We said grace. My 7-year old turned on one of my jazz records before bopping his way back to the dinner table to join us for our meal. A gentle vibraphone melody filled the house. The edges of our shiny white plates atop the worn hand-me-down dining table, framed grilled pork, a spinach salad, and some grilled pears.
As usual, we asked each other about the best and worst parts of our day. The conversation became incredibly silly. The 7-year-old claimed he’d seen a shark in the toilet at school (a lemon shark, to be exact). He hadn’t, but my 5-year-old, following suit, claimed his bottom had been bitten off by a toilet shark that day too. I reminded him that he’d have trouble sitting if that were true.
The 7-year-old took a bite of pork. My wife and I shot each other an excited glance across the table.
“What kind of material would you use if you had to have a replacement butt?” I asked the table.
“Wood,” said the 5-year-old decisively. “With a splinter sticking out.”
“Did you know there was a president who had wooden teeth?” I asked.
“Was it Donald Trump?” queried the 7-year-old, taking another cube of pork into his mouth.
My wife laughed. “I think his hair is fake, but his teeth are real,” she said.
The 7-year-old giggled and chewed. It was all I could do to keep from springing from my chair and dancing a jig around the table in relief and excitement because the kid was eating. He was eating without whining. He was eating without us pleading for him to “just try it.” We weren’t watching him psych himself out and gag and cry while we watched with angry, frustrated expressions.
In fact, we hadn’t cajoled about eating for the last five days. We had not threatened. We had not made deals or bribes. We had not even made a suggestion.
After years of interviewing nutritionists about picky eaters, I’d finally decided to follow the one consistent piece of advice I’d heard from each and every one: “Put a healthy dinner on the table and then enjoy your family.”
We had not, particularly, been enjoying each other at the dinner table over the last two years since mandating nightly family dinners. And that seemed strange to me considering all of the amazing benefits eating together was supposed to have on my kids. Research by, well, everyone suggested family dinners could help my boys improve their grades, become more empathetic, and maybe even stay off the pipe.
But dinner was not always a positive time — mostly because of the 7-year-old’s abysmal eating habits and our reaction to them. He worried my wife and I. We stressed out about his nutritional intake. He’d eat peppers, carrots, and cucumbers. He’d eat anything breaded and baked, but when we asked him to eat perfectly delicious healthy meals, he’d literally turn up his nose and send us into a rage.
The bad attitudes were infectious. Even our adventurous-eating 5-year-old would become glum and unruly. Family dinners felt like a bleak culinary battleground. And that was exactly the problem. I’d been told so many times that parents just need to back off and make dinner a time to enjoy one another. Nutritionist after nutritionist told me that being a hard-liner could make picky eating worse and destroy the magic properties of the family meal.
So we backed off. We just stopped saying anything. And it totally shocked the kid.
“What’s this? I’m not going to eat it,” he said on the first day. It was stew. My wife and I shrugged.
“Whatever, dude,” I said, changing the subject to ask about favorite mammals. He barely touched a thing. My wife and I took deep breaths and bit the insides of our cheeks. We reminded each our silence was for the better.
The next day he protested again. Stir-fry. We told him he didn’t have to eat anything and struck up a 20-questions style guessing game. I learned that he knows a great deal about platypuses.
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The next day was steak. He didn’t protest and ate most of what was on his plate while we giggled about an imaginative story his brother was telling. There was hope. But not much. The kid always ate steak.
But when he didn’t protest again at the next dinner, it was clear something was shifting. He absently nibbled as we talked. It was unbreaded chicken. Sure he wasn’t cookie-monstering his dinner down, but in just a few short days, the tone of our dinners had taken a dramatic turn. It was fun. We left the table with smiles, easing into our evening routine without frayed nerves.
By the time the pork hit the plate, and then his mouth, I truly felt like I was sitting with a different family. The 7-year-old was eating. My wife and I were smiling. The 5-year-old was feeling heard and involved. And the only trouble I had was in trying to figure out why saying nothing at all was somehow harder than saying all the wrong things.
Clearly, silence takes more energy than speaking when it comes to the health and well-being of a child. After all, as a parent, you are told that you are ultimately responsible for whether or not the kid not only survives but thrives. And a child who doesn’t eat stirs up a primal, protective, parenting instinct: if the child won’t eat, they will die. You must make them eat.
But that’s not a good enough reason for the pleading and deal making. If all a parent wanted their kid to do was survive, then why not simply give them nuggets and fries every day, forever and ever, amen? Because doing would defy logic. It would be unhealthy. But so is having contentious meals or displaying resentment towards your kids. And there’s no real advantage to it. The staredown sucks for everyone.
Also, kids are better at staying alive than we give them credit for. If they are hungry, they will eat. If they are happy, well, everything just gets easier.