Mealtime at Grandma’s House
Mealtime at Grandma’s House

Many of my favorite childhood memories took place at my grandparents’ house. We celebrated holidays and birthdays. My grandmother baked pies and always cooked my favorite meal—roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy. She taught me how to make gravy that didn't taste like paper-mache. (The trick is to bring the drippings to a boil, add the flour and water slurry slowly and then let the gravy simmer for a long time, until the flour taste is gone.) After dinner, the family would linger at the table for hours getting updates on family friends, work, or how my sister and I were doing in school.

For me, grandma’s house was someplace where the rules were different than they were at home. It probably should not have been a surprise to me that my son would have similar experiences at his grandparents’ house. There, much to my chagrin, dessert is offered as a “reward” for eating something he doesn't want and visits can include side trips to buy special treats.

Cooking with GrandmaAt home, we employ Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility model. As parents we decide what is offered and when it is eaten. My son decides whether he will eat what is offered and how much.

It’s probably safe to say that our parents and grandparents haven’t heard of Ellyn Satter. In fact, the concept of insisting that food be eaten was likely commonplace in many homes – it certainly was when I was growing up.

I used to get irritated and I even considered calling his grandparents to explain why my way was the preferred way to approach mealtime. Then I thought about my own grandparents and what mealtime at their house meant for me growing up. I decided to take a step back and look for the long view of my son’s eating habits. My son’s grandparents may not adhere to my mealtime philosophy, but there is a much larger picture to consider.

My son is fortunate to spend time with an extended family who loves him enough to encourage him to try new foods. The fun experiences they share are things that he will remember when he grows up and has his own family. He’ll think of the special outings to buy ice cream after school, the birthday cake he baked for his father’s birthday and the first time he tried—and enjoyed—asparagus.

Creating positive mealtime memories with family is a valuable goal independent of what foods are eaten. Even if my son’s grandparents offer dessert as an occasional reward he will know from his parents’ example that all foods can be enjoyed, not just the sweet ones. Ultimately, his memories of his grandparents will be the ones where he felt safe, adored and happy, and that is an important component of raising a healthy eater too.

Andrea Garen, MA, RD, is the District Wellness Coordinator at Redwood City School District. She coordinates programs and resources available to district elementary schools across all areas of school health. As a registered dietitian and mother of two young children, she is passionate about nutritious food and reality-based eating, which means choosing nutritious foods and preparing them in a way that makes them taste great.