The Side Strategy That Has Saved My Family’s Mealtime

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on July 30, 2015

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When Big A turned two, I realized that making two meals for dinner wasn’t working. But getting her to the table right as she was entering the picky stage was no easy task. What kept our family meals going in those early days was having something at the table she accepted. It helped her adapt and come to the table without much of a fuss.

Last week I reviewed some helpful rules for family dinner, of which one was “There will always be something on the table you like.” In this post, I want to dig into that one a bit deeper. For me, it’s no longer just about providing a thing or two my kids like — I have an entire side strategy for my family dinners.

This side strategy is good for when kids are young and older and in between. Most importantly, it helps busy parents pull together family meals with ease.

What is a side strategy?

A side strategy is really just being thoughtful and strategic about the sides you serve alongside the main meal. Because I have a dinner rotation and theme nights, I have familiar sides I put out on the table. Take the pollo asado meal I served on Monday for Mexican night. My sides always include tortillas, beans (pinto or black), cheese and guacamole.


This helps me in two ways. First, if the kids aren’t ready to eat the Mexican meal I serve, they can always make their own burrito. Second, I don’t have to stress about sides, they are already planned out.

My side strategy for Italian night is at least partly geared towards Little D, who doesn’t accept pasta in any form like his sister does. So if I’m cooking something I’m not sure he’ll go for, like the chicken Alfredo, I put out some turkey meatballs from Trader Joe’s along with fruit.


For soups and stews, I serve garlic or cheesy bread. Square meals (protein, veggie, starch etc) contain a well liked potato side (like baked fries or roasted potatoes) or fruit. With Greek food I put out pitas and hummus. And Asian is rice and fruit.

Then there are the meals that everyone loves like spaghetti. I can get creative with sides or just serve any side I want which in this case was roasted asparagus and my fave summer fruit: cantaloupe. And I usually try to have a salad on Italian night.


When kids are ready to graduate

We are almost to the point of not having to make sure there is a side my kids like. Big A, who is almost 9, accepts so many main meals now that it’s really not an issue. Little D will get there too, even though it will take a bit longer for him.

As kids get older, it’s more about making small modifications to sides to make them more nutritious (especially if you’ve been breaking the nutrition rules to gain acceptance). It’s also about trying new things as kids become more adventurous. And as children’s kitchen skills increase it might make sense for them to take over this side job.

As I look back on the last 7 years of cooking family meals, I feel grateful for my side strategy. I credit it for keeping our meals pleasant and calming my worry about what my kids eat or don’t eat. It really has saved our family’s mealtime.

Have you given much thought to a side strategy?

I’m finishing up my official list of sides for my rotation in preparation for my upcoming book. I’m still looking for a few more reviewers so if you’re interesting in reading and trying some recipes shoot me an email at


7 Dinner Rules That Will Transform Your Family’s Mealtime

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on July 22, 2015

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I would love to have your key points summarized on a wee poster so I can remind myself and educate my husband also. Do you have such a thing available?

This request came just as I was working on a chapter in my upcoming book on dinner rules. Having some very basic meal guidelines posted for every family member to see can be a sanity saver. Also, it helps parents follow through with their commitment to family meals while setting very clear limits.

The end of this post has a download option if you want to post these “rules” on your fridge. click to continue


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