Tips for Making Dinner Kid Friendly WITHOUT Cooking a Separate Meal
We've all been there. You've just spent 20 minutes preparing a meal you can't wait to eat. You call the family to the table. The kids look at the food and groan, "EWWW, I don't like fill in the blank!" Gut punch. It's hard not to get your feelings hurt after all your effort. I know I've found myself pouting over my unappreciated efforts. Our kids are age 9 and 5 so over the years I've developed some techniques to cut down on the dinner time downers for my sanity and theirs.
1. We allow for some modification of the main course.
For instance, when I make chili or taco soup my eldest turns up her nose. If I use a slotted spoon and put the meat and beans onto her plate and pair it with shredded cheese and tortilla chips she won't complain. I'll even try to pick out a few tomatoes so she doesn't have nightmares! If we are having steak, we cook theirs a little longer since they don't like it too rare. If I make chicken wings, I keep a few plain without seasoning since they don't like spicy food. These are all very easy modifications.
2. We expose them to foods over and over.
The kids don't like sweet potatoes. Instead of leaving it off their plate, I put a small amount every time we eat them. The theory is that over time, they won't be so afraid of this food. We've had success with this method with several different foods. Sometimes it takes up to 10 exposures before they touch it with their finger. Then it may take another time or two before they pick it up and smell it. They may even go so far as to touch it to their tongue and say "yuck". We still put it on their plate because eventually they get brave enough to actually try it. We always laugh and celebrate when they finally try something new and actually like it.
3. We allow some substitutions on veggies.
Our kids don't like mushrooms (yet). The other night we had steak topped with mushrooms. The kids had steak and they had a bit of mushroom on their plate, but their main veggie was sugar snap peas. They also had a sweet potato to get used to. We know they will eat steak and peas. The other sides are just there for exposure.
4. We don't threaten or bribe.
We've all done this one. "Eat that or go to your room". "Eat that or no dessert". Newsflash, this doesn't usually work. It causes frustration on both ends. I don't like certain foods and you can threaten all you want, I ain't gonna eat it. I have many a memory of missing out on dessert and sitting at the table for hours. I don't remember it ever working on me. Instead, it became a battle. Sometimes, parents even put the "nasty" food in the fridge and bring it out later with the theory if the kid is hungry enough they will give in. Maybe they will eat at that point, but now we've created a huge battle over food. A battle I don't want to fight. I'd rather give them healthy choices and encourage a love for food.
5. We talk it up
When we are eating something they won't even try, we talk to each about how good it is. "These mushrooms cooked in butter taste like candy!". "I need more of those sweet potatoes!". "I love this new salad dressing. It's my new favorite". The kids are always listening. We are genuine with our comments. We aren't trying to "trick" them. Over time, they get curious and are willing to try these new things.
6. We DON'T fix a separate meal
Sometimes my modifications aren't good enough to appease a child. That's ok. I very kindly remind them mommy has already cooked a meal for dinner. If they don't like it they can get their own dinner. This means they have to get food on their own that is mom/dad approved. Acceptable options would be fruit, veggies, cheese, and nuts. It has to be healthy and it has to not involve me helping. They have to bring it to the table and eat with us. The good news is that the kids don't often use this option. Usually the meal is "kid friendly" enough to keep them happy.
Dinner is meant for nourishment and connecting. We connect with sharing stories and jokes. We plan for the future, whether it's talking about the weekly schedule or the next vacation spot. The dinner table is not the place or time to battle about food. I want the focus to be on each other, not the food on our plates. It takes time for kids to warm up to new foods. It takes patience. As long as the kid has some healthy things on their plate, I'm ok with a few modications to make dinner more pleasant for everyone. Hang in there, parents. The rewards of a happy family at dinner far outweigh the fact of who did and didn't eat their brussell sprouts!