Family Mealtime: One for All and All for One!

Does your family eat the same food at mealtime? Or do you find yourself making an exception to the meal for someone?

For many households, this is a common scenario:

“My son refused the waffles I made this morning. I felt guilty so I made him a piece of cinnamon toast.”

“My daughter never eats what we eat. I always offer a yogurt or cereal after dinner to cover her until morning.”

“If I don’t make what the kids like, they won’t eat!”

Whether it’s guilt, a picky eater whose meltdown you’re avoiding, or the belief you need to please everyone to keep the family in harmony, one thing I know is this: the more you aim to please, the less pleased (and more demanding) your family may be. And, ultimately, this makes it harder to feed your family (which can make you unhappy)!

Here are some ways you can make family meals a “one for all” event:

Try family style meals. If you haven’t given this a whirl yet, what are you waiting for? Family style meals allow your child to pick and choose what and how much he wants to eat from the foods you have determined for the meal. Here’s the secret: The more control you allow your child with food choice, the higher the odds your child will find something to eat.

Use The Dinner Bar to kick mealtime up a notch. Offer a smorgasbord of entrée ingredients and let your child assemble his main course the way he likes it. The Dinner Bar works well for combination dishes such as pasta primavera, pizza, tacos and salads. Check out the many Dinner Bar ideas in my archives. The highlight: Kids eat better when they assemble their entrée (because they are invested in their creation).

Offer the basic food groups. You know them—protein, grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy (or non-dairy substitute) and healthy fats. The more food groups the better—try to hit all of them, especially at dinner when appetite is variable (younger kids may have less appetite due to more scheduled meals and snacks throughout the day, and older kids may carry a bigger appetite due to sports or growth). Here’s the take home message:  more food groups on the table means you’ve a better shot at meeting your child’s nutrient needs.

Double up on nutritious foods, especially the ones your child likes. If you’ve got a fruit lover, offer 2 types such as strawberries and clementines, at mealtime. If you’ve got a starch lover, offer peas and pasta or corn and rolls. Try to make starches nutritious, such as whole grains and/or a starchy vegetable. Don’t panic! You can still pack nutrition into the starch-loving kid’s meal.

Keep it simple. You don’t have to make spinach soufflé or cheesy casseroles loaded with vegetables to get your child to eat them. Raw and crunchy with an easy side dip will do the trick for most kids. Many kids are perfectly happy to see a plate with slices of bread, crackers or a bowl of unadulterated fruit. Mind-set shift: Kids prefer less complicated food over foods they cannot identify or which may be foreign.

Let your child do the work. Older children can peel a banana or an orange. Kids can pop the tops off strawberries, and eat a whole apple. Support the younger child as needed, but periodically challenge him to do some of the work at the meal table. You may be surprised to see your child delight in eating a peeled whole carrot (even with the tops attached!) over the brown sugar-coated cooked version! Besides, you’ll be teaching independence and food skills at the same time. Basic point: Kids are perfectly happy to eat fruits and vegetables in their natural state.

The bottom line: You’re the leader of the pack! Create a family-friendly meal plan. Keep the menu simple and expand its complexity over time.  Provide enough variety so your child can choose a nourishing meal. Allow self-sufficiency to develop by letting your child to do some of the work of eating.

In addition to these tips, you’ll find more about meal planning and overcoming feeding obstacles in my upcoming book, Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.

How do you get your family to eat one meal? What gets in the way?


  1. Miranda says

    My challenge is that my husband gets home too late to eat with the kids. So I feed the kids early and then my husband and I eat together. But I end up cooking and cleaning twice. Ugh. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. We do eat together on the weekend.

    • Jill says

      How about the same meal, but divided, so kids can eat early, but you can reserve for late for you and hubby? When your kids get older, they will be able to wait longer and/or have a heartier snack, and all can eat together.

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