Mrs Adams gave me a sideways glance as I placed the bowls of salad in front of the kids and told them they could eat it with their fingers. My wife knows how much importance I place on table manners. I think she was seriously considering calling for a doctor because she had never heard me say anything like this before.
On top of this, I think Mrs Adams was slightly horrified at what I had placed in the salad. There was lettuce, sweetcorn, black olives and chopped up pieces of nectarine. A real mix of sweet and sour, fruit and vegetable.
By my own admission it was a slightly unconventional mix of foods and the laissez faire approach to table manners was unorthodox. The result? My kids ate every single piece of salad placed in front of them.
Admitting when you get things wrong
Sometimes when you are a parent, you have to be reflective and admit your mistakes. I am coming to terms with the fact my approach to table manners has been wrong all these years.
When I was growing up, huge importance was placed on table manners (as I explained in this blog post, written some years ago). Even if I say so myself, I had exemplary table manners from a very young age.
I was also an exceptionally fussy eater. Until the age of eight I barely touched fruit or vegetables. At most meals I would eat meat and potatoes and that was it. I was well into my teens before I ate a full and rounded diet.
A few weeks ago, I got thinking about my background and I began to wonder if my childhood awkwardness towards food could be explained by the focus placed on good table manners? Youngsters should be encouraged to enjoy food. Mealtimes should be fun and bonus points for any mum and dad who can make healthy food appealing. If you are constantly reminded about your table manners, you won’t necessarily make a connection between food and mealtimes being fun.
In fairness to the adults around me when I was growing up, I know this doesn’t explain everything. To give one example, I know I stopped eating mince pies at a young age after I bit into one and, unfortunately, bit into a very hard pip that hadn’t been removed from a piece of fruit. Even so, I don’t recall mealtimes being a relaxed affair.
A moment of realisation
There’s a wonderful book by a food blogger called Emily Leary called Get Your Kids to Eat Anything (You can read all about it here). In the book, Leary tells a story about one of her children, who was very young at the time. The child was dipping crisps in yogurt before eating them. Leary admitted her first reaction was horror, before she realised that her offspring was simply experimenting with food and that this was a natural curiosity.
My own children have never tried dipping crisps in yogurt. Before reading Leary’s book I would probably have stopped them, but when they try and mix crazy foods together these days, I don’t intervene.
All things considered, my kids aren’t particularly fussy eaters. Both kids have been very good at eating fruit and vegetables. The weak point has always been salad.
Chocolate salad anyone?
Let’s take a moment to consider what a salad is. It’s a random selection of foodstuffs. You can put anything in a salad: Lettuce (vegetable), tomato (fruit), feta cheese (dairy), pine nuts (proteins). . .whatever. A couple of years ago I paid a visit to a berry farm in Kent and was served a strawberry and feta cheese salad and it was amazing.
I had long felt slightly frustrated at my kids’ refusal to eat salad. I wondered if I had possibly passed on hang-ups from my own upbringing when the focus was more on how you ate, not what you ate.
Inspired by Leary’s approach, I did something totally random a few weeks ago. I made my kids a simple salad featuring lettuce, sweetcorn and…chunks of Cadbury’s chocolate. I also told them they could eat it with their fingers. The result was a clean salad bowl.
Okay, so I haven’t made a salad featuring chocolate since then (well, apart from the one I made for the above photograph), but the “eating salad with your fingers” rule has remained. Whenever salad is put in front of them, they can eat it with their hands. This has led to the bizarre situation where my kids have eaten, say, spaghetti bolognaise with a fork but used their fingers to shovel salad into their mouths.
It’s created a situation where they have tried new foods and new combinations of foods. I don’t think there’s been an occasion when they haven’t finished their salad.
Yeah, okay, if you happen to invite us around to your house we will tell our kids they must eat their salad with a fork. There is a time and a place to be more relaxed and that place is the family home.
On a deeper level, I think we all sometimes need to look at how we’re raising our kids and challenge ourselves. I still place huge importance on good table manners, but I have come to accept that maybe I should have been a bit more relaxed about them. To encourage a good diet, the focus should be on mealtimes being fun, not on having exemplary manners.
Where do you stand on this? Would you feed your kids a chocolate salad? Do you allow them to eat with their fingers? Let me know with a comment below.