Picky Eater or Spoiled Toddler? 9 Ways to Stop the Power Struggle at Dinner
The more you do it, the easier it gets and other truths about The Family Dinner.
Writing a mommy blog about food is an occupational hazard. So many people make the wildly incorrect assumption that dinner at my house is a quinoa filled fantasy, complete with linen napkins and perfectly groomed children. It’s not. But we do eat dinner every night and that’s just the first of our family rules that has made life a bit sweeter, if not closer to a fantasy, so far.
- Eat dinner together. When our first baby was born, my husband and I would feed her puree, put her to bed then collapse in front of the TV with a dinner on our laps around 8pm. Every night we’d tell each other: This isn’t good. We really need to start eating at the table if we want her to grow up that way. By the time our second rolled around (exactly 20 months after her sister), we were already eating dinner as a party of three every night. Now we’ve expanded to five and it’s not always smooth but it’s always on—and that means there’s no debate. The oldest one is only four, but it wouldn’t cross her mind to ask us if we could eat dinner at the couch, or with a TV on because she’s never done either one. (She WOULD try to get away with all sorts of other stuff, so I’m not advocating sainthood, just saying it’s a priority for us to make this habit stick.)
- Everyone must eat one bite. Of everything. The Clean Plate Club isn’t part of our routine, but even the baby is encouraged to try at least one bite of everything on his plate. And BTW, there are usually two things there. It’s not about preparing a multi-course masterpiece each night, just offering a couple of tasty options. We don’t make a big deal out of it, but it only takes a night or two for everyone to catch on. If you don’t try a bite, you’re not eligible for whatever reward works for you (dessert, stickers, an extra book before bed…)
- Spills happen. When we’re not sighing with defeat, we joke that it’s not dinner until our two-year-old spills her milk. Don’t let spills or any other unexpected catastrophe signal the end of dinner. This ends everything on a sour note and that’s not what you want, not if you want to try this thing again tomorrow.
- Watch the afternoon snack. Hungry kids make better dining companions than those who’ve inhaled a snack pack of cheddar cheese recently. A two-hour window works best for our brood and if anyone is truly starving sooner than dinner will be ready, just a bit of fruit will work to tide them over.
- Feed the baby scraps while you cook. This is an exception to item number four, and it’s a good one. If you have a baby on board in the kitchen, pop little pieces of fruit or veggies, or whatever you’re preparing. As toddlers, my kids often ate more raw vegetables off the counter than they ever did in highchairs. The other, and very important, benefit is that you’ll prevent the afternoon yowling that plagues so many moms trying to make dinner during The Witching Hour.
- Fix something everyone likes. I try to incorporate one thing that each person likes into a meal. Peas for the toddler, cheese for the preschooler, bacon for my husband…you see what I mean. That way it’s not an uphill battle from the moment you sit down to eat.
- Stay at the table. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, you’ll work your way up to a more leisurely timeframe.
- Spin off favorites. When something works, boy do I work it. Ham and pineapple pizza have become one of my go-tos. Some other favorite meals at our house: sweet and sour stir-fry, flame-roasted kabobs to name two. When the kabobs worked, I made them again with pork and apples. Then pork and apples were a hit, so I used them for quesadillas with BBQ sauce and a splash of pureed spinach just to round it out. You see what’s happening here…
- Stick with it. There’s not a great starting point for all of this. You just have to decide tonight’s the night, prepare the food, sit everyone down and dive in. It will probably be mayhem the first few times—and every once in a while after that—but don’t give up. It takes time to teach these little people everything (potty training comes to mind) but eating a meal together is so worth it. At least that’s something you can do as a family together.
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