I’ve often wondered when and where the idea took hold that kids need separate meals or that there needed to be a kids food menu. Perhaps it evolved as the natural progression from baby food to rice cereal to small bite-sized pieces of food. And then the food trail goes haywire when kiddos seem to eat only mac ‘n’ cheese and chicken strips, shunning all else (well except ice cream, chocolate chip mint ice cream).
Whatever the reason, separate meals for kids seems an accepted part of childhood – after all, every family-friendly restaurant has a different menu for kids so why should it be any different at home?
Well, for one, who has the time – or patience – to make individual meals for each family member? For those of you who feel like you’ve become a short-order cook come mealtime, here are some reasons to kick the kids’ menu habit along with tips on how to do it – no boxed neon mac ‘n’ cheese needed!
It’s a time suck
Maybe the best argument against making kids their own meals is that it takes extra time. Why make five meals when you should only be prepping one?
Tips: How to get out of the made-to-order business – have your kids help with meals. When they’re involved in making the meal, they’re more likely to eat it. I also tend to keep ingredients separate so that kids (and adults!) can in effect build-their-own: For example, tonight we’re having Vietnamese rice bowls. We start with rice and shredded beef and then the kids go through and take their pick from thin-cut cucumbers, shredded carrots, fresh cilantro and other fixings they’ve helped prep.
It’s less nutritious
OK, so your kid won’t be malnourished if she’s only eating PB&J. Every day. 24/7. But it’s still not the best way for her to get a variety of foods that will in turn provide a variety of vitamins and nutrients.
Tips: Consider the mix-and-match approach. Try to have at least one food in your meal that you know your child likes. He can load up on that if he absolutely refuses to sample the other ingredients. If you’re making pasta with a nice, hearty red sauce, then maybe he goes light on the sauce and gets his fill from spaghetti noodles.
It encourages pickiness
What happens when you keep feeding your child the same meal instead of trying to expand her palate? She keeps insisting on eating the same thing. She’s probably used to hearing you lament, too, that she’s simply a “picky eater.” Once she embraces that picky label – and you do, too – it gets harder to coax your kids toward eating the same thing as everyone else (unless, of course, it’s chicken strips).
Tips: Tap into your child’s adventurous side. Re-frame the conversation from making dinnertime a battle into something fun. Serve up veggies in cool shapes by using cookie cutters to turn carrot or cucumber slices into hearts. Make a drizzle design from Alfredo sauce to turn your kids’ dinner plate into a smiley face.
It wastes food
Chances are when you’re making all those different dishes you’re also preparing more food than your family needs. By sticking to one recipe – instead of several – you’re less likely to make too much. And as an added bonus? Fewer dishes to wash, too.
Tips: Make dinner plans for the week with your child. Look up recipes online or in cookbooks. Come up with dinner ideas for the week and then shop together for the ingredients. Not only will it be easier not to waste food, but you’ll be saving money.
Having dinner together is an experience that can draw your family together. Really. But knowing that you’re going to have to cook different meals can be discouraging – and can make it so you don’t want to try new recipes and meal ideas.
Tips: Researchers say it can take 15 times – 15! – for a child to learn to like a food. Keep serving the food to your child and chances are they’ll learn to at least tolerate it, and maybe even like it. If your child turns his nose at steamed carrots, try roasted. Not interested in grilled lamb? Serve it ground next time. It’s okay if your child doesn’t like every single food dish or recipe, it’s a matter of getting him in the habit of trying and sampling food, instead of always insisting on this own meal.
This post is updated regularly.