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Family Mealtime: Make One Meal for Everyone

Family Mealtime: How do I make one meal for everyone?

I hear this question all the time. Family mealtime can be quite a dilemma for parents, especially in the area of getting a meal on the table that everyone will eat.

One child has a food allergy. Another is fussy about food. Dad is following a gluten-free diet, and your sports-loving teenager is eating everything in sight.

You end up sacrificing what you really want to eat just to make it easier on the family. Let’s face it, if you just eat what everyone else is eating, it’s less cooking for you and fewer meltdowns…potentially. 

Or, you might be facing a different scene: one of guilt and short-order cooking.

For many households, this is common.

“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 family mealtimes harmonious, one thing I know is this: the more you aim to please, the less pleased (and more demanding) your family may become. 

Ultimately, this makes it harder to feed your family (which can make you a very unhappy mama)!

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How to Streamline Family Mealtime

Organize Your Food System 

I talk about this a lot in The Nourished Child Project. You must have a game plan for food in your home first before you can effectively and efficiently execute meal plans. What is the overall food balance in your home? Do you have what you need in the refrigerator, pantry and cupboards to make a balanced meal? Do you have foods around that your family prefers and foods that will challenge your children to be exposed and introduced to new items? Having a food system that works to satisfy and challenge your family is key to moving your child forward with food variety.

Offer the Basic Food Groups

You know the food group basics for children—protein, grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy (or non-dairy substitute) and healthy fats. The more food groups at mealtime, the better. Try to include most of the food groups at meals and two to three of them at snack time, especially throughout the day, before dinner.

Dinner is the time when appetite gets more variable and unpredictable. Younger kids may have less appetite due to eating more scheduled meals and snacks throughout the day, while older kids may carry a bigger appetite at the end of the day due to sports or intensified growth.

Here’s my take home message for you: More food groups on the table means you’ve got a better shot at meeting your child’s nutrient needs.

Double Up on Nutritious Foods

Take advantage of knowing what your child likes to eat. If you’ve got a fruit lover, offer two types, such as strawberries and clementines at mealtime. If you’ve got a starch lover, offer peas and pasta, or corn and rolls. Make the starches you offer 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.

Family Mealtime: How do I make one meal for everyone?

Keep it Simple

You don’t have to make spinach soufflé or a cheesy casserole loaded with vegetables to get your child to eat them. Raw and crunchy with an easy side dip will do the trick for many kids. Some kids are perfectly happy to see a plate with slices of bread, crackers or a bowl of unadulterated fruit. Kids prefer less complicated food over foods they cannot identify or which may be foreign. Need some ideas for offering veggies? Read this.

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.

I talk you through this on The Nourished Child Podcast in Episode #49.

Use The Dinner Bar

Offer a smorgasbord of entrée ingredients and let your child assemble his main course the way he likes it. The Dinner Bar is an approach where the main entree is deconstructed — separated out — and works well for combination dishes such as pasta primavera, pizza, tacos and salads. Kids eat better when they assemble their entrée because they are invested in their creation. I have many Dinner Bar recipe ideas on this website–just search “dinner bar” in the search box to see the options. 

Let Your Child Do the Work

Older children can peel a banana or an orange. They can spread butter or nut butter on bread. They can cut their meat. Younger kids can pop the tops off strawberries and eat a whole apple. Most importantly, they need to do these things for themselves…or at least try.

More and more, I am seeing children who are dependent on their parents to do some of these basic eating and feeding skills. Developing skills around feeding oneself builds self-esteem and a sense of capability. Believe it or not, this is critical to normal development.

Support the younger child as needed, but periodically challenge him to do some of the work at the meal table, too. Allow your child to spoon food onto his plate, carefully pass a dish, or pour his milk. You’ll be teaching independence and food skills at the same time. 

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The Bottom Line for a Better Family Mealtime

While it might seem overwhelming and impossible to get your family to eat the same meal, it’s really not that hard. Yes, it takes some forethought and planning, but with these tips you can take the lead.

Create a family-friendly meal plan that includes at least one to two food items your child will eat. Often, that can be something simple like fruit or milk. Keep the menu simple and expand its complexity over time.  Provide enough variety and food groups so your child can choose a nourishing meal. Allow self-sufficiency to blossom by allowing your child to do the work of eating.

For more tips about meal planning and overcoming feeding obstacles check out my book, Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.

Also read: How to Make Family Dinner Easy When School Starts

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

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  1. 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.

    1. 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.