My husband and I replaced driving with bicycling in and around our city. We anticipated it would be hard to follow through on the commitment but instead we were hooked in the first week. The bike trip to the bank or a playdate wasn’t satisfying our need to ride and soon we began inventing new reasons to hop back on our bikes. At the end of the day, the last chance to ride before our baby’s bath and bedtime was supper. This began an almost daily tradition of biking to picnic!
The end of the day has historically been a battle for the entire family. By the time dinner rolls around, we are tired, hangry and about out of our daily quota for patience. As much as we tried, we failed family dinner. And the motivational quotes popping up on my Pinterest feed contributed nothing to the problem. “Suppertime equals family time” and “the family that eats together stays together.” Not at my house.
During these witching hours I often find myself marveling at the paradoxical personalities demonstrated by my kids. They remind me of the ocean. The ocean is beautiful, calming and something I long to be near. Its serene beach lulls those of us relaxing on it into a false sense that things are in control. But if you turn your back on it, a rogue wave might just raise up from the depths to drag you under and slap the serenity right out of you.
My kids, with their big eyes, silly antics, and loving dispositions have my husband and I gushing daily over the luck we feel to watch them grow. But we would be two very big liars if we didn’t also admit that our adorable, loving little bundles of joy (ages 16 months and 3.5 years) are also capable of downright tyranny. With the flip of a switch, they will go from cute, snuggly little loves to drowning you in relentless pint sized rage all because the 16-month old wanted to put the cap on the water but you did it for her. So much power packed into that tiny 2.5 foot frame.
We try hard to be reflective and honest with ourselves at the end of each day. How did it go? How well did we react to a particular situation? What could we have done differently? We search for witnessed patterns both good and bad and then attempt to consciously parent them based on their needs and strengths.
The Dinner Table: A Signal for Rough Seas Ahead
A consistent pattern emerging from our daily reflection is that the indoors is never our friend. The kids are always happier and better behaved when they are outdoors either playing together or exploring with friends. Another realization is that dinner time is most often a trigger for rough seas ahead. It’s the end of the day, they are tired, they are cooped indoors and we are asking their exhausted (and therefore nuttier) little bodies to be confined to their seat.
Before kids, I thought that developing a pattern of good table sitting was critical. My mom always boasted about what a well behaved child I was, always sitting perfectly at dinner and impressing others when I held my own at nice restaurants. By the time I was pregnant with my first kid, I had already projected this standard and expectation on to my unborn child. But my baby had other plans.
My son struggled with the ability to sit and eat from birth. We believe it stems from an inherited case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). It is a dominate gene that is carried by his father. Even breastfeeding was a wrangling, messy, wiggling, challenge of exposed horrors as my FOMO baby refused to focus on eating and instead writhed around, making a scene while struggling not to miss out anything that might be happening around him. I eventually had to feed him in a dark, quiet corner if I hoped for him to eat at all. This pattern of eating has continued to this day.
Eating Together: Improving Outcomes for Kids
I want eating with the family to be a special daily tradition that brings us all together. Studies indicate that children of families who regularly eat dinner together are more likely to be healthy and try new foods. They are less likely to suffer from an eating disorder or be depressed. And when a child does have an underlying need developing, families regularly eating together are more likely to discover the problems in order to manage them early.
Eating together as a family is important. But my son wants to bounce between playing around the house and the dinner table, having his cake and eating it too. So what is the mother of a FOMO baby to do? Developing a culture of reluctant obligation around the dinner table is not the answer I would aim for. But then, we found the bicycle picnic!
“There’s something for everybody at picnic day” – Liz Applegate
The picnic has salvaged my vision for family togetherness and laughter around a shared meal. Both our children love to help with the preparation and packaging of the food. And by helping, I mean tasting all the individual ingredients. Then we load dinner and the children into our bike trailer and we ride to a nearby playground or picnic site. Picnic tables and benches are for table eaters, which on picnic day, we are not. So we lay a blanket down on the ground where the kids can wiggle all they like and feel the earth as we sit and eat together.
At a picnic, the ground is our table. Even when the kids are moving around to explore a nearby tree, they still feel like part of the meal experience. On picnic day, we ALL love dinnertime. Unless you are averse to the outdoors (which I would argue is a learned behavior) then everyone can be happy at a picnic. And it sets me up for success! I can honestly say that the picnic makes me feel like a more positive parent. Guess what doesn’t accompany us on one of our bicycle picnics?
1. Table Nagging- “stay seated until we are finished” and “please get off the table.” Nope, not at a picnic!
2. The Floor Mop- I have to mop the food overflow zone around our dinner table every single night. Not at a picnic! The overflow from the kids fork falls onto a blanket that I gather up to disposed of at the end. Boom.
3. Screen Time- Screen time at meals is not a fit for our family. But my son saw some kiddos watching a show on an iPhone at a restaurant. Now he knows its possible and sometimes he requests it. But I am never forced to say no at a picnic because he never asks!
I am happy to report that our evenings have significantly improved as a result of biking to picnic. But this is hardly surprising as research shows again and again that being outside in nature improves our mental and physical health. It makes us happier, more creative and improves our ability to connect with other people.
My advice to others would be to think about picnics as a part of your weekly dinner routine rather than an event or special activity. Challenge yourself to picnic once a week and do it for a month. If that goes well, make it twice a week. Georg Brandes once said, “Among the delights of summer were picnics to the woods.” My kids cannot yet articulate it in the same eloquent manner, but their award winning smiles at the end of the day show me that they feel the same way.
When was the last time you adventured out to eat?