Are my kids perfect eaters? No way! Neither am I. (Anyway, there’s no such thing–read: “The Myth of Perfect Eating“). But I do hope my kids don’t follow in my finicky eater footsteps and instead, become what psychologist Dr. Kathleen Cuneo calls “successful eaters”.
Successful eaters don’t have to happily gobble up everything you put in front of them or wax poetic about the nutty undertones of your kale salad. But they’re pleasant at the table, use good manners, and learn to try new foods (read: “The Kind of Eater I Want My Kids To Be“).
How do you raise successful eaters? According to Dr. Cuneo, serving family-style meals that allow kids to help themselves and maintaining a positive vibe at the table go a long way. But you also have to learn how to “combat the craziness” that causes so much stress and turns mealtime into a battlefield.
If the words “stress”, “battlefield”, and “mealtime” seem perfectly natural to you in the same sentence, you may need to combat the craziness. If so, here’s Dr. Cuneo’s three-part prescription–plus how it works for me.
1. Avoid being a short-order cook.
When I was growing up, my kind-hearted mother made me separate dinners who-knows-how-many nights a week. I’m not that nice. I serve one meal at dinnertime. Take it or leave it. But I do make sure there’s something on the table my kids like. If you don’t like the main dish? Fill up on bread and salad. Dig the fish but not the rice? That’s okay. But there’s no PB&J or hot dog waiting in the wings.
2. Keep the faith.
It took me decades to taste certain foods like avocados and beans. Hopefully it won’t take your kids that long–but the point is: Don’t give up. Serving foods in different ways can help too. I made all kinds of fish recipes to “meh” reviews before hitting the jackpot with fish tacos (bonus: now that my kids eat fish tacos, they more willingly eat fish prepped in other ways too).
I know, this is easier said than done. I wasn’t always calm at the dinner table, especially when Sam stopped eating dinner altogether (unless you call a lick of ketchup “dinner”). But once I relaxed, so did my kids. Once I stopped requiring a taste or a certain number of bites, the fighting stopped. We also developed a strategy that works for us: If Sam rejects his dinner outright, we simply stick it in the fridge to reheat when he comes back 30 minutes later saying he’s hungry (read: “Coming To Peace With A Not-So-Perfect Dinnertime“). If he still doesn’t want it? I focus on the big picture. He typically eats a great breakfast and lunch plus healthy snacks. He won’t become nutrient deficient or keel over from starvation if he misses dinner.
Besides, tomorrow is a new day–and success doesn’t happen overnight.