We looked at some of the problems with scheduled meals, especially during the pandemic when life can tend to vacillate between tedious boredom and unbridled chaos. Yes, consistent meal times are quite important for a number of reasons. On a very foundational level, a meal schedule implies the absence of snacking, whose banishment is always desirable. Many families benefit from having at least one meal together, because, with luck, it can facilitate emotional bonding.
In 2007 a five-year study published by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association earned some attention. The stated objective was:
To describe meal patterns of young adults and determine if family meal frequency during adolescence is associated with diet quality, meal frequency, social eating, and meal structure during young adulthood.
The report concluded that teenagers who participated in family-style meals tended to take in more fruits and vegetables, and drink less soda than age-mates who ate on a different schedule. Also,
Surveys and food frequency questionnaires were completed by 946 female students and 764 male students in high school classrooms at Time 1 (1998-1999; mean age 15.9 years) and by mail at Time 2 (2003-2004; mean age 20.4 years).
Self-reporting is always dicey. The question itself might not be clear. Young people have been known to enjoy giving unfactual answers, to put one over on the System. Also, this study wasn’t done during a pandemic situation.
Also relevant to the pandemic, we touched on the question of parental attitudes and demeanor toward their children. Even the most well-intentioned parents sometimes fail.
Plain water, or cucumber water?
One elegant non-violent management tool, popularized by Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training, is to offer limited alternatives. Don’t ask, “what veggie do you want?” An open-ended question leads to a lot of wasted breath on both sides, and there is dinner to make. Instead, “You can have carrots. Or you can have spinach.”
A child with spirit will try the old “What if I want both?” gag. Look thoughtful, as if you are giving it full consideration. Pretend to be impressed and taken aback by the cleverness of it all. Reply, “Both? Well… I guess so…”
This friendliness cannot flourish if the parent has a sarcastic streak. Nobody needs a grownup to say disparaging stuff like “Today, you want plain water. But yesterday, you wanted cucumber water. What’s the matter, is it too strong for you?” By and large, smart-aleck responses when used on children are counterproductive.
Many parents feel the sudden impulse to discard any attempt at nuance, and just let their authoritarian streak take over. There is another way to look at it. If your friend had a bad habit you hoped to help them outgrow, wouldn’t you try to think of some halfway classy, dignified way? Why treat a child more rudely than you would treat a friend?
That basic impulse to treat a child like a fellow human being seems to underlie a large part of Dr. Gordon’s work. His ideas are endorsed by many other authorities, such as parenting educator Adriadne Brill:
Let’s say your child is doing something completely unacceptable. Provide her with two alternatives that are safe, respectful and acceptable, and let her choose what she will do from there. By receiving two choices, the child can keep some control over her decisions while still learning about boundaries.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Family Meals during Adolescence Are Associated with Higher Diet Quality and Healthful Meal Patterns during Young Adulthood,” ScienceDirect.com, September 2007
Source: “Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.),” GordonTraining.com, undated
Source: “12 alternatives to spanking and timeout,” AttachmentParenting.org, 10/02/14
Image by Robin Norwood/CC BY-SA 2.0