Frustrated about the lack of enthusiasm and respect at the family dinner table? Here are 20 tips for more joyful family dinners.
“Is this what’s for dinner mom?” “I don’t like this!” “Can I have something else?”
There are few things more frustrating than when you make a nice meal for your family only to have the kids not eat it.
So what’s a parent to do when their kids won’t even “taste” the food? Well, the reality is that there is no simple solution that will make your picky eater more adventurous overnight. But what you can control is your approach to meal times as well as other food opportunities throughout the day.
While no one family is unique, here are 20 tips that over time can help bring an end to mealtime battles.
- Relax, you are doing fine. Often times we get upset because we feel like a failure. “Why are my kids so picky? It must be my fault.” Be reassured that it’s not all your fault. Picky eating behaviors are usually the result of many different factors and putting the blame on yourself (or your cooking) is not going to help.
- Follow the Division of Responsibility by Ellyn Satter: You decide what you serve and when you eat; your child decides whether or not to eat it and how much to eat.
- Serve meals family style and let everyone serve themselves. This will give kids more control and independence over what they choose to put on their plate.
- Encourage a tasting bite, but don’t force it or bribe them to taste it. Even if it’s a food you are 99% certain they would like if they tasted it, they will not like it if they have already made up their mind not to like it. Instead, encourage them to maybe just smell it or touch it.
- Likewise, don’t force a child to finish a food or tell them they have to eat something before they can have dessert. If your child is prone to not eating dinner but always having room for dessert, try serving dessert at the same time as dinner. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it actually teaches kids that dessert is not a reward for eating your veggies, it’s just another food to be eaten and enjoyed.
- Try to make sure that all the kids like at least one food that is being served that night, even if that’s just a side of plain rice. That way at least no one will have a totally empty plate.
- Don’t make a big deal about what your child is eating or not eating. In fact, try not to even mention it. The more attention you draw to their picky eating, the more likely they are to continue with it. Instead, focus on a non-food conversation such as how everyone’s day was.
- Let your kids lead the dinner conversation (or have their own conversations). Often times, you are better off just letting your kids lead the conversation, even if it’s silly or you don’t even know what they are talking about. (Yes, as a mom of two boys over the years I have struggled to “be in on” various topics such as Ninjago, Minecraft, and, currently, sports!) As long as they are happy and chatting it makes dinner more fun and that is a plus.
- Teach respect. If your child makes a fuss about what is being served politely tell them they don’t have to eat it. If they continue to make a fuss and you know it might set you over the edge or risk all-out chaos erupting at the table, politely tell them that you worked hard to prepare this meal for the family and that they can go up to their room until they are ready to be nice.
- Focus on manners. As mentioned above, while deciding to not eat or even taste a food is ok, being rude is not. In addition to all around respect, instill good manners–such as saying please and thank you, putting your napkin on your lap, not using phones at the table, etc. One way to help teach manners is role modeling these behaviors yourself and even telling stories about “how it was when you were little.” Of course, remember your ultimate goal is a joyful dinner, so expect that this too will take time and not always be perfect. Also be age-realistic, for example, little ones may not be able to sit straight or even still for very long.
- Cook only one meal (unless there are food allergy reasons why you can’t do this). But go ahead and leave foods plain or separate if your kids are more likely to eat them. This way they will be more likely to eat the food and it doesn’t result in extra cooking for you.
- Plan meals so that there are at least 2-3 dinners that everyone loves each week. So balance that Tofu Stir-Fry dinner with the Pasta and Meatballs dinner the following night. Having everyone excited about at least a few meals every week will help elevate the overall mood at the table.
- But also teach your kids that not every night will be their favorite food night, and that’s ok. We eat for pleasure because foods taste good, but we also eat for nourishment. Some days the food they eat will be higher on the pleasure scale and other days it will be lower.
- Enlist your kids to help plan the weekly dinners. This may not be an every week activity but is important to do now and then. If you are really in a rut, you could even let the kids take over and plan the whole week! (See one of my old posts about that here!)
- Have your kids help set and clear the dinner table. This will make them more involved with the efforts of dinner and more likely to appreciate it.
- Encourage your child to help you prepare dinner. Whether it’s rinsing salad greens, sauteing veggies, or adding seasonings, there are so many ways they can be involved. Before you know it, they will be asking to make one of their favorite meals. (My older son started making these “cod nuggets” when he was around 9).
- Enlist friends! If your child has a friend that is a good eater, invite them over for dinner. Seeing their friend enjoy the food that is served may inspire your child to try a new food too, maybe not right away, but in time.
- Make sure your kids come to the table hungry! Try to “close up the kitchen” for snacking at least 1 hour before dinner. If your kids are super hungry and dinner is not yet ready, serve a veggie platter.
- Give yourself a break, literally. Take the pressure off yourself and get some cooking help by ordering takeout, serving healthy ready-prepared meals, or going out to eat. Whether you do this regularly every Wednesday and Saturday, sporadically, or often, don’t feel guilty. Not only will you get a break from cooking, but if your kids make sour statements about the food, at least you won’t take them so personally.
- Let go of expectations. Finally, dinner time can be tough for a lot of reasons: it’s late, you’re tired, your kids are tired, your significant other is tired (or perhaps still at work!), there are conflicting activities, it’s rushed, etc. So it’s already a tough time to introduce new foods and try to sit nicely around a table. This is ok. Instead, focus on the positive and let go of any expectations of what the “perfect family dinner” should look like. Know that just like the picture perfect Instagram family, this doesn’t exist. No one is perfect. Instead, focus on creating joyful dinners most of the time.