In restaurants, “kids’ menus” typically offer a short list of popular foods, items like grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken fingers with fries, and simple pasta dishes. At home, meal time might feature one meal for the kids, and a different one for the adults. This extra effort stems from parental concerns that their kids won’t eat the same foods their grown-ups enjoy.
The idea of “kid-friendly meals” reinforces the notion that kids will only accept a limited range of foods. But it’s a catch-22, because if we only offer kids a short list of easy-to-like foods, we’re limiting their chances to learn to like a greater variety of foods.
A different perspective:
Kids are “eaters in training”, and with time and opportunity, they can learn to like the wide range of foods their families enjoy. They’re capable of so much! I think about what I have seen kids eat in other regions: spicy tamales in Mexico, liver pate in Belgium, and whale blubber (muktuk) in Canada’s Arctic region. Wow, right?
Given that kids can learn to like wide range of foods, I’d like to propose a new definition for a “kid-friendly meal”:
- It is a meal that kids share with their family or other role models.
- It's a positive experience.
- It fits into a routine of regular meal and snack times.
- It provides an opportunity for good nutrition.
Here are some practical tips for making kid-friendly meals:
- Make one meal for the whole family. Where possible, eat together, and help kids to serve themselves from the foods you've prepared.
- Include foods from 3 or 4 different food groups, but know that it’s normal (and okay) for young children to only eat 1 or 2 items from a meal.
- Be considerate, without letting the kids dictate the menu. Offer new or less popular foods alongside familiar favourites, so everyone can find something to eat (e.g. introduce a new vegetable alongside your standby pasta dish, or offer bread, butter, and cheese together with that chili recipe you want to try).
- Consider occasional build-your-own meals, such as salads, pizza, tacos, grilled cheese sandwiches, or rice bowls, where each person assembles their own unique version of the dish.
- Cut ingredients into large enough pieces so kids can recognize and pick out anything they are not yet comfortable with (e.g. when preparing a stew, cut the meat and vegetables into bite-size pieces).
- Be honest about what you are serving; hiding vegetables or other foods into mixed dishes won’t help kids learn to like those foods. Worse, kids could become suspicious about the foods you offer!
- Keep the conversation pleasant, and focus on connecting with the people with whom you are sharing the meal. If you are talking about the food, be matter-of-fact (e.g. “This is asparagus. It tastes a bit like broccoli.”).
- Avoid pressuring kids to eat, such as “take one bite” rules or “try it, you’ll like it”. Let your child’s appetite be their guide for how much to eat, and let them learn to like new foods at their own pace.
- “You don’t have to eat it” is always a great way to respond to resistance.