I was an extremely picky eater as a child, largely existing on buttered noodles, canned tuna, and Laverne & Shirley reruns for much of my childhood (read: My Picky Eater Recovery). My very kind, sweet mother routinely made me a separate meal at dinner when I refused whatever she was making (which was frequently).
When I had my own kids, I decided that I wasn’t going to make separate meals at dinnertime, because I worried it would perpetuate the same kind of finicky eating that marked so many years of my life.
So now, when I talk to parents about mealtime strategies, this is my number-one piece of advice:
Make one meal for everyone at the table.
The benefits of this dinnertime rule are huge. It means you aren’t scrambling to prepare multiple meals like a short-order cook. If your kids aren’t guaranteed a special PB&J (or, ahem, bowl of buttered noodles) when they don’t like what’s on the table, they have more motivation to try what everyone else is having. They’re also learning an important lesson: Not every meal is going to be their favorite–and that’s the way life goes.
There’s a stir-fry I serve that all of us love except my younger son, Sam. I’ve (privately) come to think of this meal as The Chicken That Makes Sam Cry. The nights I serve this stir-fry, he usually only eats rice and fruit. As he’s complaining, which he always does when I serve The Chicken That Makes Sam Cry, I reassure him that we’ll have one of his favorite meals soon too–and we do.
Making one meal for everyone still means you can tailor the dinner to suit preferences. You can serve things separately—like warm tortillas with the fixings in little bowls, or a pot of brown rice with the veggies and sauce served alongside so they can be mixed (or not). I’ve even ladled out a bowl of plain broth with soup meat on the side. Because it still means that I’ve made just one meal.
Caveat #1: You should always be sure there’s something on the table your child likes, even if it’s simply the tortillas and some fruit.
Caveat #2: Sometimes, your child will only eat a tortilla and fruit for dinner. That’s okay.
There’s one exception to my dinnertime rule: The clean-out-the-fridge dinners we have about once a week or so, when I’m not so much cooking as simply pulling random things out of the fridge to heat up. On those nights, we’re still eating together but each of us may be having something different–and we all get to choose what we want from what’s available.
And on those rare nights when I’m cooking for nobody but myself, I still occasionally make myself a bowl of buttered noodles. You know, for old times’ sake.