8 Dinner Tips for Eating with Young Kids

Posted 29 August, 2015 by Trish in In the Kitchen, Life, Mommyhood / 27 Comments

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Dining Tips for Eating with Young Kids

Brainstorming meals that my girls will enjoy has been quite the journey over the past several years. Both of gone through very picky eater stages (we’re currently in the picky eater trenches with Evie (2) now and I forgot how terrible it can be), but just like everything else in parenthood–we just keep trucking along.

As a provider of food I have a few personal rules that I try to stick with when it comes to dinner time. We didn’t start eating dinner as a family until Elle was one, but ever since then family dinnertime has been a given at our house. It’s not always easy…and sometimes it’s downright painful (see note above about Evie and the terrible twos), but having dinner together is something that is important to me and I hope to make it work for as long as possible. We decided that if we start now while the kids are young, dinner will continue to get easier and easier as our lives get more and more complicated (insert maniacal laugh here as I know I can be idealistic and delusional).

Dinner has been an evolution over the past few years as we’ve learned what works and doesn’t work. Below are a few things that we try to be really consistent about at dinner time and I think it is paying off.

Eight Dinner Tips for Eating with Young Kids

Always try to have at least two items on the plate that the kids will like. Sometimes this means my little one will only eat rice and green peas and ignore the main dish, but at least I know there is (usually) something that someone will eat on each plate.

Kids eat the same thing that mom and dad eat. This has meant a few things over the years–often it means that we are not quite as adventurous as we once were with our cooking. We still eat a lot of variety, but our dishes tend to fall in the “comfort” category. Other times it means that I use a “fork in the road” method (Thanks Katie Workman for the term!)–I’ll plate up the girls an earlier version of dinner but perhaps without the spice or the sauce that the adults eat. There are very very few times when I’ll make something completely separate for the girls (these Dragon Noodles are one exception).

Dinnertime Smiles

I don’t cook anything that I personally won’t choose to eat. This means that our kids rarely have fish sticks, chicken nuggets, corn dogs or other kid staples. I do made breaded chicken tenders, and I’m not necessarily opposed to the others, but I’m not going to make something that I’m not thrilled about eating. The exception is when Scott cooks spam and beans (yes really) which the girls devour. I silently eat my cereal on these nights.

At least one bite of everything on the plate must be taken. The exception is that I cannot force Evie to try everything at this point unless I pry her little mouth open (trust me, I’ve been tempted on occasion!), but Elle (4.5) must try everything. I don’t always expect her to like what I ask her to try, but it’s the principle. Plus I hate when she says “I don’t like this” before she’s even tried it. Many times this is followed up with “Oh I do like this!” and I’ll mockingly tell her “I told you so!”

Yes you must eat your vegetables. While I don’t make the girls eat anything (other than that one bite), I do stress the importance of vegetables and always serve them with dinner. Corn on the cob is a favorite in the summer and green peas are always a hit. Last night Elle devoured all of her broccoli before she even touched her ravioli. I don’t hide vegetables in food–they are front and center on the plate. Ok, I might add some vegetables to dishes, but never as a way to sneak them into my kids’ diet.

Totally Staged

Limit the negative talk about not liking a food. While this mostly applies to not letting the girls go on and on about how much they hate a certain food, especially when we are dining at someone else’s house, I’m also careful about how I talk about food. I try not to make a big deal about a failed dinner that could have turned out better–the kids pick up on this and it sticks like glue.

Eat dinner as a family as often as possible and together at the table. We are very blessed that both Scott and I get home at a decent enough time that we can all eat dinner together. Though, I know that if we are pushing the time too late, we will likely enter meltdown city and dinnertime happiness is hard to salvage. If we are have a late start, I try to prepare something more quickly or simply. On the weekends, Elle is sometimes allowed to watch a movie while eating dinner, but during the week everyone sits up to the table for family meal. If your family has a tough time eating together on the weeknights due to activities or work, try to find other times that you can eat together–maybe special dinners on the weekends or breakfasts instead.

Keep trying. Some days I want to throw up my hands and just serve noodles with sauce every night or pull out a box of Mac and Cheese. Some nights dinner is a total failure and the girls rebel and don’t want to eat anything. Not every night is a winner. Not every night is easy. We focus on what is working and try to correct or amend what obviously isn’t working. But we keep on trying.

Messy Real Life Dinner


What tips and tricks and rules do you have for dinner time?






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27 Responses to “8 Dinner Tips for Eating with Young Kids”

  1. Keep at it and you will have wonderful family dinners for years to come. I always cooked and insisted everyone sit at the table with the television off and, when Vance was in high school, you would be amazed at the number of his friends who happened to “drop by” at dinner time because they knew a place would be set for them as well. We loved every minute of it.

  2. Woo-hoo, I have internet usage again so I can finally comment! See, I am still lovimg you from afar but we went over again last month on Internet and it costs us a bundle so I had to wait until today!

    Love your ideas about dealing with young ones and food. I didn’t fill our young son up with convenience foods, although he had his indulgences here and there, but rather we feed him what we ate. They have adventurous plates when they are young and it’s easier to introduce healthier fare to them. It’s what mom and dad are eating!

  3. My roommates and I make it a point to eat dinner together. We’re more family than friends, and if we ever get married and have families of our own, we each want family dinners to become a tradition. Plus it’s just a great time to see each other, especially if we are super busy in our lives.

  4. Yes, yes, yes. This is almost exactly the way I was brought up. It will pay off in so many ways. And, yes, not every night is easy or is a winner. But what is?

    Although we do not have kids, we have family dinner every.single.night. We sit at the table with no TV (except maybe 4 times a year when there’s an event) or reading or other distractions. We’ve done this for 30 years and I truly think it’s one of the (many) strengths of our relationship. I too am blessed that our schedules match and neither of us travels much without the other.

    • I love this! My boyfriend and I don’t (and likely won’t) have children, but we love eating dinner together and catching up. We actually do the same for breakfast most days. The only night we make an exception is on Fridays when we get pizza from a fantastic local place and watch a couple TV shows (in the fall).

  5. Laura

    Love this post! We have very similar philosophies about family dinnertime! Matt and I also don’t have our phones at dinnertime, and WAAAAYYY down the road when our kids have phones, they won’t be allowed to have them during dinner. I’ve read so many studies and articles about how important/beneficial it is to sit down as a family for dinner, especially as the kids get older. It’s so great to instill good habits at a young age, such as trying new foods, eating veggies, and behaving properly at the table (even though it can be a pain in the you-know-what oftentimes). I try to be good about making a good mix of meals-some that have very kid-friendly elements, and others that will broaden their food horizons. It is hard not to get discouraged when no one really likes new dishes, but I guess that’s just part of being a mom! :)

  6. That’s so great that you have family dinner together every night! I have aspirations of doing that, but can’t at the moment b/c my husband gets home too late from work and the kids are basically going to bed when he gets in. But, I love your food rules for them! I often make a big batch of veggies and set aside some for quick re-heating in the fridge for my kids and sweet peas are a hit (well, relatively…among the veggie group) in my house as well. My son also loves raw baby carrots and spinach sautéed in butter. I can’t say I’m that good about avoiding serving them stuff I wouldn’t eat though, often times I just resort to convenience :) I do try to buy the organic versions of the kiddie stuff I give them…makes me feel a tiny bit less guilty!

  7. We found that the dinner-together method and the not-so-picky eating was fine between about toddler age and second-toddler-age (ie puberty). Now, there are many times where my almost-15-year-old will complain about every food except pizza or hamburgers (though he has to eat it anyway), and he constantly challenges WHY we have to eat dinner as a family. (Well, dear, beyond the fact that this is the only time we get together and talk as a family, if we left you to eat alone, you’d throw everything you didn’t like into the garbage disposal, claim you had a salad when you didn’t, and later sneak out of bed to eat entire tubs of peanut butter because you’re hungry!)

    My only difference between your rules and mine is that I have given my kids PLENTY of foods that I wouldn’t eat. Especially healthy foods. I grew up in a house where my parents refused to feed me anything they wouldn’t eat themselves, or anything I spat out once. Because neither of my parents particularly liked veggies and such, I never ate much in the way of produce. That became an ordeal later in life, because even though I didn’t eat a lot of junk, either, I wasn’t too healthy. And it’s HARD to learn how to eat that stuff as an adult. When my kids asked (ask) why they have to eat something I don’t, I’m upfront with them about it. Sorry, boys, I’m just saving you from adulthood heartache! And believe me, I’m doing my best!

  8. We always ate as a family when I was growing up and I continued that when I had my own kids. Thankfully no one was a picky eater so they ate whatever I fixed.

  9. Great post! We have always eaten as a family but with the Tornado we’ve been a little more lax on the rules because we’re out of the habit of fighting. We were just talking the other day that we need to get back on track with him but don’t quite know where to start. We went through this with the younger kids and it does get better and we had a number of years where not only were we feeding all our own kids but their friends as well. It was fun!

  10. Keep at it! It does pay off in the end. We have now reached the point where the kids beg for family dinners because we just don’t have the time to do them very often. Either we eat together late or we eat in waves.

    A couple of things my husband and I implemented with our two was the fact that they can either choose to eat dinner or choose to go to bed without dinner. It helped with the picky eating phase and allowed them to enact some of that independence that the picky eating stage is really about. If they chose to go to bed, then they weren’t hungry in the first place.

    The other thing is that I never made separate meals. Even now, if I try a new recipe, we all have to eat it. They trust me now not to make anything that I don’t think sounds good. Some are hits and some are misses, but they always eat everything I serve them. Granted, they know the rules. Even now that they are 11 and 15, if they choose not to eat what I serve, then they get to go to bed. No harm, no foul.

    In the end, when we do get a chance to eat together, we all look forward to it and enjoy it. I can usually get someone else to help me prepare the food, and those who don’t cook automatically know to clean up afterwards. As I said, it doesn’t happen very often, but that insistence on family meals when they were young certainly helped pave the way for today.

  11. Oh man, dinnertime is a pain some nights! We usually have some things that the boy will eat, then other things he might try (though usually not). If all else fails, it’s fruit and yogurt. I feel like we’re just touching the surface of picky eating, though, since the boy isn’t even 2. We do have family meals whenever the husband is home, so weekends and evenings. I have some friends who never have family meals and I just don’t get it … I like them!

  12. Great tips! I follow all of these the to the letter with the exception of table eating. Sadly, in our small house, the table is a landing space for crap. We do all gather around in the living room, though, mostly without the TV on, and Greyson sits at his own little table between David and myself. Keeping on trucking through the picky times can be so hard, but ultimately it’s all we can do!

  13. These are great pieces of advice! Definitely not making anything that I wouldn’t eat worked well with Z and he has yet to eat a fish stick or chicken nugget at home (staples of my childhood. Blech.). Yes, I will eat SPAM … I lived in Hawaii when I was a kid and it was a staple there. Hubby won’t eat it with us though! I have also had to make myself make and buy things that I wouldn’t eat to make him a better eater than I was. So I buy kiwis and plums and tomatoes even though I don’t like eating them. And I make fish even though I kind of hate it and I eat a small bit and I don’t say anything negative. I’m not even sure Z knows I don’t really like it.
    Also, the one bite rule is a great one. I’ve expanded it a bit as he got older to two or three bites (once they learn and make the smallest bite possible) and sometimes he has found that his tastes have changed and he now likes something he didn’t before.

  14. This is such a great post and I’m sure is helpful to many parents!! Something that stresses me out about the idea of having kids is the fact that I’ll have to feed them healthy meals! LOL I know I’m not a mom (and probably won’t ever be one) but if I DO decide to have children, I cannot conceptualize how I’ll manage to get dinner on the table for everyone at a reasonable hour. I can barely get a decent meal together for two people before 8 pm as it is!

    • Things definitely changed for us once we had kids! And even the first year when Elle was eating baby food was still an adjustment–we normally fed her, put her to bed, and then ate dinner (at the coffee table in front of the TV) around 8. And we definitely eat more vegetables now than we did before (and less processed foods in general). Don’t let it stress you out NOW!! Things just kind of have a way of falling into place if there’s a will for it. You know? (not to make it sound like every night is easy…because we still have challenges!!)

  15. It’s always a work in progress! Even now, Miss H has suddenly decided that she likes veggies quite a lot, after years of fighting with her about eating them – and she’s 20!

  16. Great tips for all ages! We definitely do simple dinners at our house, even with teenagers. Mine still don’t like a lot of sauces or foods that touch.

  17. Diane

    I loved this post and helpful for young families for sure. It took me back to the picky eating days with my daughter (around 2-3 as well) where we ate only Cheerios and Cream of Mushroom soup. I got so concerned, but the doctor reassured me that she would grow out of it — she did but more or less always remained a fussy eater.

  18. I never cooked something separate for our daughter to eat. The only times she was exempted from eating what we ate was when she actually gagged while eating something. I figured if her body had such a strong reaction to it, she didn’t have to eat it. My dear friend calls trying a bite of everything a “Thank you bite.” It lets the one who prepared the food know that you appreciated their effort. :) Great tips!

  19. Ti

    I think if you can get them to gather at the table, then you are ahead of the game. The only sit-down dinner I strictly enforce is Sunday night. Other nights, we are all eating at different times because of activities and homework being done at different times. But it is nice to sit down for that one meal. Somehow makes it more special.

  20. You’re such a nice mom. My mom made me eat a serving spoonful of everything set on the table. I am and have always been a picky eater. Dinner time was hell growing up. Lots of food served that I liked but lots that I didn’t. I have so many memories of eating yucky food that I could not enforce this tactic on my own kids. Bad mom.