Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mealtimes, Squealtimes

It's the mealtimes that are really challenging. I'm brainstorming to see if I can come up with a better system, but so far, I can't. Feeding four children, ages 0, 1, 2 and 3, is just very, very difficult. And very, very messy.

Here are my biases, laid out from the start: I've seen research that suggests that kids who are permitted to eat whenever they want spend more time engaged in learning. Kids who are forced to eat at preplanned mealtimes spend more time wasted: in lines, waiting for adults, sitting or standing around doing nothing. This is in a child care situation, not at home. There's plenty of research supporting family mealtimes, so that's not what I'm talking about here. Another bias I hold is that I think it's a good thing -and important- for kids to learn to listen to their bodies. To eat when and what their bodies crave. So my ideal is an eating area where children can come and go as they please, grazing through their day, getting the energy they need to learn.

You can probably imagine that this could easily be recipe for chaos, but you guys, I am already so far from my ideal!

The boys arrive in the morning and my kids are usually still asleep. They wake soon after the noise level begins to rise in the living room, and we all play for a half hour or so, until I get the hungry signal from one of the kids. Fortunately, once one of them wants to eat, they all want to eat, so I'm not completely abandoning my wait-for-their-signals approach to individual eating.

My daughter's in a high chair. The two boys are in small chairs with trays on the floor. My son sits at a child-sized table. When it's dry food, I let the other two boys sit at the little table. I like this: the camaraderie, the family feel of it, the opportunity for interaction between them. But if it's wet food, the 1 and 2 year olds will end up covering the wall and floor in it, and it's nearly impossible to clean off the wainscoting and out of the crack where the wall meets the floor. So I've limited that to dry food.

Breakfast and lunch work about the same way. I'm scrambling to get hands washed by holding each kid up to the sink and scrubbing their hands with mine. Then I pop the three younger kids in their chairs and click their trays into place, leaving my son to his own devices. I sprinkle dry cereal or snack crackers across their trays to keep them happy while I warm their food in the microwave.

The two boys bring their own meals (they need to, due to feeding and sensory issues, so it's not an option for me to provide the same thing for all the kids) and obviously I'm providing for my kids, so we have -at best- three different meals that typically need to be heated (that's if my kids are eating the same thing, which: sometimes).

Everybody spills, so the floors around each seating area need to be cleaned. Hands need to be cleaned. Faces need to be cleaned. Everybody has a variety of snacks in addition to the meals, so I'm just racing: back and forth from the kitchen with heated foods, with Clorox wipes for the floor, to rinse dishes and get them in the dishwasher, with high chair trays and rubber bibs, and cloth bibs that need to be tossed down the stairs to the basement laundry, with one more snack to try because low blood sugar is an issue, to slice that apple because he can't eat one independently, to peel that pear because she can't eat the skin, to refill juice glasses and make chocolate milk, and wash my hands again because I just used a Clorox wipe to get the oatmeal off the floor and I don't want to touch the banana with Clorox wipe residue all over my hands. My son is the only one who's really talking yet (we've got some special needs in the group), so there's lots of grunting, and lots of whining, and lots of frantic pointing, and it's all happening at once while I'm running, running, running. And also, I don't microwave plastic (ew, scary cancer stuff, I just won't do it), so all the food is scooped from plastic, to ceramic, back to plastic (they'll drop and break ceramic), and all those dishes need rinsing before they go into the dishwasher, and before I can even stop for one second one is whining to get out of the seat, and then another, and then another, and I have to clean up: the floors, the trays, their hands and faces, and everyone's whining all at the same time, and:

It's just really stressful.

I keep my cool on the outside because I am good at keeping my cool on the outside. It is, in fact, my job to keep my cool on the outside. But inside, it makes me feel like a crazy woman. An unhinged, panicky, crazy woman.

And that's not really good for anyone, now is it?

Today I tried to eliminate mid-morning snack-time (we have breakfast, then a mid-morning snack, then lunch, then an afternoon snack. Can you see why this is a problem?), but then I was hungry (I can't eat while they're eating; when would I eat?) and tried to sneak away to eat something and they all trailed me (like Greyhounds, they are!) and found me and wanted to eat.

For lunch today I fed them each individually, which was actually quite peaceful, but it took and hour and a half, and the ones who weren't eating were playing in another room and that's a long time for them to play without any interaction from me (I can see them, so they're supervised, but I wasn't in there playing at all, which -in my opinion- is a big part of what I'm here for, and: is the fun part!). It worked out okay today, but my daughter skipped lunch and went down for her nap early. I don't think it would typically work, and I'm not crazy about it anyway, as a regular thing.

I have tried to simply stop stressing out about it, but it's not working. Which leads me to believe that maybe I need to change the circumstances somehow, instead of trying to ignore the chaos. Figure out how to make it less chaotic.

But I'm not sure where to start. Anybody got any ideas?

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