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The Secret Ingredient to Successful Family Meals

I am sooo happy to share a guest post by my co-author of Fearless Feeding, Maryann Jacobsen. She has just come out with an e-book about dinner and feeding your family–specifically, The Family Dinner Solution.

It’s an age-old quandary that comes up more than it probably should for many of us. What’s special about this book is that I know Maryann has worked hard over the years to make food healthy and appealing for her family, all in the context of really not knowing how to do it and experimenting along the way.

She has learned a lot and is sharing her valuable lessons with all of us today. I know this book will save so many of you, and at the very minimum, give you dinner ideas for kids and a fresh outlook on feeding dinner to your kids.  

The Family Dinner Solution book jacket

When I worked in a hospital educating couples on heart-healthy eating, I noticed very few of these couples cooked anymore. They talked about how they had family dinners when their kids were around but once they were out of the house, they transitioned to eating out.

They realized they should have kept cooking to avoid what had happened to one of them: a heart attack.

As a mom of young children, I surprisingly got it. Being a family cook is seldom fun. There’s the menu planning, shopping and preparation, and coming up with fresh and enticing dinner ideas for kids.

The never-ending commentary like “not this again” and “I don’t like that” only make matters worse. Knowing I didn’t want to be one of those couples who hit burnout and turned to restaurants to nourish me and my husband, I did something about it.

The key question I asked myself was: do I enjoy cooking? The real answer was “sometimes.” There were some meals that I did enjoy cooking– pretty easy to prepare that most everyone liked. But there were also what I call the “should factor.”

That was the nagging voice telling me I should make this or that because it was what a dietitian-mom should feed her children. I realized I spent too much time trying to be something I wasn’t in the kitchen, and it wasn’t working.

Another factor getting in the way of my cooking joy was decision fatigue. I realized I absolutely dreaded planning my weekly dinner meals because I had well over 100 recipes crammed in a binder! Oh and there was my word document with more recipes.

I also received cooking magazines, cookbook and e-newsletters. Trying to decide what to cook for the week from all these recipes felt like a monumental task. So I cleaned house. I stopped my subscriptions, gave away my unused cookbooks and went through every single recipe I had stored. I decided to focus and build on the meals I actually enjoyed making.

What I was left with is what I call my Tried and True and In Between Meals. The Tried and True meals are those easy, go-to meals I make easily and In Between are those recipes I couldn’t part with but rarely made.

I also developed a plan for what I wanted to see on my family’s table. I looked for nutritional variety and where my kids needed more food exposure. I needed a Tried and True stir fry sauce and more fish entrees. Certain veggies and side dishes were missing.

I began to cook with intention. I no longer gave up if a recipe didn’t work right away. Instead, I tweaked to make it my own. Over several months, my list of Tried and True meals grew and so did my cooking enjoyment. One key aspect of this enjoyment was that I was rotating these meals, which wiped away decision fatigue and arduous meal planning.

This also meant bringing my kids in the kitchen more often because preparation was becoming much more streamlined.

None of this means my kids, six and nine, are eating everything I put out. But that’s okay, I have a side strategy for all my themed and stand alone meals. That means I have predictable sides I know they accept, to give them time to warm up to some of these new dishes. I also have better enforced dinner rules, which include “no complaining allowed.”

I feel like a happier cook but it’s not just about the meals. I think it’s because I’m feeling more authentic in the kitchen. Although I’m a dietitian, I’m not your typical foodie.

I just want simple balanced meals with good enough variety. And I feel empowered to be able to do that on my terms, instead of feeling inadequate for not measuring up to Pinterest-worthy meals.

Maybe that’s what this family cooking should be about–showing children we can be ourselves in the kitchen, so they can follow suit. And when they leave home, we keep cooking because it fits us so well, we can’t imagine someone else taking over this important job. Hopefully, as adults in the big bad world, our children will feel the same exact way.

Maryann Jacobsen is a registered dietitian and founding editor of Raise Healthy Eaters. She details how she streamlined her family dinners in her latest book is What to Cook for Dinner with Kids: How to Simplify, Strategize and Stop Agonizing Over Family Dinners.

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Need help with dinner ideas and meal planning? Check out my favorite app, Prepear, from Super Healthy Kids! 

Prepear by Super Healthy Kids

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