Christmas is a great time of year to focus on the importance of eating together as a family. The dinner table can be a place of deeply embodied connection no matter the season. However, it can also be a source of deep frustration and anxiety.
When my family began its foster and adoptive journey, I thought our skills as cooks would make feeding the children God brought into our home a surefire way to help them adapt to their new surroundings, giving them a sense of peace and contentment. What I had not expected was how much childhood trauma and separation would impact the way they’d behave around food:
- Speed-eating: Their plate would be clean before I had barely touched my food.
- Lack of satiety: Asking for more food, no matter how much they’d already eaten.
- Pickiness: Refusing to eat certain items, even if they’ve had no problem eating it at a previous meal.
These behaviors and others made eating together as a family awkward. The dinner table became an uncomfortable place. Rather than seeing the needs behind their behaviors, I felt a deep sense of anxiety and even resentment. Even so, I knew that having that time together was important.
Eating Together as a Family
Studies have shown an overwhelming number of benefits linked to eating meals together as a family. Here is just a sampling:
- Reduction in mental health disorders
- Reduced family stress
- Boosted child confidence
- Lower rates of childhood obesity and eating disorders
Honestly, most of us don’t need scientific research to tell us that mealtimes are a great way to build relationships and encourage health. However, there are other factors at play that might hinder us from taking full advantage of this daily opportunity for connection.
For many of us, the thought of eating with a child in our home can be a source of family stress rather than an antidote. It can just as easily turn into a place where a child’s confidence is inadvertently squashed instead of reinforced. This is particularly the case for parents and caregivers who have reached beyond their nuclear family – accepting children into their home through foster care or adoption.
How does something with so much potential benefit become a potential setback?
Dinner and Disconnect
Two factors make this a challenging situation for us to address as parents.
Disconnect Slows Development
Children who have experienced trauma, neglect, abuse, or separation from their family of origin experience setbacks in many areas of development, including the social and behavioral skills involved in eating.
These issues are sometimes, but not always, tied to food deprivation in their early experiences. This creates a disconnect between what we as parents see and the expectations we may have for them based on their chronological age (which is much easier to see than their developmental stage). Wanting a child to “act their age” and the frustration that comes from their inability to do so can lead to anxiety around the dinner table.
Disconnect Creates Anxiety
On the other hand, children from hard places are often living with their own chronic anxiety. Heightened levels of stress hormones within their nervous system inhibit them from social and behavioral advancement and receptiveness to correction. This can be especially difficult regarding food and eating as it is a deeply-embodied way for them to experience pleasure and safety.
We may see their unhealthy table habits as rude, disrespectful, or defiant; in their minds, they’re doing what their body is telling them to do to be safe. Furthermore, any attempt to redirect their actions could be viewed as a threat to their ability to self-soothe.
Minding How We Mind Their Manners
As a professional chef, eating alongside a child with eating issues has been a tremendous difficulty. For years, I could not help but see my kiddo’s table habits as offensive because I hadn’t taken the time to slow down and see the needs behind the behavior.
Your dinner table can be a place of peace and connection, even while trying to help your child work through their behaviors. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Choose Connection Over Correction
It’s natural to want to tamp down undesirable behaviors by responding with things like, “No,” “Stop,” or “Don’t do that.”
As much as we desire for these habits to change, creating an atmosphere of criticism, shame, or guilt only intensifies the feeling of anxiety the child is already feeling – the same anxiety at the root of the behaviors. Try to resist the urge to react with negativity and instead look for positive ways to encourage connection and help them feel safe.
Many of our children’s natural tendencies (food-related or otherwise) are carried out with little or no conscious effort on their part.
Asking them, “Hey, kiddo, why are you eating that way?” can break them loose of their lower-brain instincts and awaken their higher-brain thinking processes. This will allow them to begin to see the disconnect between their felt state (anxiety) and their true state (safety), which, over time, will shift the emotional tide within them.
The dinner table is a great place to use your eyes, face, and body to act as a mirror, showing them how to behave and demonstrating how happy they can feel when adopting healthier habits.
Have Them Say It
Another way to move them from body-based to brain-based activity is to have them speak the truth out loud. When they look stressed or anxious, ask them to say, “I’m fine. Everything is fine. I will always have everything I need.”
Dealing with deeply embodied issues like food and feeding takes a lot of patience and endurance on our part. It may even seem permissive or dismissive at first, but you will begin to see that the empathy and trust involved in eating together as a family can rewire their brain and reshape their attitudes to live healthier, happier lives both at the table and elsewhere.
Speaking of Shaping…
One way to encourage joy and laughter around the kitchen table is by making Christmas cookies together as a family. They’re also an excellent method for getting kiddos involved in the kitchen, building a sense of peace and trust that can only come about through the shared act of cooking and eating together.
I happen to love gingerbread cookies. One of the simplest ways to make them is by doctoring up a package of Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough like this:
Simple Gingerbread Cookies
- 1 package (16.5 oz) Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough (or similar)
- ½ c all-purpose flour
- 2 T molasses
- 1 t ground cinnamon
- 1 t dried ground ginger
- ½ t ground allspice
- ¼ t ground cloves
- Extra flour for dusting work surface
- Assorted decorations, such as icing, spice drops, sprinkles, and various candies
- Remove cookie dough from the package into a mixing bowl, breaking it apart. Add the rest of the ingredients and combine using a spatula or your hands.
- Split the dough in half and form into two balls. Flatten each ball and wrap them separately in plastic film wrap. Place in the refrigerator to chill for at least 2 hours before moving on to the next step.
- Place the first piece of chilled dough onto a floured work surface and roll with a rolling pin until about ¼” thick. Use cookie cutters to cut out the shapes you like and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet, leaving about 2” of space between cookies. Do this for the remaining dough, reforming it and rolling it out again as needed.
- Place cookie sheets in an oven preheated to 375°F and bake until set and lightly browned, around 7-9 minutes.
- Allow the cookies to set up on the tray for 3-5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack to cool the rest of the way. Allow about 20 minutes before decorating.
- Decorate and enjoy.
A Final Note on Food-Related Issues
This article is not an attempt to address serious food or eating disorders. If you are worried that a child is not getting the nutrition they need to stay safe and healthy, please consider consulting a dietician, nutritionist, or other trained professional. These tips and advice may be incorporated into a holistic strategy to deal with such concerns but should not be used as a substitute for medical advice.