Stop being a short-order cook! Tips for making one meal for your entire family

You may be on board with eating a healthy diet, but what about your kids?

Kids are tough customers, to say the least. They’re notoriously picky — and they’re not quiet about it.

I’ll share my method in an upcoming eGuide, but today, I’m going to tell you why you should stop being a short-order cook to your kids, plus share the easiest way to adapt your meals for your kids without changing the entire menu.

The struggle is real

I get it: The daily dinnertime battle is intense. Some children can get so worked up about eating even familiar foods, let alone new ones, that tears are the least of your problems. Pouting can quickly escalate into a full-on meltdown — or, worse, end with someone gagging until they throw up. Then nobody wants to eat after that.

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(This is not my kid, but I can totally relate.)

Mealtime battles are enormously stressful. I know, because we have them constantly with our 4-year-old. He’s an extremely selective eater with a sensitive palate, a strong sense of smell, and a very sensitive gag reflex. We’ve fought an intense uphill battle to get him to even smell new foods, let alone taste them. But finally, after consulting a number of experts and testing out dozens of tactics, we’ve figured out a method that works for all of us. Using various tricks, rituals, and rules, we’ve gotten him to branch out and add more new foods to his narrow repertoire. Not every dinner is perfect, but we’ve gotten to a place where he knows the ropes and we know how to calmly keep him on task and making progress.

As a baby and toddler, our son would eat pretty much anything. Then at some point, maybe around age 2, he just stopped trying anything new. Little by little, he stopped eating many of the foods he used to enjoy. It took a while to realize what was happening: He had such a sensitive palate that when he ate something familiar that was just a bit off — say, I added too much garlic salt to the scrambled eggs or he got medium cheddar instead of mild — he would gag and throw up, then never touch that food again. Ever. The harder we tried to convince him, the more anxious and worked up he’d get until he started having genuine panic attacks at the dinner table.

It got so bad that he was down to only a handful of foods: bread, peanut butter, some fruits, crackers, peas, pancakes, waffles, and carrots. And of course anything with sugar, though we did our best to avoid it. Since these foods were generally healthy we didn’t push the issue so much, figuring that if we eliminated our resistance he would drop his. But it didn’t happen that way, and soon mealtime battles were an everyday occurrence. And I do mean EVERY DAY. Screaming, stomping, hyperventilating, and throwing up on his plate. It was agony.

So I understand wanting to do whatever it takes just to stop the madness. I do, I really do. We fought the good fight for a while, but when the twins were born, trying to wrangle the 3-year-old to the dinner table to eat foods he found less than pleasant was something we just didn’t have the strength for. So we got into the pattern of making him whatever he wanted at dinner just so we could have a half hour of peace. But of course things didn’t get better; they only got worse.

After months of eating whatever he chose our son felt justified in his demands. And really, how can you blame him? Our actions were effectively telling him that new foods were not for him, and that dinnertime was about enjoying only your favorite foods and getting to completely ignore the rest. That’s when we realized that we weren’t doing him any favors by making him separate meals; we were enforcing terrible behaviors, not helping him grow emotionally or physically, and making things harder on all of us.

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What are you enforcing?

As children grow, they must learn to put their own demands aside when the situation requires and make good decisions that will benefit everyone. It’s a life skill that all humans need and is crucial in helping your children grow to become content, well-adjusted adults.

Being a short-order cook and making separate meals for your kids enforces a number of negative behaviors and leads to harmful outcomes. Among them:

  1. It tells your children that they are in charge, not you.
  2. It puts too much stress on parents to make sure their kids will like every little thing they make.
  3. It eliminates the desire to branch out and eat better.
  4. It’s just way too much work. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat.

But perhaps most importantly, if you make one thing for mom and dad but something separate for your children, it gives kids the idea that they won’t like grown-up foods, that they’re yucky or scary to try. You’re subconsciously telling your children that they’re right to be wary of new foods, and that you don’t believe your kids can eat them and like them. You may be saying, “Try it, it’s yummy,” but your actions are telling them the exact opposite.

And seriously, your kids can’t survive on chicken nuggets alone, no matter how hard they try to convince you otherwise. Something’s gotta give.

Eat what the family eats

Instead, encouraging your children to eat what the family eats enforces the idea that nutrition is for everyone — that all foods are for everyone — and there’s nothing gross about trying something new. When the family eats the same meal together, the feeling of unity empowers children to realize that they can eat what the family eats, without tears or fear. They’re encouraged to be part of the team. It’s the best way to make your actions consistent with your beliefs and your goals for your child, and to send the unequivocal message that eating together as a family makes us happy and healthy.

That’s why we’ve chosen this as our #1 dinnertime rule:

We eat what the family eats.

In my upcoming eGuide I’ll share my full method for getting kids to try new foods and eat what the family eats. It’s a program I put together after consulting nutritionists, pediatricians, and child development experts, and it’s been road-tested in my own home so I’ve worked out the kinks and perfected it. Until then, I’m going to share three easy ways to adapt your meals so your kids can enjoy them without having to change the entire menu.

MAKE IT KID-FRIENDLY

Of course the easiest way to make a meal your family will enjoy is to choose menu items you know your children love. You may want to dedicate one night a week to your kids’ favorites, like spaghetti or breakfast for dinner. You can’t go wrong with my quick banana pancakes with coconut whipped cream. They’re easy, healthy, delicious, and — bonus! — completely sugar-free.

Kids’ choice night would be a great opportunity for your children to help out in the kitchen or even make meals completely on their own. This not only helps them look forward to meals, but reinforces the idea that dinner time really is about everyone in the family and their wishes are met, too.

DECONSTRUCT IT

Making kid-friendly meals isn’t always possible, nor is it the best way to go 100 percent of the time because it limits the kinds of foods you make and serve. Instead, if I’m making a meal that’s not well-suited for children, I deconstruct their portion before serving it to my kids. “Deconstructed” has become a buzz word in the cooking world, but all it really means is to take apart the pieces of a dish and serve them in a different way. For my 4-year-old, this usually means serving the components separately and without sauce; for example, setting aside some cooked vegetables before I add them to the pot pie filling. For my twin toddlers, who enjoy sauce and advanced flavors more than their older brother, this means making the pieces smaller and safer for them or cutting everything into finger foods they can feed themselves.

Here’s a look at how I served my Chinese chop salad with sesame noodles (made with three different kinds of cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, edamame, cashews, and cilantro) to my children. My babies got plain noodles, shelled edamame, and cucumbers chopped up small enough for them to eat. I also lightly steamed some of the cabbage and carrots for them so they could chew safely.

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My son also got plain noodles, as well as the carrots and cucumbers but sliced in a fun way. He got a little bit of salad with dressing to try as well, because our second dinnertime rule is that he has to have at least one bite of everything new.

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ADD THEIR FAVORITE SIDES

Last but not least, I try to add a side dish or two I know my kids enjoy, like biscuits or fruit salad. This side doesn’t even have to be related to the meal and can be as simple as slicing up some apples or putting a bowl of crackers on the table. This way it’s integrated into dinnertime and served to everyone, so the child isn’t getting a separate meal, but it does guarantee that there’s something your picky eater will actually eat without a fuss so he or she won’t go hungry. Everyone wins.

Have you waged war with a picky eater and come out victorious? Got any tips for the rest of us? Share in the comments below!

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7 thoughts on “Stop being a short-order cook! Tips for making one meal for your entire family

  1. learntolovefood says:

    Great points, explanations and tips! I have a lot of tips and info on my blog learntolovefood.com. I’d love to know what you think, if you get a chance to check it out! It’s so great that you’re sharing how to incorporate these ideas into your mealtimes!

    Like

  2. ktayd13 says:

    You are a wizard! Those cucumber stars are perfect!

    One question I have is how you got your son to go from tantrums to eating what everyone else ate after you had been already fixing him whatever he wanted. I think the “We eat what everyone else eats” rule is great, but the transition after implementing that rule could not have been easy!

    Like

    • Lindsay Maxfield says:

      Thanks! And you’re right, the transition was NOT easy. And honestly, it’s still not a walk in the park. But that’s life with kids, right? They have their own personalities and are not always going to do what we want them to do. I’m going to cover it all in my upcoming eGuide, but the idea is to take one step at a time. At first we did make a sudden stop and tell him we weren’t going to make him whatever he wants for dinner anymore (and for a while I made extremely kid-friendly foods to compensate). After that we made one change at a time over the course of several months. First, we got him in the kitchen while I was cooking just to smell the food. Then we’d let him touch and play with it, then we’d have him take one lick, then he had to take one teeny nibble, and so on. For us it’s been about building his confidence because he has severe anxiety about new foods. We have a whole system in place beyond this one-step-at-a-time stuff, so keep checking back for that eGuide! I hope to have it done in the next month 🙂

      Like

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