Rules for family meals, Big Ugly House style

I'm sure I've blogged about this before, but since I can't find it in the past year's posts, it must have been a while back.  I was asked about what our other family meal rules in a comment on yesterday's post and I thought it might be of more general interest.  And I needed a topic to write about for today.

Our rules range from dealing with basic manners to the more idiosyncratic ones that were created to address specific situations.  I will just deal with the basic ones... as for the others, everyone probably already knows that it is impolite to play with one's feet at the table, just not (some) of my children.  They are pretty simple. 
  1. Stay in your seat.  If you need to get up to get more water or visit the bathroom, ask to be excused.  If you just hop up from the table, we will assume you are done with you meal... even if you come back and announce you are still hungry.
  2. Wait to eat until everyone is served.  J. serves and then we say grace together and then everyone may begin eating.  With dessert (when we have it), everyone waits until the hostess (me), lifts her fork or spoon to begin.  This solves the problem of children bolting through their food and then dashing away before others have even begun.  It does create some funny situations, though, this waiting for everyone business. My children were at a friend's house for a birthday party last summer and were having their ice cream and cake outside.  The friend's family follows the same rules and we look out the window to see 15 children quietly waiting until someone said it was OK to begin as their ice cream melted in the sun.  We quickly sent someone outside to tell them to begin eating.
  3. Be appreciative of the food.  Our children are not allowed, ever, to announce that the food is somehow distasteful.  If so, the offending plate is quickly whisked away, rarely to return.  (We would hate to torture our children by forcing them to sit and stare at such awfulness.)  The child must still remain at the table because dinner is not over, but they do so without their dinner.  Our children do not have to love everything on their plate and they may say that something is not their favorite, but they do have to try a bite of everything and be thankful that they have food to eat and appreciative of the effort which went into its preparation.  I want to add that this method is effective if there is little fuss about it.  Child complains, plate is taken away with apologies for having offended the child with the offering, child and their plate-less condition is ignored as life at the table goes on.
  4. Everyday rules of conversation apply.  In our daily life we do not interrupt others; we do not speak unkindly; we do not yell if we are inside.  These are also issues that are best dealt with outside of the dinner table.  Usually if someone is being rude, we just have to remind them what the expected behavior is.  (Would another post of our general life rules and corresponding consequences be helpful?)
These are the four big ones.  Once a child has been able to manage these we also work on other things... using utensils and not fingers, chewing with the mouth closed, how to cut with a knife without gauging one's neighbor with an elbow, etc.  It depends on the child what we are expecting of him or her at any given time.

I will also add that our children do not follow these rules perfectly all the time and that some meals are more successful than others.  I also want to add that our dinners are not quiet.  There are too many people with too much to say to have a quiet meal. I love the conversational chaos (usually) and how much we all enjoy sharing meals together.  But I think a good part of that enjoyment comes from the fact that our children are generally well-behaved at the table and instead of focusing on discipline, we can focus on each other's company.


MRK said…
Love this! Can I ask if you went ahead and enforced this on your adopted children right away (the part about taking the food away if they complained about it)? I worry that my adopted children have faced a shortage of food before and that I may damage their attachment to me if I take food away.

Also, I have one child who is always low or off the scale on the growth charts so we hate to see him not eat a meal...but this has gotten us into trouble as we will allow him something simple like oatmeal with flaxseed mixed in and a yogurt instead of the food he didn't like. When we had only two children, this wasn't such a big deal. With four now, it definitely complicates things. Everyone wants something different, and meals are chaos and less enjoyable. I love the idea of "take it or leave it" but worry about my one child who is likely to leave it often and is already so small and so easily frustrated especially when hungry.

And yes, I for one would love another post of your general life rules and corresponding consequences!

Erica said…
It is nice to see a glimpse of others table rules. I am just starting to try to figure out what ones we really want for our children. We used to let our oldest girl eat what she wants and come and go as she pleased, mainly because she could throw one big, mean fit if she so chose and I try to avoid those at all costs. BUt now we're making her sit at the table, even if she's done or doesn't want to eat what is for supper. If the supper is something that I know the kids won't really like, I do let them have an alternative, though that is usually just cereal or porridge.
Shonya said…
Very interesting post, thank you for sharing. I found your method of dealing with pickiness interesting, and the opposite of what we do. If a child complains about a food at our table, they get another serving of it. :D I imagine both are equally effective--they simply don't complain. giggle We also don't make a big deal of it--calmly put another spoonful on their plate and matter of factly say "if we complain about our food, we get more so we'll learn to like it. If you don't care for something, next time just try a bite and quietly eat the other food you do like." Interestingly, the younger ones haven't had to experience this--from seeing the older ones, or because of the example of the older ones liking what they're offered??
thecurryseven said…
Erica-- M. read your post and pointed out that if we gave out more for complaining about food, everyone would suddenly start complaining in order to get more than anyone else. :-)

thecurryseven said…
Oops! That last comment should have been addressed to Shonya.

thecurryseven said…
Megan-- No, we didn't enforce these rules with our adopted children at first. We took it very slowly and one at a time. First, just learning to sit at the table was about all each of them could manage and then we went on from there.

The malnutrition aspect is sticky, isn't it? K. now feels as though he weighs less than his baby sisters now and I am constantly monitering what he eats. In the long run, to me it is important that he like a large variety of foods because that seems as though it will be helpful in his overall calorie intake. I still only make one meal for everyone and limit snacks to encourage him to eat at mealtimes. He has slowly, slowly, slowly begun to eat more. But, in an effort to get more protein into him, we supplement with a chocolate protein drink each day. But, he only gets it after he eats a regular meal. (Half at breakfast and the other half at lunch.) He loves it so much that he is willing to eat a bit more than he normally would in order to get his chocolate drink. I am certainly no expert where this is concerned and do feel at bit as though I'm making it up as I go. (To anyone concerned about K., his pediatrician has given him a clean bill of health and he has no food aversions... he's just a little guy.)

comemorning said…
GREAT post. Just navigating these waters ourselves. I chuckle (shudder?) when I think about the lack of rules we had for so long with our first! At any rate, we have made a "no complaining" rule but don't yet have a consequence--I'll be mulling yours over in the near future! We have a mandated "please may I be excused" and a "thank you mama for the food" rule. I have to say, that one is a win-win--I am so much more motivated to serve meals (and serve nice ones!) now that I don't anticipate everybody's complain-y attitudes all of the time. And I do believe that good habits and general good will tend to breed more grace and good will! But we need to work on the staying-in-your-seat rule. I have started to realize that my own disorganization in terms of having everything on the table, everything set up (or not), etc., when the children are called to dinner perpetuates the everyone-getting-up-to-get-things-at-different-times situation that is so disruptive to a meal. So (sigh) it all comes back to MORE organization. I can't believe how much there has been to learn in the home-keeping realm for me. At any rate, thanks for this post and for a little window into your world of discipline! It's great.
comemorning said…
oh by the way, "comemorning" is me--emily barton :)
Kalee said…
I absolutely love this. I've been panicking about beginning our family because meal times are so sacred in our house (usually lasting at least an hour). But these rules seem simple and straight forward. I especially love the one about the offending food. We cook a lot of "different" foods in our home and are aware that most kids raised with a ton of veggies and such don't know the difference....until someone like a friends tells them it's weird and then food issues can come up. This seems like a great answer to that, since often I've noticed if a child is sent away from the table without dinner, they can survive without food for the night and are off playing. I don't want to reward a child for bad behavior.

I'm printing this post out for our files on ideas with homemaking! Found you through the raising homemakers!

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