I'm just going to come out and say it: I'm a struggling mother. I did my best to instill in my kids an appreciation for a variety of foods as early as made sense. Of course, I was concerned about having a good balance of nutrition, so I raised them to like vegetables—or so I thought. At some point, they began to assert that foods they used to like were no longer acceptable. I couldn't live on mac and cheese, and I couldn't stomach making multiple dinners. My husband was of the same mind. What's a mom to do?
I fell back on my agile skills. It was the only way to make it through.
One day, I left work early and headed for the grocery store. I was a sleep-deprived woman on a mission. I walked through the fresh food sections, throwing anything appealing or novel into the cart. Then, I headed for the condiments and canned foods. I selected a wide variety of dressings, dips, flavorings, and ingredients and tossed them in with the fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats.
Then, I went for the special sauce: neon poster board, Sharpies, and Dixie cups.
At this point, I was clutching the edges of the poster sheets while steering the ponderously heavy cart ever so carefully around corners, just hoping I didn't drop anything important on the way to the checkout. Unloading the cart to ring up the items took awhile, as did reloading the bagged food. I handed over my credit card without waiting (or wanting) to hear the transaction total. Fortunately, I'd picked a regular, everyday supermarket and not one of the fancy boutique options closer to work.
I wrestled the food into the car and then up the stairs to the kitchen, taking several trips. I wanted to have everything ready before I went to pick up the kids. I covered most of my kitchen counter with everything I'd bought, only then allowing myself to count the cost of this venture.
I put on my best smile and strode out again to retrieve the kids. All the way home, I chattered about how we were trying something new on Daddy's night out, a secret experiment. I don't know whether they bought it, but they listened tolerantly enough to my excitement.
As we walked up the stairs to the kitchen, they noticed the bright neon of the poster board. I suggested they each pick a color and then wrote each child's name at the top. Then, I proceeded to strip the refrigerator of every adornment, leaving it bare for the first time since we'd bought it. Not even one cute piece of childhood artwork remained. Then, I picked the strongest magnets and affixed the posters to the fridge, where they dominated the room.
On the lefthand column, I drew a smiley face; on the right, a frowny face. Now it was time to get down to business. I handed each kid a cup of water. I arranged a row of Dixie cups along the edge of the cutting board. I wielded a knife like a seasoned contestant on Iron Chef as I quickly produced a series of food samples and put them in the Dixie cups, ordering one bite, demanding judgment, and then letting the kids take a sip of water before whisking the Dixie cups off to the trash.
Bite. Rinse. Repeat. It was like the Lean Coffee of the vegetable world. The kids could make any necessary facial expressions, from downright disgust to utter joy. They didn't even have to speak on the subject: thumbs up or thumbs down, point and grunt, as long as a judgment was made.
Then, my older son stopped to say he didn't know whether this food was yummy or yucky. So we iterated and added a face in the middle of the poster boards
that had a flat line indicating an indifferent mouth, and we began a new "I don't know" list on each child's Big Visible chart.
As the evening drew to a close and my husband returned home, he was amazed by the abundance of empty plastic bags, scraps of partially devoured food, rinds, and peels, as well as the exhausted look on my face from an extended session of cajoling children to eat.
Yet, there on the poster board were lists of at least thirty foods our kids had never eaten before. I don't know whether they had a well-balanced dinner that night, but they didn't go to bed hungry and they couldn't complain that they didn't like anything I offered. (I'd at least been willing to alternate fruits and veggies.)
After putting the kids to bed, I came back downstairs to clean up the kitchen and restore some order. As my husband helped me, he stared in wonder at the profusion of items, hoping that they would all fit in the refrigerator. I hadn't considered that. Fortunately, nothing was wasted for lack of space. I took down the posters and slid them between the refrigerator and the neighboring cabinet to get them out of the way.
That was my biggest mistake. In that moment of triumph, thinking that all was well with the world and the experiment had been successful, I removed the visual reminder that had been the focus of the kids' attention during this performance. I was not successful in gaining acceptance of changed behavior without the Big Visible charts. I learned my lesson and quickly tacked them to the wall, where they now hang in their garish glory, drawing the eyes of all those who walk in the room.
While this might not be the most beautiful interior decorating technique, more importantly, it draws the eyes of my children. Now, when they arrive home, wash their hands, and get ready for dinner, their past decisions are readily available for reference. Mommy and Daddy have our own charts where we dutifully record the results of our eating experiments. It's not a full history of mealtimes at our house, but it's enough recent history to help us predict what will likely happen when the plates reach the table tonight—and probably for packing lunches tomorrow. Nothing ever goes according to plan, but that's true for any healthy team. We've adapted, and dinnertime has become less of a chore. We've even branched out into using sauces and combining foods. Good habits develop over time and the Big Visible charts keep us on track, giving us a tangible reminder of conversations we should be having.
The other night my son stood pensively in the center of the kitchen gazing up at the charts and noticed that his brother had a longer yummy list than he did. I was encouraged to find him engaging with even simple metrics like rough counts (or even trends), but then, he does love math. (Gosh, where does he get that from?) And then he said the thing that made it all worthwhile: "It's handy in case I like something." The Big Visible chart provided that moment to pause, consider the situation, evaluate past decisions, and deliberately make new ones.
Groceries: more than three hundred dollars.
Time spent preparing numerous tiny portions of food: too many hours to count.
My home team developing healthy habits: priceless.
Could your team use a Big Visible reminder to keep attention on their healthy habits?