Anne Fishel on Making Family Dinner Appetizing for Children at Different Ages

Photo of Anne Fishel, author of Home For DinnerThe following is a guest post from Anne K. Fishel, author of Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.  

There is one feeding challenge that cuts across all ages and stages, from nursing a baby to feeding and elderly parent: when your carefully prepared meal is rejected. As many parents quickly learn, one size dinner doesn’t fit all ages. Here are some strategies to help you tailor dinnertime to fit the changing appetites and challenges of children at every developmental stage:

For toddlers and preschoolers

  • To entice picky eaters to try new foods, model adventurous eating. Eat the new food with gusto in front of your tot, and then ask, “Would you like to taste it?” This focuses your child’s attention on the food, rather than on rejecting it.
  • Serve food “family style” in bowls or platters placed on the table. That way, young children can just reach out and try the food they see adults enjoying.
  • Let your preschooler help with meal preparation. Spinning salad greens, crumbling cheese, and setting the timer are some of the many things that young children can do. Little helpers usually want to try their own creation.
  • Don’t underestimate your toddler’s taste buds. The idea that young children and adults must eat different foods might be a myth created by food manufacturers and marketers. Your child might like chicken piccata as much as chicken fingers.
  • Avoid letting food become a power struggle. If your child refuses to eat a particular meal, stay calm and do not send her away from the table. You might offer her an alternative such as cereal with milk or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—nothing that’s too exciting or makes too much extra work for you.

For six-to-twelve-year-old kids

  • Since school age kids like structure and order, they may feel comforted by a predictable schedule of meals. For example, make Monday pasta night, Tuesday chicken night, and Wednesday meatloaf night. This routine cuts down on conflict if your children can agree on five or six meals.
  • At this stage of development, kids are very interested in foods they have seen advertised on TV or eaten in restaurants. It can be fun to re-create one of these meals at home. For example, most supermarkets offer ready-made pizza dough. Combined with tomato sauce from a jar, it’s simple to make pizza at home.
  • Invite your children to practice resistance to destructive media messages. Over dinner, ask them why they think TV ads tout processed food in a plastic container rather than carrots and celery. Or what it would be like if their school refused to sell unhealthy food in the cafeteria.
  • Do a role reversal one night a week and have your children do the cooking.

For teenagers

  • Agree that dinner is off-limits for discussing conflicts—no talk about homework, whose turn it is to take out the trash, a recent D on a math quiz, or how late curfew should be on a Friday night.
  • If possible, parents as well as teens should make dinner a technology-free zone. If this isn’t possible, then negotiate rules that everyone can agree to, such as: “We’ll only use our phones to resolve factual disagreements that come up at dinner.”
  • Offer to make a new meal catered to your teen’s interests. If he’s studying South African history or Indian literature, check out Epicurious.com for recipes by country. Even better, make that new meal with your child so that she can teach you something about another culture.
  • Invite your kid to make a course or part of the meal, particularly something fairly quick (but special and dramatic) that will elicits oohs and ahs from the rest of the family. Popovers, bananas flambé, and fruit smoothies all do the trick.
  • Ask your teen to choose music for you to listen to during dinner. On other nights, you might play the music you listened to when you were a teenager. This will provide something interesting to discuss.
  • Create a weekly dinner ritual when your kids’ friends are invited to dinner or dessert—like a make-your-own sundaes night.

Jacket Art for Home for Dinner by Anne K. FishelAnne K. Fishel, Ph.D., is the director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate clinical professor of psychology at the Harvard Medical School. As co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, she has been interviewed by NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Good Housekeeping, Parents magazine, and other major media. She writes the Digital Family blog for Psychology Today.

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