No one ever warned me that meal time would be the most contentious time of day as a mother. I’ve always heard the horror stories of bed times gone awry, but everyone failed to mention the daily struggles that can accompany trying to get your kids to eat.
For most parents I know, we’ve all shared the same meal time charade of trying to convince our kids that we don’t in fact hate them, no matter how offended they are by our plate offerings.
We love our kids and want them to be healthy. So we buy healthful ingredients and make nutritious meals and serve it up with all the love and tenderness. And yet, and yet, our kids look at us like we’ve had the nerve to ask them to eat their own hair.
Our three kids are three very different types of eaters but they each have put us through varying degrees of meal time drama. But, for the most part, I think they’ve grown into downright great eaters. They like a variety of foods, love being in the kitchen, and are incredibly pleasant to take out to eat. Sure, there are certain factors that can cause our family dinner scene to look like a dumpster fire, but those factors are usually fleeting and largely circumstantial (like when the kids don’t feel good or are going through a growth spurt, for example).
Over the years, I’ve lived by a few simple rules when it comes to getting my kids to eat good things and be pleasant to be around during meal time. I thought I’d share those rules with you today!
- Don’t buy things you don’t want them to eat.
I know this seems self explanatory, but really, it’s not. It’s so easy to give in to those little whines at the grocery store or to cave and pick up something easy but lacking in nutritional quality. Stick to your guns when you shop, both for yourself and for your family. If you won’t feel great putting it on their plate (or yours), then don’t put it in your cart.
- Constantly expose them to new tastes, textures, and flavors. And then, give them a chance to try those things over and over again. (Researchers agree that it takes an average of 8-9 tries to develop a taste for something, so keep trying!)
No matter how skeptical you are that your little ones will enjoy eating something new, continue to help them explore a wide variety of tastes, textures, and flavors by constantly putting them in front of new tasting opportunities.
For the record, I’m a big believer that this should start early, which is why I’m such a huge supporter of baby led weaning. My youngest two kids are my best eaters, and I attribute that largely to all they were exposed to through baby led weaning. Baby food creates little eaters who expect food to be bland and pureed, which will do nothing for your crusade to create adventurous eaters. You can read more about our baby led weaning experiences here and here.
- Take your kids out to eat at restaurants that serve good food prepared in healthful and delicious ways…and then order them something you would eat (aka NOT off the kids menu).
I 100% enjoy taking my kids out to eat at a sit down restaurant. It actually really bums me out to hear other parents complain about taking their kids out to eat, because it’s one of my all time favorite things to do with my family. I just really enjoy it. Not because my kids naturally make it easy (if you think that then honestly I don’t know how you get through the day with that level of dumbness). No, I enjoy it because – like anything that our family values – we’ve worked at it.
We give our kids plenty of opportunities to be out with us in a restaurant setting. We plan ahead. We don’t go out to eat at 6:30 on a Saturday night. We make sure our kids know the expectations we have for them before we walk in the door. And…I might get nasty emails for saying this but…we eat out alone. Honestly, dinners at a restaurant with all the extended family might be how you hang out with your family, but that is my nightmare. Waaaay to many “moms” at the table who like to hand out conflicting advice and rules and exceptions to the rules to my kids. It’s stressful and not fun. And I want there to be zero stress and lots of fun when I enjoy my meals with my family.
- Include your kids in the kitchen.
If there is one tip that you take to heart above all the rest, this would be it. For some magical reason, my kids take so much more ownership and pride in the food they eat when they get to be a part of the creation process. I’ve actually started pulling certain kids into the kitchen with me on nights where I’m serving something that I know they’ve turned their noses up at in the past. Plus, I think including your kids in the kitchen builds some pretty important life skills, too. It shows them how much work goes into creating a meal. It exposes them to individual ingredients and cooking and preparation methods. It shows them the nurturing aspects of meal creation. I’m a big believer that our kids need to see the big picture behind every day things. Gratitude and understanding starts with education. Let your kids in on everyday, behind the scenes actives.
- Get creative in how you serve your meals.
This might seem silly, but my kids love it when I serve our dinner buffet style. I don’t do this often, but when I do, they have so much fun lining up and serving themselves. They love the independence of hand picking things they want to eat, and 9 times out of 10, they will grab something new to try just because they are feeling so big and so cool. This past Christmas, Oliver discovered he loves pickled peppers and Theo tried a homemade cheese spread I made – not something he typically goes for.
- Enjoy your meals with your kids.
Honestly, this one isn’t always easy. There are so many nights where I’m tired after being home with the kids all day and creating yet another meal, and the last thing I want to do is hear a complaint about what I put on the dinner table. If I allow myself, I can easily become as grouchy and contentious as my six year old. But, I want to model healthy eating habits that go far beyond just what I put in my mouth. I want to be a great role model for what should be coming out of it, as well. I want to show my kids how to be kind and patient and pleasant at the dinner table. I want to show my kids how to choose healthful food and enjoy it with the people we love.
Raising good eaters isn’t just about the food on our plate, it’s also about the attitude in our hearts. If my kids learn to eat all their veggies but are terrible dinner companions, then I’ve not done anyone any favors. Mealtime is not just about nourishing our bodies, but nourishing our souls, too. I want to show my kids that food is not just fuel, it’s something we gather together around to enjoy together. To grow together. To build a life, together.
- When you make something really good that you want to savor without complaints, feed the kids early and allow you and your honey bunny to have a mini date night at home. (AKA know that you won’t always get your kids to eat the things you make, and sometimes you just need to take the win where you can get it. 😉 )
This tip is pure gold and has been my saving grace on more than a few nights where mommy has just had enooooough and wants to enjoy her food. Sometimes, I just want to enjoy something really fabulous that I prepared. Sometimes, I just know that I’m going to lose the meal time stand off no matter what I make. Sometimes, I just need a break. On those nights, I feed the kids early and then send them off to their room with a quiet activity while I put the finishing touches on a really amazing meal for just my husband and myself. And then…we enjoy it in silence. Ahhhh. Blessed silence.
- Persistence really does pay off, but also, give your kids a break and let them have a few items they don’t like, and don’t have to eat.
Listen, we all have certain things we don’t like. My husband hates mushrooms. I don’t really like bell peppers. Cut your kids some slack and let them have preferences. The goal isn’t to get them to eat everything, just to be well rounded eaters that you enjoy sharing a meal with. I don’t mind serving my kids two different types of fruit at lunch, knowing that they each have their favorites that they will eat and enjoy. I don’t try and get Theo to eat oranges just like I don’t bother putting apple slices on Bea’s plate.
Ultimately, like most aspects of parenting, it takes a lot of work and intention to raise good little eaters. Sometimes I think we forget that these kiddos come into the world completely unformed and that it’s our job to show them the way. If we want them to eat well and behave in a pleasant manner at the table, we have show them the way. We have to model it. We have to reinforce it, over and over.
Food is important to me. I want my kids to learn to love to cook, be adventurous eaters, and be great dinner companions. I value those qualities immensely in a human being. So, it starts with me. I might not always get it right, but I’ll tell you this: each meal time that I’m relaxed but consistent, I see my kids starting to get the message that this matters. What we eat, matters. How we interact as we gather together, matters. Sharing meals together, matters.
This past weekend, we needed to get out of the house. We had been sick and our sick days piled up on snow days which piled up on Christmas Break. We needed to escape the house. So we piled into the van for an impromptu dinner out at a little nearby Italian restaurant. The food was not exactly health fare, but the point of the evening wasn’t necessarily “clean” eating. It was to enjoy a shared experience together around a dinner table. So we loaded up on spaghetti and pizza and Mike and I sat back in amazement as our three kids plowed through three adult sized portions of food. The kids were fun and silly and incredibly sweet, and before the meal was over – covered in spaghetti sauce.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a mom trying to get my kids to eat well is that the goal is not perfection. Shoot, the goal in motherhood is not perfection. It’s something so much larger and more nuanced than that. It’s about modeling to our kids the values we hold dear. It’s about giving them access to the tools and information that they aren’t born with. And it’s about enjoying the process. Because if they see that we aren’t enjoying this whole gig, then they sure as heck aren’t going to make it any more enjoyable.
Don’t just endeavor to get your kids to eat well. Allow yourself to think bigger and broader than that. Focus on teaching them how to live well – which absolutely will include a healthy diet and table manners. But more than that, it will show them that every time we sit down together to share a meal, we have the opportunity to enjoy and savor all that life has to offer us.