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.
In far too many American homes, the fellowship traditionally enjoyed at mealtimes has been replaced by a utilitarian, get-on-to-the-next-thing mindset.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.
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.
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