Friday, January 13, 2012

A healthy attitude for healthy meals

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No one in my family savors food the way I do. The boys all have favorite foods and occasional cravings, but what they're eating just isn't as important to them as it is to me. I'm finally starting to adjust my expectations, to realize that just because I'm excited to try a new roast chicken recipe doesn't mean anyone else will be.

Preparing family meals can feel like a lonely job, especially with picky eaters. The solution, of course, is to make it less lonely. Yesterday I wrote about letting go of some of the emotional baggage by compromise and ceding some control to the kids. Today, here are a few ways the grownups can make mealtime more fun.

Train helpers

It isn't enough to ask or insist. I'm trying to be better about teaching my family how to help.

For example, my husband said he'd be happy to share meal duty, but he doesn't know how to cook. He can make a killer lasagna, but that’s best enjoyed as an occasional indulgence.

Together we came up with something new but simple: Every Monday for months, he made penne pasta with chicken sausage. And after we tired of that, I taught him how to make a simple (and healthier) stir-fry. Baby steps.

My kids run hot and cold on helping in the kitchen, and I don't ask them to lend a hand enough. With a little more patience on my part, I can help them own some of the small jobs at dinner time. A simple invitation to taste-test usually leads to a suggestion, and then a little person's pushing a chair over to the counter to do the work himself.

For some inspiration, we have dozens of kid-tested recipes. For ideas on how to get kids involved with meal prep, check out this list at

Find the fun

There's a reason kids like Happy Meals, and it has nothing to do with the food. A little goofiness can be a great way to break down barriers at the table. If nothing else, you'll enjoy the break in routine!


A few quick ideas:
  • Make it fancy. Dress up nice, set out the fancy candles, and serve the milk in plastic wine glasses. Practice good manners by playing the part.
  • Play with color. Throw the kids for a loop with a monochromatic meal — say, chicken nuggets, corn, and mango chunks, or spinach pasta with pesto, green beans, and kiwi. Tint the milk to match. (Though this is probably a maddening idea to anyone whose kid is stuck in the all-white-foods phase.) At the other end of the spectrum, make a meal with every color of the rainbow!
  • Picnic. Spread out a blanket in the back yard or on the living room floor and serve dinner from a picnic basket.
  • Play drive-through. Let the kids make the menu, pick up cheap toys from the dollar bins at Target and stuff them in paper bags, and turn the kitchen into a drive-through.
  • Eat at the kids' table. Instead of the dining table, sit down at that teeny tiny little table where the kids do all their coloring and scissoring and play-dough smooshing. Your knees will be in agony afterward, but the kids will love it.
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  • Pizza night. We did this every Friday for a while, and the kids looked forward to it. We need to revive pizza night at my house!
  • Dinner and a movie. Pick a movie and meal to match — ratatouille, of course, for the movie of the same name, noodles with Ponyo, ants on a log or ant's house cake with Bugs, apples with Tangled, etc.

Feast with friends

Food is best enjoyed with friends, of course! Give another parent a welcome break prep and invite their family over for dinner. It might be just a simple roast chicken with salad on the side, or even take-out, but with all the happy chatter at the table there won't be any complaints. Shift the focus from the food to enjoying good company, and you'll help your children learn to appreciate the value of gathering at the table.

My get-togethers with Anna and her kids have been an invaluable creative outlet for me. That's when I stretch my wings and take risks. She's always an enthusiastic guest, and usually finds a way to elevate an ordinary dish into something extraordinary. If my kids won't touch the food, hers might. That's my test kitchen, and dishes that make the cut find their way to my family table later.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on staying organized and finding balance. Until then:  How do you turn things around when you're worn out with kitchen duty?

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