December 16, 2013

7 Tips for being an Excellent Guest and a Healthy Family

Have we lost the fine art of being excellent guests?  Of making those around us feel good about themselves and their efforts to entertain?  Has the super-mom phenomenon caused us to get a small rush out of out-momming our friends or hinting that we care more about our children because we would never in a million years let something non-organic pass their little lips?

In this world of information overload, we are blessed with an expanded awareness of how our food choices affect our lives over the long term.  This is a great thing and it allows modern parents to make more informed choices for our kids.  But it also complicates our social interactions, as we all make different choices and try to teach our kids to make healthy choices.  Committing to the long term health of our families should not mean forgetting our manners, or how to have fun.  We're not meant to be slaves to our good choices, but freed up and empowered by them!

I attended 4 different holiday gatherings in the last week in which I observed what are apparently now very typical mom behaviors that I consider to be somewhat appalling.  Yes, I'm a southern gal raised with an unhealthy level of attention to the host/guest dynamic, but I think we're amiss when we a) stop aspiring to be excellent guests and b) put way too much focus on rigid diets without letting up even for special occasions.  Let me just share these caricatures of motherhood that I witnessed last week.

At our parties, I observed...
~a mom who pulled jar after jar of alternative food from her diaper bag, making rounds through the party and piling her family's plates with unidentifiable, but certainly healthy concoctions.  I'm not sure that she ever got to sit and enjoy a moment with anyone because she was fully on duty the entire time.  I'm also sure that many of us had a hard time enjoying our meal with the constant scooting of our chairs in as she fluttered back and forth with the next round of fermented whatever it was.  

~a family that had a variety of food restrictions who kept all of the kids together so as not to let them be influenced by outside diets.  They also sent individual kids out like Mars rovers to ask the different moms for a list of ingredients in their pot luck dishes.  In that case, it wasn't just the mom who didn't get to enjoy herself.  None of her kids got to hang out with friends or even laughed a single time, while all of their little buddies gathered around the neighboring table and had a rip-roaring good time together.  

~a super mom who made every item at the meal from scratch from produce and animals raised right there on her own property, and who periodically held small children hostage for five minute stretches to tell them about how happy the chicken that they just ate had been.  By the time we left, I knew how to make her dessert, her bread, and her soup.  In the car, Hannah Jane told me how to make her muffins.  Not a lot of other discussion was had by guests because, well, we didn't want to interrupt her. 

~a mom who pulled a freezer bag of muffins out of her purse and handed them out to all of her children.  When a little girl beside her daughter said, "I want one of those," she explained that they are super healthy, of only the finest ingredients and therefore quite expensive to make, and so she only brought them for her own kids.  Hannah Jane reported on how embarrassed the little girl felt for having asked for one and what a sort of scene the mom had made.  

Lots of parties = lots of chances to see how different folks deal with food restrictions around the holidays.  

My line of thinking is that as long as you're eating at home most nights, it's not going to harm anyone - even your darling little ones - to just go with the flow and eat what is served (allergies being the exception, of course)! 

I'm not putting down super moms who feed their kids the best.  I want to be one!  But I don't want to be the kind of friend who makes you feel bad if you don't eat organic, if you're not anti-food dyes, or if you give my kid a piece of cake.  

Here are my top tips for being an excellent guest AND a healthy family!

1.  Eat well six nights a week and then take a breath and relax for one party night.  If your family isn't even allowed to enjoy some so-bad-for-you-that-you-know-it's-going-to-be-delicious food once in a while at a party, you're probably nurturing a little food obsession which is as damaging as eating a leaf of lettuce that isn't organic.  If you're worried that once they taste delicious food, they won't want to go back to eating what you've been serving, you're missing a chance to teach moderation and my gut says that they will be overcompensating for your food restrictions as soon as they are on their own.  Say no to food obsession, to eating disorder level food scrutiny, and let your family know that good food choices are important, but so is enjoyment.

2.  Tell your host or hostess about food allergies ahead of time so that they don't have to feel bad about accidentally serving something that no one can eat, and other than that, EAT!  The odds are good that your host spent the better part of the day stressing over creating the perfect evening for his or her guests, and pulling out your own food for your family sends the message that all of their labor was a waste.  Don't be that guest.  Unless it is a true allergy, your children will survive a night on someone else's food.  

3.  Understand the difference between food choices and food restrictions.  If you make the choice to eat paleo, way to go!  But eat the rice you're served at a friend's house and don't ask them to cater to your diet ahead of time.  It's a diet.  Not an allergy.  If gluten will literally make your child ill for days, well, mention that ahead of time and offer to bring the main dish.  If you're vegetarian because it's healthy, eat the pork!  If you're vegetarian because you're morally opposed to eating animals or your religion forbids it, mention it and volunteer to bring a dish.  I don't eat meat at home, and when I do eat it at someone else's house, I feel a little gastrointestinal strain for a day after, but you know what?  It's not really that big of a deal.  The stomach strain can just serve as a reminder of the lovely evening I had with friends.  

4. Don't bring only enough for your family, even if it's a potluck and you think no one will notice.  If it's any good, they will notice.  If you're going to a potluck and you just cant' bear the idea of your family eating other people's food, feed them ahead of time and contribute one main dish that they can live off of for the night without mentioning what you do and do not eat.  Don't be the woman with the diaper bag full of yummy looking food that no other kiddos at the dinner are going to get.  These parties are a place where you are teaching your children about manners as much as you are nourishing their bodies with your flax and quinoa filled organic brownies.  If you're giving them treats and telling the kids next to them that there's not enough to go round, you're modeling bad manners.  Seriously.  Expensive ingredients are no excuse for rudeness.  Especially when you're the guest!  

5. If you have to explain, you shouldn't do it.  Enough said.

6. If no one in your family is going to be allowed to have any fun, don't go.  If you really can't deal with your kids eating something with dye in it, taking them to a party and not allowing them to eat and laugh with the kids who are allowed to eat green jell-o isn't a great plan.  They're going to resent it.  If they are in tune with your family's food choices and can go enjoy the company of their buddies who make other choices without feeling bad, you're good to go.  But if you're family is being sequestered so that you can keep a watchful eye on every spoonful that approaches their lips, you're in the resentment zone.  And everyone else is left feeling like their company and their food wasn't good enough for you.  Which causes a whole different level of resentment from outside the family.  Participate or opt out.

7.  Feel good about the ingredients of your contribution without broadcasting.  If your soup stock is from the boiled bones of the hand-fed hen who ate only your homemade organic chicken feed, that's lovely.  But the odds are good that the mom beside you grabbed a box of cookies from the Wal-Mart bakery and is now feeling like a total loser as you tell her husband how easy peasy it is to make that nutrient rich homemade chicken scratch.  Feel good on the inside without making a scene.  And know that the preschooler sitting to your left doesn't care about the fennel being grown in your window box.  They just want to eat.  I promise.  

I think that pretty much covers it!  I've heard the argument that eating your way at every social gathering exposes others to healthier food choices, but I'm pretty sure that everyone you will dine with has the internet, knows about diet fads, and has made their choice.  If you only dine with people you consider to be uninformed, get some new friends.  If you run with a crowd that you respect, consider the idea that they know what food options are out there and are simply making a different choice from yours.  You're not their nitritionist.  You're their friend.  

If they ask, that's a different story.  When my vegan friends come over, I cook vegan.  But only because I was a vegan and I have a clue how to cook for vegans.  If a gluten-free friend comes to dine, I ask for a recipe or tell them my menu plans and let them know that it's perfectly fine to bring supplemental dishes to share with everyone.  I want to be a great hostess as much as I want to be a great guest.  But we need to be reasonable about our expectations of other people's ability to cater to our choices.  

I want to feed my kids the very best ever day and I also want them to learn to be amazing guests!  So when we're at home, I'm going to nourish the heck out of them.  And when we come to your house, we are going to give thanks and enjoy every morsel of food we are offered and then we are going to look forward to the next time we get to break bread with you.  Hopefully, when we leave, you'll feel like super mom!  Not because you sprouted your own chia seeds for our bread, but because you could tell that we enjoyed every second of our time with you, and didn't have a worry in the world while we were in your care.  

Happy Holidays! 


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