Sitting down to eat dinner together as a family was such a pivotal part of my childhood and so it was something the Beard and I wanted to incorporate into our family life as early as possible. But eating dinner with our two munchkins is something of a game of a chance, we spin that wheel and wonder what kind of dinner we are in store for.
The baby, who only started on solids recently, has taken to dinner time well. Perhaps a little too well. She likes her food. She gets angry if she doesn’t get fed quickly enough and you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry. Actually you probably would, I mean trying to keep up with the angry rage pickle’s irate demands for more chow while simultaneously trying to enjoy your own meal is not without challenges, particularly if the dinning option isn’t something you can easily eat one handed. Yet as she bangs her arms on the Ikea high chair table top and desperately lunges at anything she thinks might be a spoon it is satisfying to watch her enjoy her dinner.
This brings me to my other niblet, whose penchant for nibbling on our carefully prepared culinary creations seems to have neither rhyme nor reason. Dinnertimes with her are like taking the same handful of sand and throwing it up in the air and knowing that it will always fall slightly differently. We can prepare a meal for her one day that she cannot get enough of with frequent repetitions of ‘delicious’, ‘this is nice’ or ‘yummmmm’ that a few days later are ‘yuck’, the plate of food angrily pushed away from her and a flat out refusal to even lick the food, let alone put it in her mouth and swallow it.
Feeding your children seems like such a basic fulfilment of their needs that it makes it incredibly difficult when they won’t eat the meal you have prepared.
I may have already mentioned, and if I haven’t should have so that you can marvel at my magnamity, that the Beard generally goes out once a week to meet up with friends leaving me to contend with evenings, mealtimes and bedtimes solo. The first time he did this it was so bad I decided not to reply to a single one of his messages sent throughout the evening as I didn’t want to say anything that might ruin his evening. Until of course he came him and then I unleashed the trauma of that parenting endeavour.
This is probably a good time to point out that up until recently we have both been off work and able to tag team the parenting so that managing them all by myself for prolonged periods required some adjustment. And night times involve a fair amount of juggling as multiple parenting tasks must be ticked off before you can even think about sitting down and chilling out at the end of the evening. Have the children been fed, changed, read a bedtime story, pried out from underneath their baby sister’s jumperoo, arm wrestled into a sleeping bag and begged to stop taking their PJs off? Has the sacred Babbums (also known as a Paddington comforter been located) and are there batteries in the ‘moon star’ light projector? Are they asleep or is one screaming so shrilly the neighbours are looking up the numbers for animal control? And finally you can relax.
The first time was horrendous but after that these evenings got better. I would strategically put on an episode or two of whatever tv show is flavour of the month to give me time to prepare food and make sure I had all the changing gear, PJs and Babbums located before even commencing operation bedtime.
I got into a routine and was starting to feel a bit more relaxed about the whole thing. A week or so ago I made a daal. Something the little one used to love eating but hadn’t had for a while, coinciding with this new phase of whimsically deciding she will or will not eat.
We’d already had a few rocky mealtimes at this point and I had, as all sane people do, resorted to the internet for some advice on smoothing out supper.
One of the ideas we are trialling is letting her choose what she wants and help herself. So I made the daal and rice, toasted some pitta to go with it and laid out everything on the table in separate bowls.
We sat down to eat, I asked her if she wanted some rice, gave her one spoonful and then another as she asked for ‘more peas’ (which I think means more please, because if she actually wanted peas then I really failed her), same with the daal and I had to persuade her to just take a few pieces of pitta rather than the entire bowlful. I was confident this would go down well.
I didn’t want to make a fuss so started eating my food and simultaneously feeding the baby her bowl of mush. It took me a while to notice she wasn’t eating anything. I’d figured I was a shoe-in with the pitta and she would at least try that, but no. She was not feeling the pitta, the rice or the daal.
My cool started to warm up. I cleaned up the baby and found her some toys to play with before attempting to negotiate with the uncompliant child. ‘Just try the pitta’, ‘do you want some rice?’. Cue child kicking at her sister’s jumperoo and setting off the jaunty jungle tunes that come with it.
‘Can you stop that please and just sit down?’ My reserve has now fully melted and is moving towards boiling point.
Uninterested in my wheedling, she decides now is a good time to start grabbing the curtains and standing up and down on her chair (she recently decided she doesn’t want the high chair or booster seat and like suckers we accepted this).
We’ve been at the table for thirty minutes she hasn’t eaten anything and I’m trying not to panic but my cool is now steam that is collecting on the ceiling and I completely lose it. I end up screaming at her to sit down. At first she thinks this is funny but then there is a little lip quiver and she finally complies, repeating ‘sit down’ ‘sit down’ over and over again. I am trying not to bang my head on the table and the baby is trying to eat a spoon she has been left to play with after throwing all her other toys on the floor.
After forty five minutes I give up and get both children ready for an early night because I simply cannot take anymore.
After putting them to bed, venting to the Beard over whatsapp and googling around issues of toddler eating habits I calm down and can collect myself enough to go back into the little one’s bedroom. She’s still awake (she usually happily chats and sings away to herself after we put her to bed) and I calmly apologise to her for losing my temper ant not making dinnertime enjoyable for anyone. She doesn’t say anything but pats me on the head and asks me to sing her a song so I assume all is forgiven.
I know I didn’t handle the situation well so am already feeling guilty about that when a few hours later she throws up everywhere and I add another scoop of guilt to my now overflowing bowl as I realise that she may not have wanted to eat not because she was being difficult but because she wasn’t feeling well.
All in all, not a great night.
Dinnertimes have on the whole been better since then and I’m trying to not take it personally if she doesn’t want to eat something, offering her a simple alternative and no longer withholding dessert if she wont eat her mains. I’ve concluded if she misses the odd meal or only goes to bed with a yoghurt in her tummy she’s not going to starve and the less I stress about it the better it will be for everyone, but sometimes its hard to maintain the poker face as the evening slips away while she painfully picks her way around a piece of pizza she helped make.
We’ve also decided that one night a week, we’ll have dinner just the two of us once both girls are in bed so that we can each enjoy our food without the roulette of wondering whether this mealtime will be monstrous or marvellous.