“So, what are the kids eating?” my friend asked, wandering into our kitchen.
All I could do was stare at her blankly.
My husband and I were hosting a dinner party for a handful of families, each with small children in tow. We weren’t there yet though. Pregnant with my first baby, I was totally uninitiated into the world of alternate dinners.
“Um, the chicken,” I guessed. “Don’t they eat the regular dinner like everyone else?”
It turns out that I was supposed to whip up some plain pasta for the kids, sprinkled with a little parmesan cheese and maybe a dollop of butter. But only for the kids who liked butter.
Otherwise they might not eat it.
Sounds exhausting, I thought. And it turns out, it is.
What’s the problem with making a separate dinner?
Cut to a few years later when I have four small kids of my own. I’m the chief cook, grocery shopper, menu planner, lunch packer, breakfast maker and developer of all the snacks, snacks, snacks in our house. Every single meal is on me. Maybe I’d feel differently if my husband was the kind who cooked instead of building chicken coops. But I doubt it. Because besides being a cook, I’m also just a person.
The very last thing I want to hear at the table is a complaint.
Not because I’m tired out, even though I am. Not because it’s rude, though it most certainly is. It’s because I see the family table as prime real estate for teaching our kids important life lessons.
If we’re juggling the expectation to create a separate meal for each kid, based on their individual preferences, we miss out. When did this start, anyway? And why? Because so many of us Gen-Xers remember sad dinners with our dads pounding on the table? Because we still feel the sting of being forced to eat overcooked vegetables from a frozen bag? At the risk of sounding like a hard-ass, I submit that it’s possible to build character without scarring the kids.
And because it happens so often, dinner is the perfect place to start.
Learning how to deal with disappointment
Among many other insights, my cherubs need to master something: When someone takes time to prepare a meal for them, the ONLY way to begin a conversation about it is by saying “thank you”. (The same rule actually applies to anything anyone prepares on their behalf. That Chewbacca costume your grandmother spent hours sewing for you to wear on Halloween? THANK YOU!)
This isn’t to say that disappointment is a crime.
Disappointment and its cousin, discomfort, are both part of life. It’s just that I’d much rather have my kids practice dealing with this pair on my watch than turn them loose at 18 without the skills to handle either one.
Life isn’t a birthday party. You don’t always get to choose every special element of every single day. Sometimes dinner is delicious. Sometimes it’s not. You DO get to choose how big of a deal the difference is.
Table manners can be a litmus test for kids. Are they able to cope with not getting their way? Do they know how to make the best of a situation that isn’t ideal? Can they easily find things to appreciate?
After feeding 4 kids for years, it turns out that cooking is only half of the job. The other part is full-on parenting. Like, all hands on deck and hold on tight. But the reward of peaceful family dinners is nothing short of a dream come true.
5 steps to dinner with zero drama
With six people in my family, it doesn’t take Good Will Hunting math to guess that not everyone loves every single meal. Plus, dinner has another predictable hazard: timing.
This pesky meal always sneaks in at the end of the day when everyone’s tired. And with any luck, hungry. A double-whammy that means a kid who might have been willing to try a bite of everyone else’s favorite Cheesy Zucchini & Sausage Casserole at a perkier time of day, might just shrivel down in his chair at 6pm, pushing his plate away instead.
Here’s what I do.
- Every night, I put a SMALL helping of dinner on all the plates. Dinner usually includes two or three things. Maybe honey-mustard chicken and roasted cauliflower. Or slow cooker potato soup with bread and a side salad of kale with maple-balsamic dressing. Everyone gets about 2 bites of everything.
- Any comments other than, “thank you”, “this looks good”, or something in the family of positive vibes are ignored. Just ignored. Push through this phase because if you can do that with a cool head, it will stop. Kids aren’t trying to be awful. They’re just figuring out how to deal with disappointment. You can help them by not getting into a ping-pong game of frustration at the table. Remind them that any comments should start with “thanks”.
- Once a child has eaten the bird-sized portion on his or her plate, they are welcome to have more of whatever they like. Explaining this in a matter-of-fact way is a great pivot from #2 above.
- If it’s a new dish, or one that they hadn’t previously enjoyed, I might ask their opinion. My favorite way to do it as asking them to give me a Thumbs Up, Thumbs Middle or Thumbs Down. No one has to say words like “gross” or “yuck”. Nope. Just a simple hand gesture gives them an outlet for their opinion without going overboard. Like a review system with training wheels.
- We shift the conversation away from food. It took us YEARS to get here but sweet hallelujah, we’re finally in a zone where we can start talking about something else. A new favorite dinner activity is saying something nice about the person sitting across from you. Just rotate around the table. You’d be surprised at how cute the kids are with this.
To mitigate issues with food preferences, I try to get input from everyone fairly often.
“What would you like to have for dinner one night this week?”
“Anyone have a special request for breakfast soon?”
“I’m going to the store. Got ideas for yummy lunches next week?”
Not every meal needs to be perfect. We’re not talking about robot children reading from a script. But it’s my responsibility to lean in to these stressful moments, turning them into life lessons. I want my kids to be fluent in flexibility, curiosity, courtesy, and basic nutrition too. All of that is possible to learn around the table. But not if everyone is catered to individually. In this case, literally.