspired me to give my family a French food-attitude makeover.   We're doing this in baby steps, but the first change I made--immediately after finishing the book--was to end grazing in favor of eating meals together at a set time.   

So what have I noticed since we made this change?

Eat like the French:  On a Schedule
Photo by stockerre

Six Ways Eating on a Schedule has Improved Our Lives

1)  Increased hunger at meal times:  When my kids don't graze they are more likely to be hungry at meal time.  Try as I might to make real-food snacks, the reality is that food offered at meal times almost always offers more nutrient-density and balance than snack foods.

2)  Increased willingness to try foods:  hunger is the best seasoning, yes?  Eating on a routine makes it more likely that my kids come to the table hungry, making even new (or green) foods look more appealing.

3)  Saving mom's sanity:  We'd fallen into a weird pattern of one child asking for an early lunch.  Just as I was cleaning up from that, another child would be hungry for lunch.  Eventually I'd eat lunch, and just as I was clearing it all up, the first child would come around requesting a snack.  Aiyiyi!  Crazy-making.  With everyone eating at a set time, I reclaim my afternoons.

4)  Snack time fun:  Every day, around 3:30 or 4:00, at least one of my children was hungry.  Every day I was surprised and irritated.  It felt like I'd just cleaned up from lunch and was starting to think about dinner prep and making a snack was an unwelcome interruption.  Now we've adopted the French models of 3 meals + 1 snack for kids.  I now plan for an afternoon snack that we all enjoy together.   It has created an opportunity to make some playful foods without having them displace a meal.

5)  Less emotional eating:  My daughter tends to ask for food out of boredom.  Her siblings see this and out of competition, fearing she's getting something and they are missing out, ask for food as well.  This meant more time in the kitchen for me, often wasted food, and was laying the groundwork for an unhealthy relationship with food.  Now when whiny children say, "I'm hungry . . ." instead of dropping everything to cater to them, I cheerfully reply:  "That's great.  You'll really enjoy our next meal.  We'll be eating at [insert time]."

6)  The opportunity to make meals an event:  This is more of a hope than a reality at this point, but when everyone sits down to savor the same food, together, appropriately hungry having waited, it creates a communal event.  A moment to be shared.  A bonding experience.  Instead of eating being just about self-gratification and personal nourishment, it is something grander--a family experience bigger than the individual.

Why eat on a Schedule?

This shift to eating on a schedule stems from three of the French Food Rules outlined in the book:

French Food Rule #3:
 Parents schedule meals and menus.  Kids eat what adults eat:  no substitutes and no short-order cooking.

French Food Rule #7:  
Limit snacks, ideally one per day, and not within one hour of meals.  In between meals it's okay to feel hungry.  At meals, eat until you're satisfied rather than full.

French Food Rule #2 
 Avoid emotional eating.  Food is not a pacifier, a distraction, a toy, a bribe, a reward, or a substitute for discipline. 

Our Family Baggage:

The way our family has dealt with food in the past has been reactionary to food issues my husband and I have.  

My Husband's Baggage:  
My husband's parents took an authoritarian approach.  They were proponents of the clean plate club, insisting that he eat every morsel on his plate, over-riding his internal hunger cues.  Unfinished food was saved and served at subsequent meals until it was gone.  It was controlling and left him with a tendency to overeat and abuse food.  

Not wanting that for our kids, we did a pendulum swing in the other direction, catering to their every eating whim in an effort to help them honor their hunger and satiety cues.  Our approach had really flopped at times.( . . .like when Big Brother lived on crackers for several months in his third year.  Solution:  stop buying crackers).  

And even at the best of times our child-centered approach was contributing to making me a bit crazy in the kitchen.   Preparing real food is time consuming.  Preparing real food on demand to satisfy the whims of three young children . . . crazy making.  

My Baggage:    

In my adult life, I've struggled terribly with emotional eating.   By allowing my kids a lot of choice in their eating, I was hoping to spare them from this.  It wasn't working out that way though.  Allowing them so much choice was also creating the opportunity for them to ask for food for emotional reasons (boredom and comfort topping the list).  

Taking the Reins:  

The French approach takes a balanced authoritative approach (read more about the difference between authoritative and authoritarian parenting here).  Parents take the lead, in a gentle, but firm and respectful way.

As Americans we place such a value on autonomy that my tendency was to give my children too many choices when it came to food.  Establishing this schedule has simplified life for all of us.  

How has your relationship with food shaped your mealtime parenting decisions?

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