Back Away from that Peanut Butter Jar!
On my blog, The Lunch Tray, I’m a big proponent of the family dinner, providing recipes, links, tips and resources to help busy families pull off this feat as often as possible.
But one obstacle to a stress-free family dinner is the so-called “picky eater,” the child who resists the food everyone else is eating and makes getting an acceptable meal on the table that much harder. Parents of the picky sometimes tell me they cater to many individual palates at dinnertime, serving one entrée for the grown-ups while preparing different “kid-safe” dishes for each of their kids, like hot dogs, yogurt, buttered noodles, PB&J’s or grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ve even encountered parents who, when their carefully prepared entree is rejected, feel they must jump up from the table and hastily find an acceptable alternative in their pantry or fridge (or let their child do it), just to keep the peace.
I hesitate to stand in judgment of other families’ practices and, of course, the main goal is just to sit down and eat together, however you can make that happen. But I do think this sort of “short-order cooking” at dinner is a bad idea on many levels, not the least of which is that it can lead to a seriously tired and cranky cook. (That’s all the more likely if you’ve gone to such special lengths to make everyone their own dinner — and they still don’t eat it!) More importantly, just like those uninspired but ubiquitous “children’s menus” at every major restaurant, short order cooking deprives kids of a nightly opportunity to expand their palates. How will your child ever learn to like something other than buttered noodles if they’re always on the table? And finally, not to get too esoteric, but there’s something about everyone eating their own separate little meal that, for me at least, just undercuts the whole idea of “family dinner.”
If you have fallen into the habit of short-order cooking, it’s never too late to change course. Gather your family together and tell them that although short-order cooking has gone on for some time, it’s no longer working for you. Tell everyone that from now on, only one dinner is going to be served, and while no one is ever going to be pressured or forced to eat anything, neither will they have the option to request or make a second dinner.
Now you have to employ some clever strategies that will get everyone eating (essentially) the same meal at dinner time:
The “Customizable” Meal
One technique I’ve used with great success is the “customizable” meal, i.e., a meal with lots of little components that everyone can fashion to his or her liking. A good example of this sort of meal in my house is Cal-Mex style fish tacos: I pan-fry or bake breaded, thin white fish filets and serve them with whole wheat tortillas, shredded red cabbage, guacamole, tomatillo salsa, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, fat-free refried black beans, lime slices, and sour cream. Out of that whole dinner, which seems sort of elaborate at first glance, all I really “cook” is the fish (unless you count mashing avocados) and everyone can make a nutritious combination they like — even my one child who skips the fish entirely.
Other easy ideas for customizable meals might include:
- beef, turkey or soy meat tacos in a hard corn shell, with toppings like those listed above;
- baked or fried falafel patties served with pita bread, toppings (tahini sauce, hot sauce) and vegetables (sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, shredded lettuce, shredded carrots) to stuff inside;
- a baked potato “bar” with sour cream, shredded cheese, green onions and a protein-rich topping like pork or turkey bacon, bean or meat chili, or diced chicken;
- “make-your-own” pizzas where everyone picks out their toppings (sautéed veggies, soy or real pepperoni or sausage, olives, etc.) before the pizzas go into the oven.
You get the idea.
Kid-Proof Your Entrees
Another technique to get everyone on the same page is to make simple modifications to an entrée so that kids and adults alike can enjoy it. This might be as basic as leaving the pan sauce off a chicken dish and serving it on the side, so that picky kids can eat plain chicken while adults enjoy a more flavorful meal. Similarly, back when my kids were more veggie-resistant, I would sometimes leave sautéed vegetables out of a pasta entree and serve them instead in little bowls. My husband and I just added them to our pasta at the table — as could any kid who was feeling adventurous that night.
Use Side Dishes to Give Kids an “Out”
No matter what I’m serving for dinner (but especially if it’s something unfamiliar or a “one-dish” meal), I try to be sure there’s at least one thing on the table that’s likely to be eaten by my kids without complaint. When choosing these kid-safe side dishes, I try to select foods that fit logically with whatever else I’m serving (e.g., corn bread with my chili or black bean soup; whole wheat couscous with my Moroccan vegetable stew; maple-glazed sweet potato wedges with my chicken) so that it doesn’t look like I’m putting that food on the table specifically to serve as an “out” for my kids — even if that’s the brilliant strategy behind it. And then if my kid winds up eating only couscous or corn bread that night, I silently repeat to myself this mantra: No one is going to starve.
As you can see from all of these suggestions, I’m a lot less concerned that everyone actually eat the exact same meal, and more concerned that everyone chooses from the same array of options on the table. Why do I think that’s important? Because, following the guidance of kid-and-food expert Ellyn Satter, I do believe that — absent lots of overt pressure from you — kids will eventually explore those foods on the table that they find more challenging. Using my fish tacos, for example, your four-year-old might only want a plain tortilla with a little cheese in it, your seven-year-old might venture to try the fish and your twelve-year-old might load up his taco with everything he can lay his hands on. But that progression – slow and frustrating as it can be sometimes – will simply never happen if the safe, familiar PB&J or bowl of cereal is always at the ready.
And by the way, as dedicated Lunch Tray readers already know, I speak here from long experience. I was blessed with one child whose fear and loathing of vegetables (or even foods containing the slightest hint of vegetables) was endlessly astonishing to me and my husband, both adventurous eaters who have modeled veggie-eating in front of my son since birth. And even my daughter, who has always been more willing to try new foods, has had her own quirky likes and dislikes over the years. But I never catered to special demands at dinner and I did employ all the techniques outlined above. Some nights it was absolutely maddening to watch what I considered a perfectly great meal go untouched by my kids, and sometimes I had to sit on my hands not to jump up and make something else, lest my little darlings go unnourished. But I can tell you that the pay-off is worth it. My former veggie-phobe is now in fourth grade and is slowly but quite steadily expanding his list of acceptable vegetables and other previously spurned foods, and my daughter remains a quite flexible eater. Both kids will now at least try pretty much anything I put down on the table, even if they ultimately conclude it’s not a favorite.
Family dinner is important for so many reasons – it’s where a family’s bonds are strengthened and its norms and culture absorbed, where table manners are learned, and where everyone can simply relax enjoy each other’s company. But it’s also the ideal laboratory to expose kids to foods that are more challenging than those usually encountered at breakfast and lunch. So don’t squander this perfect opportunity for learning and exploration. Instead, back away slowly from that jar of peanut butter, sit down at the table and try not to worry too much about who is eating what from your family meal. I promise you, if you can resist the siren call of the buttered noodle, it’s all going to work out in the end.
Bettina Elias Siegel is a former lawyer, freelance magazine writer and the parent of two children in Houston public schools. She blogs daily about “kids and food, in school and out” on The Lunch Tray, which has been recognized by Rachel Ray’s Yum-O! Foundation and as a Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution “Blog of the Month.” She is also actively involved in efforts to improve school food in her own district and reports specifically on Houston ISD school food news on her new blog, The Spork Report.