How to Make Family Dinners More Kid Friendly

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on November 3, 2009

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Every mom is looking for kid-friendly meals to help improve their children’s eating habits.  Yet in last week’s expert interview, Ellyn Satter emphasized the importance of families eating together over what to feed.  That’s because family dinners are the place where children learn to eat.

I’ve incorporated family dinners at my house for over a year now.  Before that I would feed my daughter, put her to bed and then prepare dinner for me and my husband.  I’m exhausted just reading that last sentence.

So here are some tricks I’ve learned for making children – and parents –happy at the dinner table:

Don’t make it about them:  Focusing all the attention on children during meals teaches them to be self-centered about eating.  The goal is for kids to learn how to be a part of family meals.  That means no catering and no special meals.  They are expected to come to the table and decide for themselves how much to eat.

That doesn’t mean you don’t consider their likes, dislikes and ability to chew when deciding what to serve.  My daughter doesn’t eat much at dinnertime but there are a handful of meals I know show likes or is likely to eat (nothing is guaranteed).  So I make sure to include her favorite entrees about 2-3 times a week.  The other meals are items either my husband or I like and we eat out once a week. This way, everyone is a winner.

Make sure there’s something they’ll eat:  When I serve a new meal or something my daughter hasn’t eaten in the past, I make sure there are two things at the table that she likes.  Below is a before and after picture of a typical meal at our house.  I made lamb and lentil stew and served it with carrots (likes), bread (likes) and salad.  I make sure that the items she likes are not “special” items on her plate – they are for the whole family.   

annadinner1
Annadinner2

As you can see, she ate most of the carrots, some of the bread and moved the stew around with her spoon.  I see that as progress…at least her utensils are touching the stew!

Serve dinner family style:  As children get a bit older, try letting them serve themselves.  This can really empower children and you might be surprised how much more willing they are to try new foods.  The first time my daughter tried asparagus was when I placed it on a serving dish instead of her plate.  There was such pride on her face when she grabbed it herself. 

Below is an example of a casual family style dinner I served – Rotisserie chicken (likes), strawberries (likes) and butternut squash.  I even made a meal for my littlest one from the butternut squash.  He’s coming to the dinner table early.

familystyledinner

Learn from – and accept – dinner failures: I absolutely hate when I go to all the trouble of preparing a new meal only to find it tastes bland.  But I’m learning from those failures and realizing they are a natural part of figuring out what dinners work best for my family. 

The meals that taste good and are nutritious and easy to prepare go straight into my recipe book.  The ones that are complicated and don’t satisfy get thrown out.  Sometimes there’s a complicated meal that tastes great which makes it worth the effort, so it stays.

Because my children are young, I consider my meal-making practice for when they get a little older.  By then, I should have it mastered.  Am I fooling myself?

What are your experiences with family dinners?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

kristiina April 5, 2010 at 1:04 pm

wow, I know this is an older post, but I had to comment. I’m THRILLED to have stumbled upon your website (thank you, simple mom!). I am stuck in the ‘feed the kids, put them to bed and we eat something else’ and am SO over it. Plus, my kids hardly touch their plates. This article was an inspiration.

I’m making chicken enchiladas for my husband and me tonight, and I think I’ll serve it to the kids, as well. Plus, pushing dinner a little later might mean all 4 of us can eat together. We’ve talked about the importance of eating together for a while, but w/his commute, it’s not really possible. But that shouldn’t stop ME from eating properly at the table (and eating the same thing as the kids)…’how kids learn how to eat’…wow….as oprah says, an ‘aha moment’ ;) Thanks for all the great info. I’m sure I’ll be up late tonight catching up on all of your other posts!

-kristiina

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Alex August 17, 2013 at 10:57 pm

I just discovered your blog! So many simple principles so well explained. And the photos are really really helpful. It’s so hard to really understand what people mean by family style or how you plate up food separately without a photo of it happening in real life – not just an ‘experts’ book. Great! I can’t wait to read more.

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Reina @ kid friendly recipes November 25, 2013 at 1:28 am

yeah,,these are really some good idea to help improve kids good food habits…yeah…eating together is really helpful for kids..because by this way they will get started learning good things about food habit…thanks for sharing such a great article

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