It's 5:00. The workday is ending and kids are finishing homework and starting to whine about being hungry. "What's for dinner?" starts echoing all over your house. You race to the fridge and open it, hoping to find the ingredients to a great, fast dinner staring back at you. Nothing. As you ransack the shelves and pantry before settling on cold cereal again, you think, it's time to do this differently! But, HOW?
Cooking for a family can feel overwhelming! When you are preparing a menu for many people, some of whom are children, it can be difficult to find meals that everyone will eat and enjoy and that are also healthful. Nothing is more frustrating than spending time cooking food for your family only to have half of them refuse to eat what you've made. But being a short-order cook doesn't make sense either. There are some basic tips to help meals go better for everyone.
1. Plan ahead
Pick a day of the week that you can devote a couple of hours to planning and shopping for the entire week. Plan for most days of the week, leaving an open night or two for leftovers or take-out if you want some flexibility. Usually, the weekend is a good time to do this. Then, once you've made a list of all of the ingredients you need for the week, shop using only that list.
If you're short on time during the week, you can also add some basic preparation on that day of planning and shopping. Chop up the vegetables for the soup and put them in an air-tight container so they're ready to just dump into the pot when it's soup night the following week. You'll thank yourself later.
2. Choose versatile food
When choosing a menu, choose food that can be slightly versatile. Resist the temptation to cook nuggets for your picky eater when they say they don't want the chicken pot pie you prepared. Instead, see if you can modify the meal to satisfy every type of eater in your family. If you're making tacos, perhaps you offer deconstructed tacos so that a more sensitive eater can eat just the parts they like. If you're serving Hawaiian haystacks, maybe keep the rice and sauce separated, or you can pull out some of the chicken before adding it to the sauce to offer to a child who doesn't like saucy chicken.
Remember, you're the parent. You present the food and then allow them to choose what they eat. That doesn't mean offering them anything they want besides what is on the schedule that night. I always recommend serving one "safe" food with each meal so that you know there will be something universally liked. That could be fruit, a loaf of French bread, chips, etc. Get creative, but it's important that everyone is offered the same food at each meal, even if it looks slightly different.
3. Include veggies
Make vegetables have equal value when you're planning. If you decide to have spaghetti, also choose a vegetable to eat with that meal and write it down on your schedule and shopping list. Select a specific vegetable for every night you're cooking. Salad is also an easy dish that can accompany virtually any family meal. All of the salad ingredients can be bought on your shopping day and used throughout the week, each night if desired.
Remember, meal planning isn't just about the main entre. Be sure to include fruits and vegetables and salads in the plan so that we are achieving maximum color, variety, and options for everyone in your family. It's okay if they don't eat it. Offer just one small piece and then let them choose. Don't worry if they opt not to eat it, touch it, or even look at it. In fact, make it clear that you don't care if they eat it or not. If they say, "EEW! BROCCOLI!" you can say, "It's okay, you don't have to eat it. You're still learning to like some foods and that's okay!" Allowing kids to make that choice will help them develop the best relationship with food. You'll be surprised how repeated exposure and good parental modeling helps kids with food acceptance over time.
We all know the importance of eating as a family, but it can feel overwhelming at times. With proper planning, thoughtful preparation, and creative presentation you can make great strides in your efforts to cook and eat together as a family while fostering a positive food environment that will make mealtimes something you look forward to each day.