My Kids Don’t Need Table Manners: A mom’s defense of messy eating

I make my kids wash their hands before dinner; in fact, after inspecting, I’ve been known to send my kids back to the sink to do a better job. You see, in my house, I let the kids eat with their hands, and I’d much rather these hands be clean than dirty. Sure, I set their places with a fork and a spoon, but they don’t always get used. And as crazy as it sounds, I don’t mind.

Isn’t one of the universal pleasures of raising children watching them eat for the first time? We “oooh” and “ahhh” as our six-month-old babies sit slumped in their highchairs, squishing peas, carrots and other first foods from fist to mouth. We eagerly wait – video cameras at the ready – for our adorable one-year-olds to bathe in their birthday cakes. We’re so proud of our first eaters, especially when they’re covered head to toe with food. And we even have pictures to prove it!

I guess I never outgrew the pleasure of watching my three kids eat well, even if it meant with their hands. Brussels sprouts, loathed by kids across America, are a favorite in my house. I let the kids peel the leaves away layer by layer as if there’s a tiny surprise inside. I allow them to mash peas, yellow squash and zucchini into pasta shells with their fingers as they eat their favorite “peek-a-boo” pasta dish. No fork, spoon or knife can do a whole lot with these tiny veggies anyway.

My kids don’t totally ban forks and spoons. They use forks to protect their hands from hot-out-of-the-oven roasted butternut squash, and for chocolate pudding or applesauce they mercifully use spoons. But sometimes a fork or spoon just won’t cut it, as my five-year-old has pointed out while attempting to skewer an edamame bean or tiny pea. It’s not like they’re animals (though it appears like it sometimes), it’s just that they want to get the most pleasure out of eating. They’ve learned that there’s a time and a place for proper manners, like at holiday dinners or out in public.

At home, their imaginations run wild when they eat, and it’s often the food itself that inspires them. They’ve pretended they were knights, battling dragons with steamed asparagus swords, or gigantic dinosaurs, chomping at prehistoric broccoli trees. Though it’s not complete anarchy – I draw the line at spitting or throwing food, and I’m not too patient when they wipe greasy hands on clothing or walls.

Even I, the mature mommy, will sometimes set manners aside and eat with my hands. I’m simply savoring every morsel of a meal, enjoying what I’m eating too much to care. My kids have caught me in the act as I slurp and chew impolitely and grab pieces of salad with my fingers. At least I practice what I preach.

My husband is a bit more old-school and demands proper manners. Fortunately for him, he’s not usually home in time for dinner (which, now that I think of it, is probably not a coincidence).

In my house, eating is an exploration. We smell, touch and taste our food, exercising our senses like they do in India, Ethiopia and other South Asian countries where eating with one’s hands is the norm.

Although it can get chaotic, I’ll take my messy-handed vegetable lovers over well-mannered picky eaters. Their butter-drenched fingers leave handprints galore, but my kids eat well and with gusto.

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