Thursday, January 12, 2012

Compromise as a path to mealtime peace

One of the first things moms learn: You can't please everyone all the time. You probably can't even please most. Apparently, I need to absorb that lesson again and again: I keep serving up dinners hoping for a chorus of wows, then taking it personally when one (or more) diners pokes halfheartedly as his plate and sets his fork down. As I rework my approach at the start of the year, I'm looking for chances to meet the kids halfway. Well, almost halfway — there's room for compromise.

Put the kids in charge

I confess, my knee-jerk reaction would be to snap, "Fine, why don't you just make dinner yourself!" My more mature, parental response: Have a go at it, kids! Here's a cookbook — take a look, and pick out something you want for dinner this week.

Kids can't plan a meal without some guidance, of course. Take a look at the nutrition guidelines at for preschoolers and older kids, print out a MyPlate place mat, and challenge the children to come up with a reasonable meal.

It won't be anything like the kind of meal you'd plan, but that's the point. If parents smile graciously and eat a meal of plain, buttered spaghetti, white bread, and baby carrots, the kids might — might — be better sports about chicken curry with roasted Brussel sprouts. (I know not everyone is on board with MyPlate, but it isn't a bad starting point for talking nutrition with kids.)

To help kids get inspired, hand them a child-friendly cookbook. I love Mollie Katzen's Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes, which has illustrated steps for pre-readers. The website for They Draw and Cook is a visual wonderland, and their cookbook is fun to browse (though young readers might need help with the fonts and handwriting).

Relax standards

I don't advocate buying a lot of processed junk, heating it up, and calling it nourishment. But it's emotionally healthy to let go, a little bit, and embrace some conveniences that won't kill us. Don't laugh, but it's taken me a long time to accept that steamed frozen vegetables are an OK alternative to freshly peeled, cut, seasoned, and roasted carrots.

Seriously, I'm lucky to live in a place where fresh, local vegetables are abundant year-round. But if I'm already investing time and attention in what should be a fantastic meal of chicken parmigiana, we might all be happier with steamed frozen veggies on the side rather than a cranky mama who labored over the carrots around and in between the chicken cutlets.


Resentment is toxic. Instead of taking responsibility for everyone's satisfaction, put the responsibility back on them.

A great way to end the lunch box blues, for example, is to let your child choose what to eat. Present a menu of reasonable options, get a few suggestions from your child, and you have a plan for the week. Download and customize this menu I made for my second-grader, inspired by this menu shared at TipJunkie. Kids can even help pack their lunch. (If you have trouble with the download, drop me a note and I'll e-mail it.)

You may still chafe if your child barely touches his packed lunch, but it's no longer your burden. You're freed from guilt, second-guessing, and irritation, and instead can help your child figure out how to make a better choice next time.

Allow reasonable alternatives

Experts agree: Don't become a short-order cook for your kids. But you can give them an out if they really don't like dinner — provided you keep it reasonable.

I wrote two years ago about a genius tip to offer one simple, plain, and healthy backup choice to end mealtime battles (courtesy of It's Not About Nutrition).

My now 7-year-old is no longer interested in cottage cheese, but he can prepare a slice of buttered whole-wheat toast all on his own. I no longer offer a backup, but sometimes he'll ask: "Could I make a slice of toast? I don't really like dinner."

A slice of wheat toast isn't the best dinner, but it isn't the worst either. Best of all, he feels empowered to take care of his needs himself.

Tomorrow, some tips for facing meal prep with a good attitude. Until then: How do you stay positive in the kitchen? Do you have a favorite kids' cookbook, or a tip for managing picky eaters?


Ginny said...

Thank you for posting this. After all the blog posts I've read about how to get your picky eater to eat, this is a breath of fresh air. You are nonjudgmental and real, offering suggestions that might actually work. Thank you. I don't think I can say that enough.

Darienne said...

Ginny, you made my day. I'm so very glad this resonated with you. I hope some of these ideas work for you. Thanks so much!


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