Written by guest writer Suzanne Farrell

Family meals are more powerful than you might think. Research shows that the more meals families share together, the better our children eat overall, consuming more fruits, vegetables and fiber. Kids also have increased self-esteem, sense of well-being, stronger family relationships, and positive social behaviors. Those who eat with their families at least four times a week (any meal, not just dinner) tend to earn better grades at school. However, with differing taste buds and perhaps some picky eaters at the table, alongside busy schedules, getting dinner on the table remains to be a challenge!

But I don’t want that for dinner!….

It’s a fact that not everyone in the family’s going to love what’s for dinner every night, and that’s okay. It’s one of the reasons that eating out can be so appealing.  Everyone can just order something different. However, at home, that’s not how it works, and being a short-order cook is definitely not the solution. Making separate meals for different family members on a regular basis is stressful and demanding, and it can send the wrong messages to our kids. Being flexible, and realizing that you aren’t always going to love what’s put in front of you, while learning how to deal with it appropriately, is a lifelong skill. It’s at home, with our family, where we first learn about compromise, flexibility and mealtime manners. Our home is the University of Eating. A good rule of thumb is to serve at least one or two foods with the meal that you know will be enjoyed.

You Provide, They Decide

Our job is to provide a balanced meal, while always offering at least one to two food groups, (such as in a side), that will be liked. According to nutrition and feeding expert Ellyn Satter RD, MSW, and her well documented division of responsibility, parents are the what, when and where of mealtime, and the child is in charge of how much they eat and whether or not they eat it. It’s key to keep family mealtimes as pleasant, positive and stress-free as possible. Enjoyment at mealtime is key!

Parents of picky eaters, understandably, often feel overwhelmed at mealtime and it can feel easier to just make a separate meal. However, as tempting as this can be, it’s not very helpful in the long run to you or your child. A good goal is to consistently increase exposure to a variety of foods without the pressure of having to eat it (meal time rule of thumb: you provide, they decide). Serve new foods alongside familiar ones. They can have their chicken nuggets night, but not every night. Other nights, sister will get her favorite dinner, and then dad, and so on. Responses to foods and meals are learned at home and pouting or yelling “yuk” or “gross”, or worse, having a tantrum, is just not acceptable behavior. In these cases it’s not necessarily the food that needs to change; it’s the behavior.

What to Serve?

Ways to round out meals is to aim for a variety of at least four-to-five food groups at the table:

Grains: rice, pasta, bread, corn, tortilla, cous cous, quinoa, barley (incorporate whole grain options)

Proteins: chicken, turkey, beef, fish, pork, eggs, beans (black, pinto, kidney, garbanzo, cannellini, lentils, edamame), nuts, nut butters, dairy

Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt

Fruits: blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, apple slices, applesauce, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes

Veggies: salad greens, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, green beans, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, peas

Again, aim to serve at least two food groups, or a side dish, that you know he or she will like. This is fair. For example, if making your famous meatloaf recipe that only mom and dad really like, serve it with a glass of milk, and have on the table a bowl of fruit, a favorite veggie, and/or a grain that you know they’ll like. It can also be fun, as well as very helpful, to serve dinners family style so kids can practice serving the meal themselves, which can feel very empowering.

So remember, if dinner is just not a winner for everyone tonight, that’s okay because everyone will know that there’s always tomorrow.

One More Tip:

The busy week goes by much easier if it’s possible to pick one day, such as Sunday or Monday to plan for at least three dinners and stock up on the groceries for it. They don’t have to be fancy or new- just aim for balance!

Sign up for this and other nutrition related events at www.kidconsciousproject.com

Contributor Suzanne Farrell is the Owner of Cherry Creek Nutrition. Join The
Kidconscious Project
along with Suzanne as she addresses “Snack Attacks: a nutrition class for kids” on Friday, April 12th from 4:30-5:30pm. $20/kid to participate.