Friday, April 10, 2015

Dinner Table Rules

A teammate asked a pretty interesting question about rules at the dinner table and how they could contribute to obesity. So instead of writing a dissertation on Facebook that would hijack the thread, I thought I'd write one here.

My Childhood

For me, I had two different sets rules at the dinner table because I grew up with divorced parents. When I was with my father, the rules weren't really clearly stated that I can remember other than I had to eat my vegetables. the worst for me was broccoli so I always covered it cheese to hide the flavor. But corn, green beans, and even peas were okay. I won't say I loved them, other than maybe creamed corn, but they were okay.

The unwritten rules were pretty simple though. First, you either ate what he fixed or found something on your own to eat. I rarely did this because I usually liked what he ate. When I didn't, I'd eat a bowl of cereal. The other unwritten rule was to finish what was on my plate. It wasn't really ground into me but there was an expectation to not waste food. So I'd finish what was on my plate. There was a third rule but that was less about eating and more about what we ate. And it wasn't really a rule as much as a trend. We'd almost always have meat, potatoes, and vegetables. Every dinner was a combo of those three in some form or fashion.

At my mother's, the rules were similar but slightly different. I was still expected to eat my vegetables and I was expected to eat what she made or find something on my own. Again, neither of these rules really bothered me much unless we had Brussels sprouts or lima beans or asparagus. But those were rare events and with enough butter and salt, you can hide the flavor of anything. I vaguely recall having the same rule about eating everything on your plate but I'm not positive. I do know there was a big rule about not wasting food. This was especially the case when I went back for a second helping and couldn't finish it. I think I got chewed out a few times for taking too much food. As I got older, there was a new rule put into place that I couldn't get a second helping of anything until everyone else at the table was done eating. This was mostly because I'd eat everything in sight if I was allowed, leaving nothing for my mother or step father.

So fairly basic rules and nothing that seemed out of the ordinary when I was a kid or even now when I'm an adult. But let's get into some extra tidbits that may skew your views a bit.

I've been allergic to poultry and nuts for as long as I can remember. My allergy to gourds came later in life. As a kid, I can remember being forced to eat turkey by my step father. Maybe it was chicken but I'm pretty sure it was turkey. He didn't believe me that I was allergic. Even after I ate it and barfed in the bathroom toilet. I can remember it now, crying at the dinner table on Downs Avenue in Charlotte, NC as I'm eating poultry and being harassed and teased about being a baby and that I wasn't really allergic to it. I recall there was some grumbling about me faking it when I was barfing but I think he eventually accepted the fact that I was indeed allergic to bird meat.

He also teased me when I wanted to eat hamburgers. Something about it was easier to chew and I should be eating real meat like a real man. I'm not really sure what he was getting at but I don't remember it impacting what I ate because, well, hamburgers were delicious.

As a kid that was allergic to nuts and chicken, I had to be slightly picky in what I ate to avoid an allergic reaction. Back in the days of yore when I was a kid (the 1980s), food wasn't labeled as well as it is now but I managed just fine. I knew what I could eat and what I couldn't and I just went on about my merry way. It wasn't until I got older that allergic reactions became more common place. But as a kid, I think that potential for an allergic reaction hanging over my head kept me from trying certain foods and that contributed to me being a picky eater.

But I don't think that's the biggest reason I grew into a picky eater. I think that resides in the nature of who we are and what we like. We change over time. Those Brussels sprouts I hated as a kid I love today. Lima beans, not so much. But I don't think being a picky eater is necessarily a bad thing, as long as it's done in moderation and there's room to grow new tastes over time.

My Kids

Both of my kids have food allergies (nuts and milk) and we've adapted fairly well to them. But they've developed into picky eaters. A little too picky for me but I'm dealing with it. And our rules at the dinner table could use some adjusting I'm sure.

Our latest rule is that we don't watch TV or phones during dinner. Except for Friday nights when we watch The Goldbergs. Or when I just feel like watching TV. But it helps us talk as a family and keep us in touch with each other. We don't adhere to this rule 100% of the time and some people (ahem) still like to surf Facebook but we do pretty good. This rule was my idea because I wanted to actually listen to the kids and learn about their day. And I wanted to involve everyone so we felt more like a family. Plus, when I was a kid, I ate dinner while watching TV with my Dad so we didn't talk much. I think that was a big contributing factor in my zombie-eating.

We also have a rule that's similar to mine as a kid where if you don't like what's been cooked, you're on your own. My wife has used the line "clear your plate" or something similar but I've tried to transition that to "if you're full, stop eating." This is mostly because I'm afraid that they will learn to clear their plate, even when they're full, thus contributing to bad eating habits.

But I do get on them about wasting food. I hate to waste food and I think that's partly because I know food isn't cheap and partly because my parents taught me to not waste my food. Which I'm sure they learned from their parents who lived through the Depression. Anyway, I hate wasting food so eating leftovers is always an option in our house (assuming there's any left).

But the picky eaters in both of them has led me to notice some trends. First, they're both under-weight. They're still trending up normally but they're both smaller than average but they're both proportionally the right size (in other words, they aren't obese). With my son, his medication decreases his appetite so it's always a chore to get him to eat. So much of a chore, that for years now we don't really care about what he eats as long as he eats. I can remember a few times we garnered dirty looks from other people when we'd go out to eat and he'd be eating Oreos and potato chips while the rest of us ate regular food. But with his food allergies and picky palate, that's the only thing he'd eat. And in the interest of not starving our child, we were fine with that. Would I like him to eat vegetables? Or grilled chicken? Or something semi-healthy? Sure. But getting food that's safe for him isn't easy. Just come out to dinner with us a few times and you'll find out.

As for my daughter, I think she's going to be a vegetarian by the time she's in high school. She doesn't like ground meat, rarely likes beef, and only sometimes like pork. She does love bacon but who doesn't?! She's slightly less picky in her eating and at least likes ketchup, the greatest invention ever when you need to cover up how horrible something tastes.

My Parents

As I said, my parents were pretty cool from what I remember as a kid. At least when it came to rules at the dinner table. I don't remember many stories from them about their childhood but I know my dad grew up on a farm with three other brothers and while his eating habits as a kid were probably not all that healthy, he did work a lot. In other words, when you're slopping hogs and milking cows, it's not that big of a deal if you eat some country fried steak.

My mother on the other hand, I know she had some issues with food as a kid. In fact I remember her telling my son that he shouldn't worry about somebody taking his food. And that was a big deal to her because she was the youngest of eight and they often didn't have enough food for everyone. It wasn't until I grew up that I learned that when I was a kid she had a hard time putting food on the table for me.

Bottom Line

I don't know if there is a bottom line. I don't know if the rules you grow up by define who you are as an eater. I do feel that it comes down to the basic concept taught in psychology classes; nurture vs. nature. We are all individual people that have no, or limited, control over certain things. Take food allergies. Despite what some the dumbass Food Babe thinks, allergies are real and can't be controlled in some cases. Yes, there's been some great advances but many of them are based on simply building a tolerance. Can you say iocaine powder?

So we have no (or limited) control over some things but we do have (or have some) control over other things. Going back for a second helping? Pigging out on a third late-night snack? These are things that we should be able to control. But yet again I'm going to sit on the fence because I think for some people, they have no control. I think for some people it's more in line with depression or an addiction. For me, it's more about being mindless when I eat. So that nurture part has trained me that when I watch TV, I should be eating. Just like when I was a kid. That click and hum from the TV is kind of like Pavlov ringing the dinner bell for me.

In the end, I think because we're individuals, we're all going to address the issue differently. What works for me, may not work for you and vice versa. Regardless of what the solution is, I do think we should give it a try. After all, what do we have to lose? Unless you tell me to eat a handful of nuts as a snack. Then I've got something to lose.

1 comment:

Lauren said...

Super interesting Neil!! I LOVE lima beans (& all beans). My husband HATES lima beans.

Cherish your family eating together -- that is a wonderful thing. We rarely eat together. I work nights and most often miss dinner with the family :( I text hubby from work: "how did dinner go?"

Some of our food rules:
1) No snacks after dessert
2) You do not get dessert every night
3) You can have fruits or veggies whenever you want, without asking.
4) You will be praised to the high heaven and probably be given something special if you try a new food (because 2 out of 3 of my children are picky beyond belief! We once had to bribe my oldest to taste fudge. Fudge!!)

I kinda think that food rules in my youth did help define me. My parents said I had to finish EVERYTHING (yes, I recall smashing broccoli or spinach into a napkin and then tossing it beneath the table). To this day, I find it extremely difficult not to finish EVERYTHING on my plate. It's ridiculous really. I often force myself to leave a couple things just to see if I can do it. It's like it's the last damn french-fry in the world, and if I throw it away, I'm never going to have another one again. :( hehe