Don't Create Different Meals, Create Different Experiences Instead.
Do you find yourself making nuggets or fish sticks on the side of every meal so your kids will just eat something? Or, do you find that your kids snack so much throughout the day that by dinner time they don't want to eat? One of these things isn't all that bad, the other is super annoying and hopefully what follows will help make dinner prep and mealtime a bit easier.
Let's start with the latter, snacking all day. If you have an all-day grazer or a kid who instantly becomes hungry when they see you cooking dinner, there may be a few strategies that can help you through this. Snacking isn't necessarily bad. When my kids ask for a snack (900 times a day) I allow them to choose the snack....however the ratio has to be 1:1. Meaning they must balance their snack. If they grab goldfish crackers, they must also get a fruit or a vegetable to balance it out. This has been a rule for a long time in our home but it wasn't always easy to implement and when you're tired, it's easy to give in. To set them up for success, I have two bins on the lower shelf of my fridge with easily accessible fruits and veggies. This way I don't have to get anything for them and it's simple for them to grab along with whatever snack they take from the pantry. This doesn't mean I don't find apples with tiny bites out of them all over the house or bags of spinach in random places. But at least I know they got a little nutrition in their bodies and I didn't have to force them or have an argument about it.
If they are asking for snacks while I am making dinner, I suggest they help me prepare dinner and snack on the things they are preparing or I offer a small plate of whatever ingredients I am using to make dinner. Kids aren't as intuitive with certain bodily signals as some adults are. They hold in their pee and don't say anything until the situation is dier and they are suddenly ravenous beasts when they see you cooking dinner. Sometimes my boys decline this offer and whine, sometimes they decline and wait until dinner, and sometimes they are happy to accept a plate of tomatoes and lettuce. Either way, they know that these are the only options (again, getting them to understand this does not happen overnight).
So, with all the balanced snacking and snacking before dinner going on, when it comes time to sit down and have a meal, I do not stress if they aren't eating much or making the healthiest choices. I know they have put nutritious things in their bodies throughout the day (even if it's not a lot) and now family mealtime can be chill and no one feels pressure to try new things or clean their plates. The relaxed atmosphere will breed curiosity and eventually, they will feel confident trying new things on their own terms.
When it comes to making different meals each night to please everyone's palate, I say, we should cook one meal but provide a different experience for everyone at the table. I have one extremely adventurous eater and one who has recently become a bit pickier about things. My adventurous eater gets his food plated the exact way I plate mine and my husband's. He doesn't ask questions about what it is, he sits down, eats, and usually tells me that I am an amazing cook and that I should open a restaurant (he's buttering me up so he can go play Roblox after dinner, I'm sure, but I'll take it). The other one is a little more sensitive to flavours and textures and often plates his own food or puts up with the games I created to trick him into trying new things. His favourite game is called, Smell, Lick, Bite. I usually use the Picky Pizza Plate for this game because it is easy to split up the categories of food. There are 5 different compartments on this plate; two are for him to pick the two things he knows he will absolutely like and eat (the familiars), the other three are labeled Smell, Lick, Bite. This way he can choose from the food I have prepared and place it in each category. I sit by and say and do absolutely nothing. I do not prompt or guide, otherwise, this technique will not work. It is completely up to him, all the power is his (they love this more than anything).
It is important to experience food with all our senses and I always say that smelling food is a gateway to eating food....for some kids. If they know they only have to smell or lick something that intimidates them, they will be more onboard than if we told them they had to eat it. When they smell or lick that item, they may actually like it. And if they don't, no big deal! They will eventually find something they like that they may never have been open to trying but smelling or licking brought them to that conclusion and not a mealtime battle.
Last night I made @impossible_foods veggie burgers with all the fixings and put everything in the middle of the table for the kids to make their own. One guy built a burger with all the toppings and ate it. The other child chose items to put in his pizza plate and only ate individual components of the meal.
This guy even cut a little hole in the top of the bun and shoved pickles inside. He said that they are less likely to fall out that way. I love their little inventive minds.
This guy chose @heartchoices bacon and tomato to eat because they are familiar to him and he knows he will like them. He decided to smell lettuce (which he normally eats but I didn't say anything because it was his decision to be made) lick a cartelized onion, and bite a mushroom. In the end he ate almost everything except the lettuce....but he snacked on a bunch before dinner so no big deal. I also cut the veggie burger patties up into different portion sizes so they didn't feel intimidated by the amount of food. This way they can just choose a small piece and try it or know that they can have more if they like.
Just giving them the size options will change the way they feel at the table, and if we change the experience we change their attitude toward food.
So, stop making different meals for everyone in your household and get a little more creative with how you present the one meal you make to each young (or old) eater in your house.
Here is a quick recap of what you can do:
- Get them involved with prepping the meal. They are more likely to try things if they take pride in helping in the kitchen.
- Help them make balanced snack choices. Make healthy foods easily accessible to them in the fridge and discuss the 1:1 rule of snacking.
- Allow them to snack on ingredients you are using to prep dinner.
- Allow them to plate their own food at the table.
- Separate items so they can see everything that is on their plate.
- Start with small portion sizes and always allow for seconds of whatever item they are enjoying.
- Play Smell, Lick, Bite with the items they put on their plates.
Sit back, relax, and do your best to soak in this time with your kids (not always easy, I know). Whether they eat or not, make this a place where they feel safe and will hopefully, eventually want to eat and try new things.
EAT. RELAX. PERIOD.
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