Food Fight: Taming Mealtime Meltdowns with Emotional Intelligencemanaging stress

Welcome to episode 4 of our podcast, “Raising Humans”. In this brief audio odyssey, we hear from two parents, one cook, and one tough critic. What happens when food and emotions get all mixed up? How can emotional intelligence help calm mealtimes and teach emotional skills for the rest of the day? Check out May Duong’s EQ Parenting Tips at the end of each podcast.

It’s 5:00pm on a weekday evening. Everyone is  hungry, parents have worked all day, kids have been at school and in day care, and as one parent is cooking, kids are circling the kitchen, asking what’s for dinner. Maybe they have opinions about what they like to eat?

Emotions are all over the map. Frustration and exhaustion can blend with excitement and anticipation at getting to share a meal. Don’t forget hunger’s effect on the body and mind. In these situations, the potential for cparents-empathy-conflictonflict is high, but so is the potential for a warm and connected time with the family. How can parents make the best of it?

In this fourth episode a child asks mom to make his favorite dish, pulled pork.  She goes out of her way to buy special ingredients, look up a recipe, make the dish. At dinner her child says he doesn’t like it. Ouch! Her feelings are hurt. He feels guilty. Here we go.

Mealtimes can be full of joy and also the potential for conflict. So many expectations and cultural traditions come together around one table. We want to make family mealtimes a positive, delicious, and connected time for all. But what happens when the person doing most of the cooking feels unappreciated? What feelings come up? How can we build connection and empathy around sharing food?

managing stressSo much of the formulation of our social and emotional patterns happens at the family dinner table. Social skills of listening, caring, and empathy are modeled by parents during mealtimes. Is it quiet? Can people feel heard? Is everyone being respected? Is the cook being appreciated? The gardener? The table setter and dish clearer? Are people on their phones or texting at the table?

When I was a young mother, I remember sometimes feeling like an unpaid and underappreciated short-order cook. The food was better, but the pressure was intense. Hungry toddlers don’t really know how to wait very well. I remember having healthy snacks ready to put out before the main meal, and lots of smaller meals because they would run low on blood sugar and become rather ornery as a result. I reminded myself of a mother bird whose tiny chicks had their mouths constantly open and when not open or eating, were chirping for more.

child-teen-globe-yellow-green-1500As I hurried from stove to plate, it finally dawned on me: my kids could actually help cook! And learn to measure and mix! And even choose menus to cook. Mealtimes became a lot more fun. When they got older, they took on more and more in the kitchen, and we all had a good time tasting the results of their experiments.

The kitchen became not only a place of sustenance, but of science, math, and silliness. For the holidays last year, I handed my twenty-something adult children a recipe book of their favorite foods from childhood, many of which had been handed down from their Jewish grandma. It felt good!

What does this have to do with emotional intelligence? A lot, actually. As parents, we set the emotional tone of our families. If we are often harried around mealtimes, or in a hurry, or anxious, it influences our kids’ way of experiencing food and family time. If we are excited, nurturing, playful around mealtimes, that can create a climate that can help guide your kids to be more tuned in to their own emotions.

Here are some good resources for managing mealtime madness:

What Kids Learn at the Dinner Table:

EQ Parenting Tools from Aha! Parenting:

Parenting with EQ

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