In Part 1 of my Feeding with Freedom series, I talked about the importance of family dinner. But how do you make family dinner work for all involved, including the picky eaters? Can one meal really be made for everyone? And if one meal is made, will everyone really eat it?
The answer is a resounding YES! Though it may take some planning and preparation, especially in the beginning, one meal can be made that everyone will (eventually!) learn to enjoy. It is important to be prepared with ingredients on hand, and to have an idea of what will be made at least one day ahead. I usually plan my main dish the day before (or sometimes earlier–I am trying to get into that habit) so I can defrost meat, soak beans, or have any prep done in enough time. I have just started using a great service called Plan to Eat that provides you with an online recipe book, a drag and drop weekly menu, and shopping lists that you can access from your phone. The more organized you are for the week or days ahead, the better chance you have of pulling off the meal with relative ease.
At each meal, offer several components. For instance, offer a meat or meat alternative, 1 or 2 starches like rice, pasta, or potatoes, and 1 or 2 vegetables and/or fruits. Serve each component in it’s own dish in the center of the table, and allow family members to serve themselves if appropriate. Allow children to eat their fill of each food available without suggestion as to what else or how much of anything should be eaten.
When planning the meal, think about the main dish first. This is usually a protein such as meat, poultry, chicken, fish, beans, or tofu. It does not always have to be a dish that you know your children will enjoy, and oftentimes meat dishes (especially when they are mixed with a lot of other ingredients, like casseroles) can be the most difficult for a picky eater to handle. This is OK. If it isn’t too much trouble I will sometimes leave some of the ingredients separate for my picky eater, and other times not. In fact my son surprised me a few weeks ago when I made a chicken, pasta and pesto dish and left plain chicken and pasta for him on the side. He went right for the mixed dish like he had been eating it all his life. MInd you he had been refusing pesto for probably the past 2 years. I served it up with nary a smile, though I was cheering on the inside! And I am happy to report he ate pesto again tonight, despite my low (but secretive) expectations!
If you are planning a main dish that you are fairly certain your child will not accept, plan side dishes that you know they will like such as pasta or rice. If you have a couple of picky eaters and one will eat this or the other won’t eat that, tack on an extra starch (like bread and butter) or fruit that you know your child will eat. If the main dish is something you know your child will most likely eat, this is the time to introduce new starches, new vegetables, or vegetables your child has previously refused.
Once the meal is on the table, it is time for you to be firm that there is nothing else being offered for dinner. It is also the time to relax about what does or does not get eaten. It is hard at first, but you have to be OK with your child eating only bread and butter for dinner. If they are hungry enough (or bored enough with eating bread and butter) they will begin to push themselves to explore the other foods on the table, as long as there is no pressure being put on them.
That said, some children are amenable to tasting new foods when prompted as long as they know they are not required to eat them if they don’t like it. And this is, of course, a great and easy way to get kids to taste foods they would not otherwise. However, other children will refuse trying a new food simply because someone asked them to. Only you know your child, and only you know what will work best for them. So it is up to you to decide the best way for your family.
Lastly, try serving foods in different ways, and don’t be afraid to dress up your vegetables or make them fun to eat in some way. I love vegetables, but even I don’t get excited about eating plain steamed broccoli. Add flavor with a little butter and salt, cheese, or a dip on the side. Besides, a little fat helps the body absorb all the nutrients from the vegetables much more efficiently!
I’d love to hear whether any of you have started serving family dinner, and what the results have been!