No one wants to battle at meal-time. It’s exhausting and frustrating for all involved. Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks that seem to work, at least at my house anyway. So if you’re fed up with dinner dilemmas, give these tips a try. And if they don’t work, well that’s what wine is for. (Originally written and posted on the PAMP Parent’s blog.)
1. Don’t offer “kid-friendly” meals, don’t allow yourself to become a short-order-cook, and don’t ask everyone what they want to eat. If there’s only one choice, guess what they’ll eat? That’s right–what you serve. Make it clear that, “Tonight is lasagna for dinner. If you’re hungry, now is the time to eat.” I’m not saying they have the eat lasagna as it was intended to be eaten…Want to pick out only the meat? Great. Scrape everything off but the noodles? Be my guest. Or if you serve side dishes, let them fill up on just those. The only rule should be: figure out how to fill your belly with the meal in front of you. Because once mealtime is over, the kitchen is closed. No post-meal snacking. Start this practice early and stick to it. I promise your kids will not starve themselves, they will learn to live within your boundaries. What I cannot promise is a peaceful, scream-free meal. But that falls under the heading of discipline, so do what you gotta do there. Also, see intro paragraph re: wine.
2. Don’t assume your kids won’t eat certain foods. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Try not to say things like, “Oh my kid won’t eat that”, or “Don’t even bother putting those greens on my Jr.’s plate”. You are conditioning them with negative thoughts and endorsing their refusal to eat said food. Instead, encourage them to try new foods. The best way to do this is to ease into it. Start by letting your kids look at the food, touch it, smell it, taste it quickly with a lick, and think about it. Then when they’re ready, have them take a bite. Children have a much more sophisticated palate then we give them credit for. Kids in other countries eat many more spices and a wider variety of foods from much earlier in life than US babies. For example, one of the first foods babies are fed in Denmark is liver paté on rye bread. And the babies gobble it up! There’s no need to “dumb-down” a meal for kids to enjoy it.
3. Don’t make mealtime a battle of the wills. The more pressure and focus put on eating certain foods, the more your kids may resist. Don’t worry if they eat everything on their plate. The only criteria for leaving the table should be that your belly is full. Instead of a constant stream of “you must eat your broccoli”, try explaining the different ways in which food fuels us. Protein makes us strong, carbs give us energy, fruits and veg build our immunities to keep us from getting sick. My kids especially like to know what makes them poop more, so there’s that too. It can also be fun to let your kids pick a new food each week from the market, then have them help you cook it. Or better yet, start a garden box at home and let your little ones plant, grow and pick veggies for themselves.
4. Don’t disguise veggies. My guess is veggies are the biggest food families fight over. If that’s the case at your house, you’re not alone. Just look at all the popular books with recipes to “sneak” veggies into your family’s diet. I am not in favor of those techniques. Because what does that teach a kid? That veggies are meant to be disguised and not enjoyed? Not to trust your cooking? Instead explain exactly what you’re serving and enjoy eating it yourself. That being said, smoothies with carrot (or other veggie juice) are a great way to get in a daily serving of fruits and vegetables. But be honest about what you mixed in. Once they say “yuuuummmm” tell them that’s because of the carrot juice and spinach. Also, seasoning is not the same as disguising. Experiment topping veggies with butter, a drizzle of olive oil, a teaspoon of pesto, freshly grated parmesan cheese, freshly ground pepper, cinnamon, or garlic salt. You can also serve raw veggies with different dips, like hummus, spinach dip, ranch dressing, caesar dressing, or try mixing equal amounts of plain yogurt with peanut butter and a squeeze of fresh lime for a quick and delicious dip (so good with banana chips!) Here’s another fav dip recipe.
This Tzatziki Dip is amazeballs! Serve it with toasted pita bread, carrot sticks, and slices of bell pepper.
Ingredients: 1 cup plain Greek yogurt, 3/4 cup shredded cucumber (about 1 medium cucumber), 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, 2 minced garlic cloves, and fresh ground black pepper, to taste.
Directions: 1.) Peel cucumber and shred into a bowl using a cheese grater. 2.) Using a clean, dry towel, press out all moisture from shredded cucumber. 3.) In a separate bowl, combine yogurt, lemon juice, garlic and black pepper. Mix until combined. 4.) Fold in shredded cucumber. 5.) Chill at least 2 hours before serving.
5. Get creative with these tips:
- Incorporate veggies right into the meal, instead of serving on the side. Casseroles, soups, veggie pizzas, and pastas are a great example of this. Quiche is another delicious way to include all the best foods in one dish (my family’s fav recipe below!).
- Veggies are not just for dinner. They make a fantastic morning and afternoon snack as well. Keep slices of cucumbers, carrot sticks, snap peas, broccoli, bell peppers, and grape tomatoes on hand for ready-to-grab snacks. In fact, the rule at my house is that snacks must come from the fridge first. Anything they want they can have–I always have yogurt, cheese, fruit, veggies, nuts, hard-boiled eggs, and leftovers in the fridge.
- We eat a lot of salads at my house. The entire family enjoys grilled chicken caesar, taco salad, chef salad, chinese chicken salad, tuna noodle salad and make-you-own-salad night (which involves me pulling every leftover from the fridge to be used as a salad toppings).
- Here’s a tough one–go back in time and feed your infant veggies as snacks from the very beginning. Or maybe you have an infant now…if so step away from the Gerber Puffs and goldfish crackers! There is absolutely no nutritional value in snacks like those. The minute your baby is ready to snack, serve real, fresh food and their taste buds will start off on the right track.
Here’s my Zucchini Pie recipe. My friend Meg calls it “better than sex zucchini quiche”.
Ingredients: 3 cups zucchini, grated (use a cheese grater), 1 small chopped onion, 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 cup grated mozzarella cheese, 3 slightly beaten eggs, 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, 2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon garlic salt, and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.
Directions: 1.) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. 2.) Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. 3.) Spoon the mixture into a 10-inch round glass pie plate that has been coated with cooking spray. 4.) Bake uncovered for 45-50 minutes, or until firm to the touch and golden brown. 5.) Cool 10 minutes.
Please note, none of this is a perfect science. And I 1000% admit that you know your family better than I do. I also do not pretend to be a nutritionist, pediatrician, nor child psychologist. Some days some of this may work, other days you’ll kids will eat nothing but Cheetos and those blue icy pop thingies from the gas station. I get it. No judgment. I write this from a place of trying to help, not from a pedestal atop my perfect family. So are we good? Alright, ’cause I gotta go feed my kids cereal for dinner now.