In our fast-paced, technology-driven society, mealtimes present a rare opportunity to spend a few screen-free moments with your family. Most children experience a picky-eating stage. For our family, strong food preferences can extend well into adulthood. It’s possible that my girls inherited similar discerning taste buds, so I decided early on that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice this precious time together because of food battles. I chose to focus on the quality of our interactions around the table instead.
I realize that I’m hardly alone with my struggle to provide my family with delicious, healthy food. It’s a constant juggling act for most parents. If you have limited time to cook, dietary restrictions, or finicky eaters, preparing well-balanced meals that your family will heartily consume seems like an amazing feat. Our escapades have shown me there are a few simple approaches that can make mealtimes enjoyable, regardless of your situation:
Offer something for everyone. I’m not encouraging you to become a short-order cook, but I am suggesting you prepare a family meal with a very specific type of thoughtfulness. Think about the individual components of your meal, and try to make sure there is at least one item of food that each person enjoys.
It’s okay with me if my children want seconds on fruits, vegetables, and grains. Whatever they like, they can have more of it. According to our pediatrician, a serving size for protein is the same for children as it is for adults—the size of your palm. For a small child, that’s a chicken nugget.
Good manners go a long way. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I don’t like cooking. Watching my family scowl over the food I prepare makes the chore even more dreadful.
My youngest child wouldn’t mind eating the same thing every day, but we’ve come a long way with this child’s skepticism around food. As a toddler, she would refuse a plate of food on sight alone and would not touch it if there was one objectionable item. Yep, that’s right, she actually made an “arnt” noise before her plate even hit the table.
How did we encourage mutual respect at the dinner table when one child picketed her plate? In our home, children do not have to clean their plates; however, out of respect for the person who prepared the meal, we will not act offended by what we are served. In turn, the cook will not force you to eat anything you don’t want to try, just like in a restaurant. A simply said, “No thank you,” lets me know they don’t want to try something. I’m hopeful this will come in handy when they are served broccoli at someone else’s home.
Incorporating new food can be a game. In the spirit of curiosity, if I notice that one particular item never seems to disappear from a family member’s plate, I might ask that person—children and adults alike—why he or she didn’t eat it. I use the opportunity to listen to how that person describes the food. Is it the taste or texture? Is it something that can be fixed by cooking it differently? I look at it as a challenge. Can I prepare the food in a way that he or she will eat it? My family knows I’m open to all tasters’ suggestions. I’ve gotten my finicky eaters to enjoy brussels sprouts this way. It’s become a game of sorts for our family. For instance, we’ve determined my husband will eat anything that tastes good with hot sauce on it.
When we got married, my husband didn’t eat anything green. He had legendary stubbornness when it came to his “green bean” chart as a kid. Being raised in the south, the vegetables he was served as a child were often “smothered” (i.e., boiled to smithereens in a pot, often with some kind of pork), and he didn’t like the smell. Come to find out, he thinks pan-sautéed green beans are delectable. I thought my in-laws were going to fall out of their chairs when they saw him sit down to our table and eat a plate full of them.
Dessert isn’t a given. We don’t negotiate bites or force feed our children in order for them to qualify for dessert. Typically, if they are still hungry after the meal is finished and leftovers are not available, I will offer them yogurt or fruit. We save dessert as a special treat on Saturday nights. It’s become a tradition, and I don’t worry about it if their meal isn’t completely balanced one night a week. I’m not an absolute curmudgeon; I do occasionally surprise my children with treats sprinkled throughout the week. However, they don’t know when they are coming, and I never mention them until a meal is complete.
Not liking a certain food is okay. In the end, if I’ve introduced a food a dozen times and tried to cook it in every way imaginable, it’s okay for my children to tell me they don’t like it. I realize everyone has individual preferences when it comes to food, even children. As children born in the ‘70s, both my husband and I are happy that liver and onions went out of fashion. Both of us still have vivid memories of it being served to us as children.
Have I figured out how to “best” my picky eaters? No, but in using the suggestions above I have learned how to make mealtimes more enjoyable for everyone so that we can spend the time focusing on each other and not on the distasteful food eyeing us from our plates.
QUESTION: Do you have any success stories on getting your family to try new foods? How did you do it, and would you do it again? How might you change your tactic the next time?
CHALLENGE: Pick one of the suggestions above or create one of your own, and see if you can expand the food repertoire around your table without creating conflict.
Edited by Katie Carter and Becky Fawcett.
Image from Shutterstock; graphics by Anna Jenkins.