One Meal for the Whole Family

One meal for the whole family: how to not short-order cook and still be successful

In Facebook groups for parents, with clients, and among friends, I hear it all the time:

Meal times with kids are stressful.

We are faced with not only what to fix day after day, but also the confusion of what our children will actually eat from what we offer. Many parents face anxiety over what to do when our child doesn’t eat what we made for the family. 

  • Am I supposed to adopt an “eat this or starve” approach?
  • When they refuse to eat what is offered, do I let them go pick a “safe food” from the fridge just so they have something in their stomach?
  • If they don’t eat anything at a meal, what happens when they end up hungry within an hour later?

Without knowing the “right answer” to any of the above questions, parents can find themselves short-order cooking for the sake of what appears to make for a more peaceful meal time. Over time, the tendency to cater to our children’s ever-changing requests however doesn’t work. Parents become increasingly annoyed over making separate meals and children become less and less adaptable to eating from what is offered (whether it is their favorite or not).

That is why establishing boundaries at meal times is one of the most important parts to establishing a healthy feeding environment.

If you aren’t sure where to start in revamping your family’s feeding environment, this post provides an outline for what you can do to get your family on the right track immediately. If you have already begun to establish the Division of Responsibility in your home, then you can continue to work through how to make meal times less stressful by eliminating  the short-order cooking while still being considerate of everyone at the table.

Here are some key considerations to avoid short-order cooking or fights over the food that is offered:

  1. Remember YOU (the parent) are in charge of what is offered (see more on the Division of Responsibility in feeding here). That means the weight of “what’s for dinner” (or any meal of the day) is both your responsibility but also your right to decide on. If your child objects to what is offered or asks for something outside of what you have decided is being included in the given meal, you are able to acknowledge their ask but also diffuse their ownership over what’s available at the meal with a simple statement like, “That sounds really good. How about we have that __________ (tomorrow for snack, another night this week for dinner, next time we go out to eat).”
  2. In order to be most successful in picking what to offer, pair foods wisely. Food pairing here is far from a culinary ideal but rather an essential to combatting picky eating. That’s because boldly offering foods you know your family is either unfamiliar with or already highly apprehensive towards may backfire when first trying to achieve a single family meal. Instead, consider not just the main course but also what sides you could offer alongside it to make sure there is something for everyone being offered at the meal. This requires a bit more planning but pays off by giving the parent peace of mind and the child reassurance that there will always be something available for everyone before the meal begins (eliminating the temptation to short-order cook when the main meal is refused).
  3. Create a “Love it, Like it, Learning it” list. This list acknowledges that your child has a variety of “preferred” (love it or like it foods) and “non-preferred” (learning it foods), while also giving you as the parent an actionable template for how to begin pairing meals. With awareness of what foods your child tends to prefer (or not), you can begin to help your child become more comfortable with having both preferred and non-preferred foods on their plate. To create this list, include three columns for foods you know your child(ren) “loves,” “likes,” and is “still learning to like”:
    • Love: Foods they eat and enjoy almost always (>75% of the time)
    • Like: Foods they eat and enjoy on occasion (50% of the time)
    • Learning (to like): Foods they rarely if ever eat and enjoy (<25% of the time)
  4. Structure meals to include something from each category. Instead of short-order cooking and setting a precedence that every meal will only include foods your child likes/loves, begin to transition towards meals that work for the whole family using a “Love it, Like it, Learning it” approach. While each family member may have unique food preferences, your role is to offer a variety of options that can eliminate the need for short order cooking. To do this, make sure there is always at least one item from each family member’s “Love it” list. This may be an otherwise arbitrary bowl of applesauce at the table to start, but it reinforces trust in the feeding relationship. With a love it food always offered, your child learns to trust you are thinking of them with each meal (without catering to their every specific food request). This also helps you as the parent to trust that once you have done your job to offer something you know your child usually prefers, it is up to your child if/whether and how much they eat from what foods are made available. Over time, you can begin to offer more variety in the “like it” and “learning it” foods offered as your child becomes more comfortable with this approach.
  5. Continue to reinforce a Division of Responsibility through calm conversation. If your child is upset over what is being offered or this transition to one meal for the whole family, gently tell them how mealtimes are going to be done differently now. Share with them how much you want everyone to enjoy being together at the table and how from now on, the family will all be offered the same meal. Encourage family members that there will always be something at the table that each family member enjoys. Also remind them that every meal will not be made up only of  their favorites, but rather that you as the parent will make sure to rotate through each family member’s preferred (love it) foods throughout the week.

The transition from short-order cooking to one meal for the whole family can be a challenging one to initially commit to. However, when done with consideration to unique food preferences (especially for families with more extreme picky eaters), both parents and children can begin to find immense freedom with food again. Parents are able to face less frustration in how to re-expose their children to new foods and kids are able to take comfort in “learning to like” new foods amidst familiar favorites, making this a win-win for families.

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Ashley SmithContributor

Ashley Smith is a pediatric dietitian and mom to two apprehensive eaters (ages 4 and 2). Her mission is to bring other families less meal time stress and more feeding success. Ashley does this each week through sharing simple approaches to meal planning and effective strategies for raising healthy eaters. Follow her on Instagram @veggiesandvirtue or her blog,

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