A great question from a reader: ” I decided to switch to family dinners recently. But I am struggling with making everyone happy at a dinner table. If I prepare the food that my kids like, like my husband is unhappy. And when I am serving my husband’s favorite whole wheat tortellini in Swiss chard and Gorgonzola Sauce, the kids refuse to come to the table. I do not want to keep cooking 2 or 3 meals to please everyone. Help!”
The truth is, when we think of a child-friendly meal, we often imagine pizza, hot dogs or chicken fingers. At the same time, grown-up food is often associated with elaborate creations that are easier to order from a restaurant than prepare at home. But if you are determined to stick to family dinners for the next few years, it is best to have a strategy that makes them appealing to all family members, from picky toddlers to grown-up gourmets.
The key to successful family meals that are child-friendly is to find a middle ground between creative “restaurant-style” meals and unexciting kids’ fare. Here is how you can do it every day, with minimum effort:
– Keep it simple. Complicated meals with several courses and multiple ingredients are great for special occasions but in order to be able to sustain the new mealtime tradition, choose easy preparation methods. A pasta dish with stir-fried veggies and a fruit salad makes a fine dinner, as does an omelet with bread, veggie crudites and yogurt. If you are looking for an exciting element to the meal, serve an artisanal cheese or ethnic spice that can be added to the plate.
– Serve meals family-style. Place serving bowls in the middle of the table and allow kids and grown-ups to serve themselves. This way, there will be no negotiations about who eats what. Besides, when there is no pressure, kids eventually become much more adventurous with new foods.
– Offer most of the food groups. Here is a great example of a child-friendly meal that also works for grown-ups: grilled fish, potatoes, bread, salad and fruit. This way, everyone will find something to eat and you will have a balanced “grown-up” meal on your plate if you want. Your child may choose just one or two food groups at each meal and it is totally fine, too.
– Include at least one food that your child is capable of handling. It can be starch (bread, rice, pasta), protein-rich food (chicken, fish, meat, beans), vegetable or fruit. It should not be a separate meal, just a component or two of what everyone else is eating.
– “No touch” approach. If your child has trouble with mixed foods (soups, salads and casseroles), you will probably have to separate complicated dishes into ingredients that everyone can assemble on their plate, like we did with this salad bar. On days when it is not possible (think lasagna), make sure to include bread with butter or fruit into the meal for the child to fill up on.
– Make it baby-friendly. Save money and effort. Instead of preparing special food for your baby, add less salt to the meal you prepare for the family and blend or mash some for the little one. Exposure to the flavors of your family food will help avoid picky eating in the future and train the taste buds to like the familiar flavors.
– Adjust texture and boost flavor. Serve meat or chicken with sauce to keep it moist and opt for a softer meatloaf or stew more often than a steak. Kids prefer meat that is easier to chew, especially when they are just transitioning to table foods or have wobbly baby teeth. When it comes to vegetables, boost their flavor with some fat and salt. Try roasting or stir-frying for an additional flavor boost.
– Serve dessert from time to time. It is a wonderful way to round up the meal. For ideas of desserts that are low in sugar but still delicious, check this post.
As you can see, it is easy to make every meal you serve for your family “child-friendly”.
Tell me, what was your favorite family meal as a child?