But if your kids are picky putting balanced and varied meals on the table can be quite a challenge.
I often see parents falling into one of two traps:
1. Preparing the same familiar dishes for the kids and eating with the spouse later.
2. Making a balanced meal and if kids reject it, quickly whipping up an alternative.
But I believe that every family can share just one meal, regardless of how picky are the kids.
The key to planning meals with picky eaters in mind is a mix of PLANNING and BALANCE.
The goals to keep in mind is providing kids with the important exposure to variety AND having something on the table they can fill their bellies with.
Here are 5 steps to help you plan meals with picky eaters in mind
Make a list of all foods your child currently eats. It is especially useful if your child has a pretty selective diet or you feel like he is always eating the same thing.
Divide the list into 4 food groups: protein, starch, fruit and vegetables and dairy. I will show you in a minute how this list help keep your child eat in a more balanced way.
For example, your child’s list may look like this:
Protein: smoked salmon, hummus, chicken nuggets.
Starch – bread, rice, crackers, mashed potatoes.
Fruit and vegetables: strawberries, apples, carrots, celery, green peas.
Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt.
Note: Stick the list to your fridge and use as a reminder to include some of the safe foods in your grocery shopping every week.
Make a meal plan with 3-4 main dishes and 3-4 breakfasts and snacks per week.
Note: Alternate between favorite options of all family members, so that everyone gets something they really like for a main dish from time to time.
For example, if your child’s favorite is pasta, you love chicken curry and your spouse is a fan of roasted chicken, plan those with equal frequency for family meals.
Note: Plan to make a double or triple batch of at least two of the main dishes and plan for leftovers to be used in lunches for next day.
Note: Always serve some fat on the table, especially if you are serving a vegetarian meal. Examples: butter for toast, olive oil, mashed avocado, olives or cheese.
Include 1-2 safe foods in each meal and snack. The key to success here is to be strategic. You may need to use the list you created in Step 1 to make sure you do not always serve the same food group.
Use safe side dishes to provide a safety blanket in case your child does not like the main or you are trying a new recipe.
For example, from the list in Step 1, you can incorporate carrots+hummus, strawberries+yogurt, bread+cheese in meals where the main dish is too much of a challenge for your child.
Note: You do not have to make the whole meal child friendly. Your goal is to provide something for your child to fill up on in case other dishes are not up his alley (yet).
Note: The best strategy is to integrate safe foods into the meal instead of serving them as an “alternative” for your picky eater. There is no “our food” vs “your food”. It all has to fall together as a (somewhat) balanced meal everyone partakes in.
For example: you made a lasagna and a salad your child does not like mixed dishes. Include some of his safe foods from the list above to round the meal: bread rolls+butter or apples+cheese.
Double check for balance. While it is not your job to get your children to eat a balanced meal, it is your responsibility to aim to provide them with one.
For each lunch and dinner, plan to include 3-4 food group groups and an additional fat, especially if it is a vegetarian meal.
Pizza + fruit + salad
Sausages + mashed potato + green beans
Lentil soup + bread + butter (fat) + yogurt
Baked chicken thighs + rice + broccoli +fruit salad + chocolate
Note: It is ok to include more options with dinner, especially if you have more than one child, enjoy more variety on the table or have lots of leftovers to finish. For instance, our dinner tonight included sausages, leftover breaded chicken fillets, cucumbers with hummus, roasted squash, rice and even leftover chickpea curry!
For each breakfast and snack, plan to include at 2-3 food groups.
Boiled egg + toast
Cereal + milk
Pancakes + fruit smoothie
Toast with butter or avocado + milk
Crackers + cheese + fruit
Step 5: Plan an upgrade for bold palates. This step is the key to sustainable family meals because it keeps YOU, the cook, happy. So do not be shy, use all the exotic grains, unusual vegetables, favorite salads, sauces and spices you love.
If you use them in the main dish, make sure to include safe foods for your child in case he is not ready to dig in yet. Or serve them on the side as a compliment to the main dish that is a bit too boring for you.
Putting it all together:
Let’s say, I plan to serve a roasted chicken for dinner tomorrow, my spouse’s favorite. I can eat it sometimes, but am not a big fan and my kids do not like it at all.
1/ Round the meal with mashed potatoes+green peas that my kids like.
2/ Add my favorite Greek salad or harissa paste to go with the chicken ( I like spicy food!).
Result: a balanced meal that makes everyone in my family happy! (Including the Mom :))
Finally, make sure to enjoy your own meal and allow your child choose what and how much to eat from what you offered. Choose to approach family meals from a positive angle and get support if you need a clear road map to turn your picky eater around and make mealtimes fun.