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It’s dinner time – you’ve worked, tidied, taxi-ed and now you’re cooking. Kids are tired, cranky and hungry. And so are you!

You’ve cooked a beautiful dinner for the family but you fear it’s too “grown up” for the kids – Milly doesn’t eat meat and Will only eats white and brown foods (and only if they aren’t touching each other on his plate)!

In an attempt to keep the peace, you decide to ask the threenagers what THEY want for dinner. “SPAGHETTI” yells Milly. “I want toast” Will says after screwing his face up.

Desperate to get some food into them, you make dinner #2. Will takes one bite of toast and has a meltdown. Milly joins in Will’s tantrum and throws her spaghetti around. You feel your heart rate increase. Dinnertime ends with frayed tempers and hurt feelings.

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Sound familiar? Family mealtimes with children can be difficult and stressful. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. Slight changes to the everyday family meals paired with a somewhat fresh outlook on kids and food takes the stress out of dinnertime

Why short order cooking just doesn’t work

Short order cooking in the home doesn’t work because parents don’t have the time or the support to make different meal for each member of the family. We aren’t just trying to feed kids, we are ‘hopefully’ raising adults who love food. Kids who like being at the table. Kids who take a positive, active role in what the family has for dinner. Kids who like to try different types of foods, different cuisines.

We want our kids to over time accept and eat these different foods. To grow up and become adventurous eaters. Stopping short order cooking encourages children to try new foods and become (in time) adventurous eaters.
Like any skills, varied food preferences and not being wary of new foods takes time and patience to develop. So how do we encourage kids to grow out of their fussiness whilst not starving?

Don’t worry – we aren’t going to suggest that you stop eating the foods you love in favour of “kid friendly” dinners, nor that you force your kids to eat. So what are we going to suggest? In a nutshell making a range of everyday meals friendly for the entire family.

How you can stop short order cooking

Parents provide, kids decide.

As a parent, your responsibility is to provide nutritious food at regular intervals. It is your child’s responsibility to decide whether they eat the food provided and how much. So it’s time to relax a little and try and stick to your responsibility and let the kids take some control too.

What to do if your child chooses not to eat? Simply pack it up and most importantly stay calm! Let your child know when the next meal or snack will be. If they ask you for food before that, re-offer them the food from the last meal or ask them to wait until the next meal.

The practical

  1. Be considerate without catering

So how do we make everyday meals friendly for kids? We can make sure that every meal you offer to the whole family has a ‘safe food’ as part of it. Something within the meal that every person will happily eat. So perhaps some plain rice, carrot or cucumber sticks or bread on the side?

New foods in particular need a bit of special attention – serve new foods alongside a liked food (they are more likely to try the new food then). Talk about the food – what it looks like, the texture, the colour, where it grows etc. Most importantly make it sounds fun (but not pressured)!

A platter style for mealtime is really helpful to children. Pop all food out in the middle of the table with some spoons or tongs – so everyone can pick what they do and don’t want to eat. Young children will need help with this, but make sure even they are involved in choosing what goes onto their own plate.

  1. Learning to like

Did you know that children need to experience a new food up to 20 times before they even decide to try it (although there is no magic number as every child and family is different)? On top of that, a child often needs some 17 tastes of the food to learn to like it!

The first couple of times your child might only tolerate it being on the table at meal times. Then they might pick it up, play with it, lick it, put it in their mouth and then spit it back out. And then finally they might decide to take a bite and swallow.

The vital thing is keep offering! Your kids don’t eat cauliflower? Sit at the table all together and get them to watch you obviously enjoy yours (I like to make lots of noises and comments about how delicious and nutty it is). Try serving it up differently. Try offering it raw. Perhaps try it with a dip? Make it into a soup (and get the kids to join in the cooking process) – so creamy and cheesy. How about baking it with some parmesan cheese? Have they tried it in a curry? As fritters? Cauliflower mornay? Cauliflower cheesy sauce on other veggies? There are so many options! Try not to take it personally if they don’t actually eat it. Just keep on serving it up at another time.

I actually think it’s just easier not to count just how many times you have offered, to see the importance of the actual process and the little steps.

  1. Food independence

Children want independence and to have control over their everyday life. In a world mostly controlled by adults, refusal or fussiness is an easy way for children to exert this control. In addition, kids are innately suspicious of new foods, it’s completely normal (a protective mechanism from the olden days)!

Letting children help themselves with tongs or a spoon from a platter in the middle of the table helps children feel in control. Also, where possible, avoid mixing salads and dishes so that kids can choose which ingredients they want. Give them some choice – ‘What red vegetable would you like? Tomatoes or capsicum?’

Never force or bribe a child to eat a particular food as this actually undermines this independence.

  1. Away from the table – food exposure through cooking and in different settings

One of the most useful and powerful ways to expose kids to different foods is to involve them in the cooking process. Younger kids can help wash vegetables, cut foods with kid knives and help mix batters and doughs etc. Older children can help with the cooking process.

The more kids see a food (like a fruit or vegetable) the more likely they are to want to try it. So why not set up a toy kitchen with plastic food? Read some books about where food comes from? Take your kids to the greengrocer? Try growing some veggies?  The possibilities are endless.

How did you avoid cooking for everyone’s tastes and preferences? Share with us in the comments.

  • I grew up in a house hold where this was a thing. My mum was cooking a meal that i would eat with her, then one for my brother, and then one that would be hot for my dad when he got home from work. I have made it clear since the start I am not going to be that mum, and my kids eat what we eat

    Reply

  • Teenager with AFID impossible

    Reply

  • If you don’t start it in the first place there will be no problem. We cooked one meal for the whole family and they ate it or went hungry or got themselves a slice of bread or some fruit. No one should be put into a position where thy have to cook different meals for each person in the house and if you don’t start this, then it will never be a problem

    Reply

  • Such great tips – exposure exposure exposure! It took my son 3 years to try tomatoes. He still prefers other things but won’t have a tanty when they’re on his plate now.

    Reply

  • We have the one dish but have leftovers & frozen meals to eat.

    Reply

  • I only served the one meal and if they didn’t like it they could have a slice of bread (not toasted) with butter and no sweets. If they tried a small bite of everything then they could have sweets after. This was done at every meal because they were told they must try first.

    Reply

  • Good tactics.
    I cook two separate meals almost every night as I have kids with allergies. (Dairy, nut, egg, gluten)
    We have our staple family meals that everyone can eat, but also have our bad days…. this is when they get toast if they are being fussy with what is served.
    As they grow and hopefully the allergies are out grown, it will be one meal

    Reply

  • One meal, don’t like it go without-simple.

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  • We only ever made the one meal option for everyone to encourage our son to try different foods.

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  • Great tips, great article

    Reply

  • My kids are only offered one meal. They either eat that or miss out on dinner

    Reply

  • It does get tricky cooking meals that everyone eats, but its harder to cook something different for individuals


    • Yes, 4 of the 6 of us are vegetarians from which 1 is also diary free and then 2 of them are gluten intolerant…this means i’ve already enough to consider in regards to meal preparing

    Reply

  • I agree with this unless its more of a sensory difficulty, in which case there is more you need to look into

    Reply

  • Yep, I can please them all and regularly tell I’m not a restaurant. We had a foster child once that thought my kids the saying “you eat what you get and don’t get upset”. My kids regularly say this to encourage each other.


    • sorry I meant “I can’t please them all”

    Reply

  • I love the idea of having different plates with tongs and spoons!
    Bub loves to take control of the utensils so i think this helps with her independence and gives her a chance to “choose” for herself.
    I try and make food that I know she likes. Things like potato, bacon and cheese. Even if it’s not the most healthy I’d rather have her eat than go hungry. I substitute later with things like fruit and custard and veggies i hide in pasta!

    Reply

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