I love to cook. Like really love it, ask Santa for a bread maker in 2nd grade love it. Cooking is cathartic for me – the organization of it, the process, the outcome. Feeding people has always made me very happy. So when I found myself dreading dinner time, I knew something was wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to cook. It was WHAT I didn’t want to cook. Despite my insistence before children that I would not cater to multiple requests at mealtimes (among other lies I told my pre-kid self), I had found myself doing just that. A meal for me, a meal for my husband (sometimes the same, sometimes a little different) and a meal(s) (more often plural) for my girls.
When I was younger, dinner was what it was. You could eat or not eat but if you chose the latter, your next meal would be breakfast the following day. For whatever reason, I did not follow that same, brilliant rule in our house. It all started when our oldest got to the age of eating real food. I had already been making all of her baby food so I used that same level of ingredient control over her now non-pureed meals: plain, organic, no seasoning, no combined foods, and in general, the same few things over and over again. She loved fruits and vegetables and ate so well, I did not realize I was creating a problem. Until I started trying to feed her what we ate for dinner…she would literally gag as we encouraged her to try bites of things like spaghetti, meatloaf, stuffed peppers etc. So instead of fighting it, I just continued to make her what she would eat. With each of my subsequent children, I re-committed to not allowing for picky eaters. And though while my middle and youngest daughters are a little more open minded than my oldest, they were still quite happy to eat kid specific meals over anything I was preparing. So dinners remained a juggling act.
Then one fateful Sunday afternoon as I was prepping ingredients for a stew while thinking about what time the chicken nuggets should go in the oven so everything finished together, then I decided…
I was done being a short order cook!
I was enabling this problem. The only way to stop the cycle was to start one meal at a time and that night was as good a time as any. When the girls sat down to eat, each one of them skeptically looked at their bowls and then at me. Had mom lost it? This food was not nugget or elbow pasta shaped! So we talked about this plan to try new foods. I explained how I made the stew and pointed out ingredients they liked and recognized (carrots, potatoes). We picked a mutually agreed upon number of bites that they had to try and then after that, it would be up to them if they wanted to finish but not finishing meant they would forgo dessert and other food until breakfast. You know what? All of them ate it! In fact, they finished their bowls. And they almost seemed to enjoy it! Mind you, the serving size wasn’t huge but I felt vindicated! Problem solved. Yay mom!
Until…the next meal. Which was chili served with a side of tears and a dessert in the shape of a total meltdown. At one point my oldest daughter wailed, “Why are you making us eat this food that we don’t like to eat?! When do we get to eat our normal food again?” I realized like any new habit, this was going to take some time to develop and I would have to make concessions with what I was cooking and how I was cooking to get them on board. Some of my lessons learned:
- Simple, easily identified food is better to start
Grilled chicken, baked sweet potato, roasted broccoli is less scary than pad thai. I needed to work up to that as they got comfortable with new flavors.
- Sometimes they won’t eat
There have been a few nights where they chose the option of not eating. In those moments, I just try to remember they have had plenty of nutrients throughout the day and not eating one meal isn’t going to stunt their growth or impact their brain development.
- Menus help
We have a menu board in the kitchen where I write out what we will be eating each night of the week. Seeing and discussing the menu allows for questions (and complaints) to come out before the meal hits the table so I have a chance to try and get them excited about what we will be eating.
- Add in some kid friendly fare
On nights when I am making something that I know is going to be met with eyebrows raised (i.e. meatloaf), I try to include a veggie or other side I know they like that way the plate isn’t all new items.
- When in doubt, add a dip
I know this probably goes against my cause, but ketchup makes everything better. And sometimes, food they won’t eat on its own, they will eat if they can dunk it in a sauce first.
It’s still very much a work in progress, but dinners have gotten easier and the kids are definitely more open to new things, but we still frequently have nights where one or two bites is max effort for the girls. On nights when I am not home to make dinner, they try to convince daddy to make “breakfast dinner” or “their food”. But it makes me happy to see them enjoying things I would not have otherwise had them try. Even happier to hang up my hat as the family short order cook. And when they don’t enjoy that something new, well…breakfast is at 8am.