Eating WITH Children: Strategies to Make It Work

It helps to have a sense of humor when eating with kids.
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As a writer who writes about food, I'm often asked a version of the question, "how can I make family dinners that everyone -- including the children -- will enjoy?"

It's a good question. In our own family life, there have been times where my creative cooking energies have been nearly stifled by the complaints of my children. There are at least four basic responses to the problem of kids who don't want what's for dinner. I've broken them down here:

#1 Change family cooking/eating habits to suit kid tastes

I'm not a huge fan of changing family cooking and eating habits to suit kids' tastes, but I'm not a legalist on this, either: making reasonable changes make sense. Despite the claims of recent popular books, in my time overseas, I noticed that European (particularly Continental) parents make adjustments in the food for their children. So let's say my friend was going to broil some chicken and vegetables. She might put a curry rub on most of it, but leave a small, separate portion plain for the children. I like this. While there's always the parents (like mine!) who brag that their kids ate spicy curries at eighteen months of age (which I did), it's also true that kids are biologically wired to dislike strong and bitter flavors -- perhaps a protective mechanism to keep them from eating poisonous plants and such. Making small, reasonable adjustments seems to me like kindness and good sense.

#2 Making ultimatums and threatening not to feed the child until they eat what's in front of them.

Ah, the time-honored tradition! And there's a measure of wisdom in it, maybe. But think of a food YOU'RE averse to and imagine being told "eat it, and you're not getting anything else until you DO eat it." I'm stubborn enough to starve until I convinced whoever was doing this to me to give me something I like, and my kid inherited this same "spiritedness." This is a kind of force feeding, and I don't like it.

#3 Preparing separate dishes for adults and children.

Generally, this is way too much work. In practice, it can mean relying on convenience foods (frozen chicken nuggets? Spaghetti-Os?) to feed the kids while the grownups eat something else. Another thing that I don't like about this approach is that it doesn't provide a way for children to learn to eat "grown-up" foods -- and I think that this is important. Now, I'm no legalist; I'm not going to say that this is something to NEVER do. It makes sense, for example, if you're having a late, grownup dinner party, to make something simple beforehand for the children, like macaroni and cheese and some steamed vegetables. (Unless you're me, and your kids hate mac & cheese. Go figure.)

Finally, #4: Allow the children to choose for themselves what they will eat from what's being served, and offer one or two reasonable alternatives in the event of a hated-one dish type meal.

Our family falls most comfortably into this approach. My colleague and friend Ellen noted that her family often eats meals that are somewhat customizable, like tortillas with a variety of fillings. That way, each person can choose what suits them while still sharing the same basic meal. I like this, and I also tend to be pretty relaxed in monitoring what my kids choose. This might mean that someone ends up eating a tortilla filled with rice (ahem) but usually, as I look over the choices my kids make from their reasonably healthy options, it works out to a pretty good balance. (Read about an interesting 1928 research experiment on kids' food choices here.) In the event of a mostly-one dish type meal (like a stew or a curry) that they don't like, I am not opposed to letting them eat the bread or rice exclusively, or letting them have some apple slices and peanut butter instead. They don't get to raid the fridge or place orders, but they can choose to eat the meal or to eat the one, simple alternative we have.

Additionally, I'll encourage my kids to try at least a bite of everything that's being served, but in a fun way. I'll pay them a quarter (hey, they're little!) to take one bite of something, or dare them to taste it in classic frat-boy tradition. It helps to have a sense of humor when eating with kids. I think it's important to retain a sense of enjoyment at mealtimes, and not let them become quests for nutritional perfection or battles about "how many bites do I have to eat before I can have dessert?" Because food, after all, is meant for enjoyment as well as nourishment, and one of the most important -- and healthy -- things you can do at mealtime with kids is simply have a good time.