Slow food, redefined

Trying not to rush the family meal

November 4, 2011

Mealtime traditions are important in our family: letting our son help with the food prep, saying grace before we eat, discussing how our day went.

Unfortunately, the one dinnertime habit my wife and I find ourselves keeping the most religiously is that of prodding our four-year-old throughout the meal with variations of “Keep eating,” “Take another bite,” and “Hurry up.”

Sometimes I think we could have grown another stalk of broccoli in the time it takes our son to finish his vegetables. But our incessant chirping is tiresome, certainly for us and likely for him as well.

And today, as I was trying to speed him up with threats of no lollipop after lunch before finally caving to his dubious claim that he was full, it occurred to me that in my attempts to keep lunch moving, I may have actually been inadvertently Americanizing (in a bad way) his eating habits.

We Americans are notorious — and in some ways unique — for wanting everything about our food consumption to be fast. At the supermarket, we want to be in and out. If we cook at home, our recipe had better take 30 minutes or less. If not, we’re headed to the drive-thru for our 30-second meal-in-a-bag. If — not when, but if — we sit down to eat, it’s often in front of a screen or on a strict time schedule.

It’s not always easy to sit down with the kids and enjoy a meal.

In far too many American homes, the fellowship traditionally enjoyed at mealtimes has been replaced by a utilitarian, get-on-to-the-next-thing mindset. In fact, a study released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development this spring revealed that the average American spends just 74 minutes per day eating, compared to more than double that in developed countries like France and Turkey.

In our family, we do cook a good number of our meals from scratch, make an effort to sit around the table together to dine, and try to have actual conversations while eating. We buy locally grown food when we can and practice a number of “slow food” principles: purchasing locally grown food when we can, patronizing farmers’ markets, belonging to a local CSA, and generally attempting to enjoy both the taste of the foods we eat and the experience of eating them.

But I’m afraid we’ve still fallen into the speed-eating trap, and we’re bringing our four-year-old along for the ride. It’s a shame, too, since we often end up cutting short his spontaneous songs or stories in an effort to move the meal along. And for what? So we can accomplish another task? So we can stick to a schedule? What happened to appreciating the entire mealtime process, savoring each bite and each other along the way?

Meals with kids, I’m learning, should be slower. Here are a few reasons why.

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  1. Uninterrupted time as a family. Mealtimes are nothing if not focused blocks of family time. If statistical and anecdotal evidence are any indication most American families could use a whole lot more of this. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, adults living in households where the youngest child is between six and 17 years old spend just 47 minutes per day providing primary care – such as feeding or talking to a child – to household children.) And while the platitude of “quality, not quantity” rings of truthiness, it’s also not completely correct. Our kids and partners need quantitatively more time with us. The meal is a great place for this to happen.
  2. We eat better. While Americans spend less time and money cooking and eating food than the rest of the world, we’re somehow still fatter; the United States ranks highest among developed countries in obesity. When we prioritize a slower, more deliberate mealtime, we are more likely to put more thought into what we’re eating and how it is prepared. Fresh vegetables and a nice cut of meat taste all the better when we eat them over a longer period with people we love. Contrast that to an image of your family sitting down for a protracted meal of fish sticks and fries.
  3. We appreciate our food more. Scarfing our food — and encouraging our kids to follow suit — communicates that we view our meals as little more than a means to fill our bellies. Given the love and care that go into growing and preparing most of the food we eat, we do ourselves no favors by failing to give the same attention to eating it. Reminding our kids of the people and processes involved in our food production will change the way they look at what they eat. (“Isn’t it so cool that these potatoes were in the dirt just a few days ago?”) What’s more, I’m afraid most of us routinely eat so fast that we forget to taste our food. Encouraging slow, savoring bites and modeling our enjoyment of what we’re eating will stick with our kids for years to come.
  4. We slow down. Nearly everything about our lives is hurried; we rush to and from work, the store, school, the gym, practice, home, back to practice, and so forth. Throughout history, the meal has been a time for meaningful conversations, savory foods, and rest from the cares of life. Around the table, we say to each other, “Here, if not anywhere else, your value is not connected to performance or productivity.” The least we can do for our overprogrammed children is to set aside those meals we control as sanctuaries from the speed that pervades much of the rest of their lives.

The truth is, though, our fight against the “hurry-up meal” didn’t exactly improve in the fall, when our son started school. There, he is given exactly 20 minutes to finish everything on his Styrofoam tray before being ushered off to his next activity. (By contrast, on a recent trip to Ireland, I observed restaurants and pubs opening their doors to groups of local school children and serving healthy, hot food for about an hour in the middle of the school day.) But this reality makes our efforts on the home front that much more vital.

Do we always have time for a leisurely, French-style dinner? Of course not. And does our son sometimes stall his eating on purpose to avoid bedtime or an undesired food? You betcha. But overall, we can do better and be more intentional with our meals. If we’ve made countercultural changes in other areas of our lives — like limiting our consumption, not owning a car, and minimizing television — we can and will buck the grab-and-go meal trend as well.

I decided to try out my theory at dinner last night. My wife was at a meeting, so it was just the two menfolk eating dinner — the perfect set-up for a slow, pleasant supper. On the table were some marinated steak strips, rice, and sautéed squash and zucchini. I vowed not to say “hurry up” (or any variation thereof) and to pursue a true connection with my son over a nice meal.

This proved to be increasingly difficult, though, once I cleaned my own plate, looked at the clock, and realized we’d been sitting at the table for an hour. His veggies had yet to be eaten, and that fact alone prevented the kind of heart-to-heart exchange I had hoped we’d have.

In the end, I broke my vow, and while I wouldn’t describe the meal as especially pleasant or life-altering, it passed my “slow” objective with flying colors.

After all, real change, as they say, is slow.

Steve Holt is a writer, gardener, husband, and dad. His articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Edible Boston, and a number of places online. His feature about guilt-free fast food was reprinted in the 2011 edition of Best Food Writing. He’s also written about a guacamole contest for Culinate.

There are 4 comments on this item
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1. by Steve Holt on Nov 4, 2011 at 8:28 AM PDT

For more tips and information about family meals, check out The Family Dinner Project:

2. by Cynthia Lair on Nov 6, 2011 at 9:04 AM PST

Nice article Steve. Similar tips in my book Feeding the Whole Family. Slowing down at the table has made our daughter really appreciate food now that she’s grown.

3. by jeannnn on Nov 9, 2011 at 3:09 PM PST

I dunno Steve. An hour is enough time for a meal. I think I would reduce the amount of food on the kid’s plate -- or the amount of liquid served at dinner. He’s not hungry. And it seems to me that he is doing exactly what he should be doing: slowing down or stopping eating when he is full. If he was your cat you’d let him eat as much or as little as he wanted, right?

4. by Steve Holt on Nov 28, 2011 at 12:31 PM PST

jeannnnnnnnnn (sorry, got a bit carried away with the n’s) -
I’m talking for the post part about intentional stalling. We definitely keep track of how much and what he’s eating each meal and know when to cut him off, and most of the stalling I’m talking about seems fairly blatant. And our philosophy on what he eats is that he eats what we eat, and we only serve him things we know he likes. (or will probably like)

This kid just eats slow, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

Thanks for the good tips...

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