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Family Dinner: From Stress to “Yes!”

The Urban Grape | Family Dinner

The Urban Grape | Family Dinner

Something so amazing has happened at our house. I’d like to say the change occurred over night, but in honesty, it has been years of hard work, patience, and trial and error. Our children are eating like adults. Without complaining. Can I please get an amen?

Family dinner has been one of the most prolonged and stressful experiences of parenthood. For years I would carve time out of my day to make an interesting meal and be greeted by cries, literal cries, of anguish and recriminations that I was serving “gross” food. It was such a soul sucking way to end the day. So how did we get from that to a joyful “yay!” when I serve my rip-off SweetGreen salads? I read Dinner a Love Story and took a serious chill pill.

(Side note: how about that Claire Underwood comeback in Season 4 of House of Cards when the annoying First Lady wannabe asked, “Do you ever regret not having kids?” and Claire answered, frostily without blinking an eye, “Do you ever regret having them?” My answer at dinner time, every night for roughly five years might have been, “yes.”)

First off, I accepted that my children were simple eaters. And I mean really accepted it. I changed tactics and decided that flavor was what I needed to focus on, not necessarily new foods. For instance, I knew they would eat simple grilled chicken, so slowly I started to change up the sauces and flavors, all while keeping the base food recognizable. My theory was that I would be building their palates without challenging their sense of control. They now enjoy coconut curry sauces, tikka masala, lemony marinades and so many more flavors without complaint. Some day they’ll try one of these sauces over shrimp. If it doesn’t happen at my table this year I’m okay with that.

Second, I started serving family style. This was a huge game changer for me. It changed the conversation from “I am providing this to you and you better damn well eat it” to “Here is what I have made and please choose what you would like to eat.” No pressure meant no fight for control. It took YEARS but now they’re pretty willing to eat what is put down on the table, all while thinking it is their idea.

Third, let’s just call this the Deconstruction Era. I might like my Cobb Salad all jumbled up in a bowl, but that was overwhelming to them. So I still make cobb salad, I just make it look more like a normal meal to them – chicken here, bacon there, green beans and tomatoes on the side, slices of cheese, and lettuce that is your choice to eat. I don’t understand why American children will not let their food touch, but this is not the fight I want to have at dinner time. Eat it your way, I’ll eat it my way. At least we’re not fighting and you’re eating green beans.

Fourth, I bought stock in the idea that children will eat almost anything if it is wrapped in a tortilla, and introduced Taco Tuesday. From flavorful pulled pork to shredded taco-seasoned chicken to marinated flank steak to – GASP – fish, I started calling everything a “TACO!!!!!” and down it went. Noah still likes just cheese on them, but Jason now eats pico de gallo, guacamole, and even the occasional bean. God bless tacos.

Fifth, gloss over the details. I served turkey chili over rice all winter long and kept saying it’s “just like spaghetti sauce!!!!!” They ate it, beans and corn and chunks of tomato and all, without too much complaint. This is a true miracle that I never thought I would see happen. Other techniques include saying lamb is “just like steak!!!!!!” and healthy smoothies are “just like piña coladas!!!!!” The manic verbal exclamation points are MANDATORY.

Sixth, give in every once in a while. I push their palates and then I make sure to come back to the comfort zone. I don’t really want to serve burgers once a week, but they love them and they feel like it’s a meal I’m making for them. So who cares. We don’t need to be setting the dinner world on fire every night. And between you and me, I love an easy dinner that I can get to the table in ten minutes. So plan your easy dinner night to coincide with a stressful day.

Seventh, and this is the real key. Starve them out. A hungry kid is a willing kid. Our boys are growing so fast that I can’t keep them in clothes. They are starving all day long. So I let them eat, but from 4 pm on they get nothing (and like it! No, I’m kidding, I’m not that crazy….most of the time). A true food emergency means you can snack on a carrot or something else that I am prepping for dinner, but no snack food snacks. They come to the dinner table ravenous and half the time I honestly don’t think they care what they are eating, just that they can fill their growling bellies. I’m going to really bring this strategy into play in their teenage years when they are eating everything in sight. On the top of the list: lentils, lentils and sausage, lentil soup, greens and lentils. My kids hate lentils.

If none of these things are working than let’s be honest I turn to wine. Because as long as I have a nice glass in front of me, I don’t really care if they’re having a Lord of the Flies moment at the dinner table, fighting over the cantaloupe as a way to get out of eating salmon. In fact, I really should have put “pour a glass of wine” at the very top of this list. It’s all about the wine.

If dinner time is still misery in your house, hang in there. It was a helpless, dark few years around our table, but we are out the other side and a lifetime of food adventures awaits us. You’ll get there too.

Have any other suggestions? Let’s hear them in the comments section! 



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