Michael Pollan, of "In Defense of Food" fame, has started a new project. In his last book he cautioned us to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants". For his new book project he is soliciting our input on rules for eating. He believes that it is important to preserve the cultural wisdom around choosing, preparing and eating food. Sayings such as the Japanese "hara hachi bu" (eat until you are four-fifths full) and the German "tie off the sack before it is full" are examples of traditional ethnic advice to stop eating before becoming completely full. Some of the funnier ones people have quoted include "No white food after Labor Day... or ever", "No dumpster cheese" or Miss Piggy's "Never eat more than you can lift" rule.
His request reminded me of a strategy I've used with parents when we discuss healthful eating. Originally an ice-breaker activity, I uncovered some interesting obstacles to enjoyable family meals with the question "what table rules did you grow up with?". As an example, I would share that in our family we had a "no singing at the table" rule thanks to a sister with her sudden off-key, raucous opera-like singing outbursts that clearly needed to be stopped. One father shared his boarding school experience of the "clean plate" rule which included his fear of a teacher who stood over him till the last bite was downed. Another parent shared a "no talking" rule while another admitted to frequently breaking the "no talking with your mouth full" rule.
It is fascinating to talk with parents about their childhood table rules because they now set the table rules for a new generation. Some steadfastly maintain their childhood rules - I know my mother would appreciate that I mandate the "no elbows on the table" rule - while others have rebelled completely and refuse to set any rules. Many times, I've had to explore the origin of table rules or lack of table rules to help parents build useful boundaries for their child's eating habits and to set the stage for more enjoyable meals.
As we encourage our patients to have family meals as a strategy to increase healthful eating, it might be important to also discuss table rules. If nothing else you might uncover some amusing rules and anecdotes. I know my son will enjoy telling folks the story behind his mother having to mandate the "no naked people at the table" rule.