Despite the many benefits of family meals, they’re often stressful and tiring. Try these 12 tried-and-true tips for enjoyable family meals.

You may have already heard about the importance of family meals. Eating with family is associated with improved wellbeing, nutritional status, and school status. Children who eat with family have a lower risk of developing eating disorders, are less likely to smoke or get in serious fights, and have improved school performance and better vocabulary. Read more about that here.

Despite that, if you’re like many of the moms I speak with, dinners are stressful! Trying to balance variety along with making food everyone will eat without a fuss is definitely tough. Try these tips for making meals a little easier!

Serve only 1 meal

When kids know there’s another option they’ll be less likely to push themselves to try the food you’ve prepared. You can serve  different sides, but those should be the only options. I’ve heard many moms say they offer an “opt-out” meal of a PB sandwich or eggs, but that keeps kids from pushing themselves to try other foods and limits their intake to only previously accepted foods. 

Be considerate but not a short-order cook

Take family member’s preferences into consideration when making a meal, but don’t make special dishes for each person. For example; S doesn’t like peppers. They’re still included in salads, but large enough that he can easily remove them. C prefers un-coated chicken. When preparing the chicken, sometimes I leave some plain and serve those along the flavoured chicken. 

Ensure there’s something to eat for everyone

This goes back to the tips above. Try to have at least 1 food that each person generally will eat. That may be bread, grapes, sliced cucumbers… Meal components don’t have to “match” ( like canned corn with pizza, or beans + spaghetti) ; make what works for your family! When there’s familiar food served along with less familiar or accepted food, those familiar food can help your child feel safe knowing there’s something he can eat while giving him the freedom to try a new food. You can think of that old food as being a mutual friend that introduces the new food! 

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Involve family in meal prep

When kids help make food they often are more likely to eat it. Now don’t fall into the trap that they will eat it, I said MAY. Even if they don’t eat it, food prep is an important skill to learn at every age, and exposure always counts! This can bring them one step closer to eating a food.

Additionally, having others help preparing the meal removes some of your own stress. Get kids to set the table, prepare drinks, dish something into a serving dish; whatever is age appropriate

Involve family in menu planning 

Menu planning is an important skill that you can start teaching young. Have kids suggest meals or food they like and want to see more often. This can help with tip 1- if someone doesn’t like the meal served, instead of offering another option, you can say along the lines of “everyone gets a turn at favorite meals. Today may not be yours, but let’s look on the menu for when we’ll have something you like”. Caution again, they may not eat the food they’ve helped menu plan. 

Serve all the food at once

Parents tell me they serve meal components separately (for example first the vegetables, then the protein, last the carbs), because otherwise their kids will only eat one of the components. But that often results in kids refusing to eat, parents coercing them with just one more bite, and removes the responsibility of children recognizing what and how much of each food they need at a given meal. Serving all the food at once allows kids to chose what they want to eat from what you’ve provided.  

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Allow everyone to serve themselves

This gives everyone the choice of eating what they want, and how much of each. Each person controls their own intake and can eat according to their hunger levels. Being presented with a pre-plated portion can be very overwhelming, and actually cuts down on the amount eaten. You can help very young children with serving, but listen to them when they tell you what and how much they want. 

Don’t make kids eat/try every food

A one-bite rule can cause stress when kids are refusing it. While you want to expose them to new food & experiences, this often backfires and creates negative associations with the food. Instead, present the food and model eating and enjoying it. 

“You don’t have to eat it”

Saying this removes any pressure for kids to try foods they don’t feel comfortable with, and puts them in control of what they’re eating. Learning to like foods is a process. Having the freedom to try or pass on a food can lessen the fear around eating and make kids visibly relax.

Paper Napkins 

Having some paper napkins available so anyone can politely spit out something they don’t like. This is another ‘out’ that can help kids try new food. They know they don’t have to eat or swallow something that doesn’t taste good to them. It demonstrates your trust in them, and they may repay that by being more adventurous. 

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Don’t force kids to clean their plate

Having extra can be a learning experience. It demonstrates that they’re in tune with their fullness cues, and perhaps next time they’ll put less on the plate- it’ll teach them better judgement. Remember, kids don’t need to eat as much as adults. The amount they eat at each meal will vary depending on their current growth & development, how active they were that day, and how much they ate throughout the day. 

Serve dessert with the meal (& let everyone eat it when they want)

If you plan on having dessert, serve it with the meal. While you may fear kids will fill up on dessert and avoid the rest of their meal, think of it this way; kids save space to be able to have room for dessert. By eating it at the start of the meal, they may actually have more appetite for the main course! I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen kids start eating a piece of cake, saving the icing “for last” and then lose interest in both the cake and icing before it’s finished! And  you can serve just a small amount of dessert- it’s not unlimited.

How do you make meal times more pleasant? Share in the comments below 🙂