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My kids taught me meal times are precious: Centre for Fathering CEO

SINGAPORE – Our family meal times used to be fraught with tension and frustration as I cajoled and threatened my children to finish their meals faster. Comments such as “Can you eat faster”, “Can you put two spoonfuls into your mouth” and “Can you please stop talking and put that spoon into your mouth!” typically dominated my conversations at the meal table.

Centre for Fathering CEO, Bryan Tan, with his wife Adriana and their three children. Photo: Bryan Tan

Centre for Fathering CEO, Bryan Tan, with his wife Adriana and their three children. Photo: Bryan Tan

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SINGAPORE – Our family meal times used to be fraught with tension and frustration as I cajoled and threatened my children to finish their meals faster. Comments such as “Can you eat faster”, “Can you put two spoonfuls into your mouth” and “Can you please stop talking and put that spoon into your mouth!” typically dominated my conversations at the meal table.

This has led to embarrassing situations in public, whenever I got carried away with maintaining “law and order” with the children at the food court tables. I have found myself “force-feeding” my children and finishing their meals instead to avoid wasting food when we had to rush to another appointment.

However, in the absence of my authoritarian posture, my children could sometimes take an hour or two to complete their meals, as they expounded on the discoveries they had made that day to other meal-time partners. And they would somehow make good conversations around the meal table too!

As I reflected on my disposition towards eating, I realised that I was inclined to finish my meals fast, so I could proceed onto more meaningful activities. I was never one who lived to eat, and I inevitably imposed that perspective onto my children too.

I have tried many “parenting blog-endorsed” methods to increase their speed of eating, from improving the presentation of food and denying snacks outside of meal times, but my efforts in that regard were often futile.

Although I have taken many personality tests in a bid to better understand myself and attain personal mastery over this situation (among others), it was a motivational profile test (REISS) that offered me an appreciation of what drives me and helped me better understand and coach my children.

In the test, one of the 16 motivations pertained to eating and based on my score, I apparently have a distinct disinterest in eating. That is, I would never be motivated by eating or food. That probably explained why I placed such a low emphasis in spending time at the meal table, and preferred for the family to be spending time together in more “meaningful” activities other than eating.

I realised that my sons, on the other hand, probably have higher motivations toward eating and they really appreciate the experience of it. This is often exemplified in the way they savour every morsel of food as they slowly chewed on it.

Their dining experience would also not be complete without good conversation, as they often looked toward mealtimes as a chance to apprise us of how their day went, and what they learned about our world. This suggested a high motivation for Family, in the sense that they truly valued time with the family.

That led me to change my perception of family meal times, by looking at it through the eyes of my children. It was the only time in the day when they had our undivided attention and could share their lives without inhibitions. They also started eating faster when the promise of a family activity presented itself after the meal, such as family board game nights.

When I allowed myself to relax instead of rush through a meal, I began to appreciate my food better, and that precious moment when we could connect as a family without distractions. I also got a better glimpse into the lives of my children, through their open and heartfelt sharing every evening.

Therefore, I have made it a point now to be present for our family dinner every night, even if it is only for a while before I head out again for a work appointment. I have since also set a limit to my night engagements to no more than thrice weekly. My wife and I also try our best to limit the use of mobile devices at the meal table, to minimise distractions to the conversations.

I have also come to realise the influence that we, as parents, have on our children’s perspectives of nutrition. I used to pay little attention to what my children ate, though thankfully my wife has always supervised the preparation of meals to ensure a well-balanced diet. Now, I too take over that role in her absence.

At the Centre for Fathering, we have recently increased the frequency of the nation-wide initiative Eat with Your Family Day (EWYFD) to fall on the last school day of every quarter. Since 2003, EWYFD has encouraged organisations to allow employees to leave work early to enjoy a meal with their families at home.

According to the last National Nutrition Survey conducted in 2010, 60 per cent of Singaporeans eat out for lunch and/or dinner at least four times a week. Since an eat-out meal usually contains an average of 700 to 800 calories more than what we require daily, EWYFD is good practice for families to take the opportunity to have healthier home-cooked meals with loved ones.

The next EWYFD falls on 17 Nov 2017. Don’t miss it!

 

Bryan Tan is CEO of Dads for Life and the Centre for Fathering. Formerly a senior officer with the Singapore Armed Forces, he made a mid-career switch to the social service sector to serve fathers and the “fatherless” in our nation. He is happily married to Adriana, and they have three children, Michael, Joshua and Deborah — aged one to seven years old.

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