The Dinnertime Rubicon

This is how it happens, always. I will sit my toddler down at the table. Before her is a hot delicious meal. Perhaps tonight its Greek chicken pitas, or enchiladas with grilled corn. Maybe there is a cucumber, tomato and mozzarella salad accompanying seasoned chicken breasts and blueberries. One night, I toasted grapes and served them over homemade bread that was smeared with ricotta.

Dave and I were in heaven. My toddler looked like this.

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“I can’t,” she whined. The meal is always to hot, too spicy or she needs pants. Bottom line: She won’t eat.

And every time she declares she won’t, I look at her calmly and I say, “Either eat or starve.”  I am not going to let her rule the dinner table like a gastronomical dictator. I grew up the second born of eight kids, the presiding dinner time rule was “No eat, no ‘ert!” (“ert” was a younger sister’s take on dessert that made it’s way into the family lexicon). My mom didn’t make me a special dinner if I refused to eat goulash (and I did).  The lesson was a hard one, but one well learned. You eat the food in front of you and then you say “thank you” and then walk away knowing that you will never serve your children goulash as long as you live (I don’t).  I don’t want to raise a child unwilling to try new things, or who will turn up her nose at a dinner offered to her out of hospitality.  And right now, every dinner time, my desire for parenting is pitted against my daughter’s determination not to eat.

I’ve done what all the books say to do: introduce her to new foods and textures, make her a part of the cooking and shopping. I don’t make her special meals. She eats with us and if she won’t eat, there is no snack or dessert waiting to appease her empty stomach. This morning, after she threw her bowl of oatmeal to the floor (a meal she requested). I made her pick it up and put it in the sink.

“I want a cookie,” she said.

“No.”

“I so hungry.”

“You should have thought about that before you threw your food. Now, there is nothing to eat until lunch. Good luck.”

“I SO HUNGRY!”

“Tough.”

“I DON’T WANNA STARB!*”

At this point, I know enough to walk away. Reasoning with a toddler is like giving Iran the bomb. They could not know how to use them and we will all be fine. Or they could burn us all to the ground. It’s not something you want to risk. Walk away.

At dinner, I sometimes try to negotiate. I can’t help it. I’m a lawyer’s daughter. I’m always interested in raising the stakes. “Two more bites and you can have a cookie,” I wheedle. And most of the time it works. But then, sometimes it’s doesn’t. Sometimes she puts her head in her hands and starts sobbing about how it’s too hard to eat all of your strawberry waffles. “IT TOO HARD! I HAB A ROUGH DAY! I JUST WANT A NEW HOUSE!”

And maybe it would be easier just to give her cheese quesadillas with ketchup for every meal. But I won’t do it. I won’t do it for the same reason you shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists: Then they win and your rule of law crumbles and you are ruled by someone who thinks it’s okay to poop on the floor. I remember a friend telling me that when she was two she refused to eat anything that wasn’t orange. Otherwise, she would starve herself.  I told her, “I would have let you starve.”

As parents we all have our Rubicons. Those lines we will not cross and those battles we fight with all the moral fiber of our beings. I’ll let my kid go out of the house dressed like a monkey princess, but the dinner table is where I refuse to budge. So much of life happens over dinner–conversation, dating, hospitality, friendship, and family. In some cultures, sharing a meal is the equivalent of making someone a member of your family. I view food and mealtimes as earthly communion. It’s our time to reunite, to talk, to eat and if you don’t like it, you learn to smile, wash your bites down with your milk, and hope dessert is good.

And respecting mealtime is important. Not just for learning how to be part of a family, but because it’s one of the ways you are evaluated as a person. Want to go on a date? Inevitably you will share a meal. New job? You go to lunch with your co-workers. From interviews to friendships, most of life’s most important relationships are conducted through meals. Learning meal time manners now is a crucial part of becoming a human that others want to be around. Yes, right now, every meal time feels like trying to sneak across a mine field, in the dark, dressed like a clown. But it’s a battle I’m willing to fight. Plus, dessert tastes all the sweeter when eaten in silence after bedtime commences.

*I am assuming “starb” means starve. But she could be speaking in code. Lord only knows.

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