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The Secret to Drama-Free Dinners: One Family Meal

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Feeling like meals as a family are stressful and dramatic? Like your kids won’t eat what you make? Like they won’t eat ANYTHING?!

Sigh. You aren’t alone. And I know it’s frustrating.

But there is a better way. And it starts with one family meal.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Benefits of One Family Meal:

There are so many benefits to family meals.

  • It’s the EASIEST
  • Exposes kids to many flavors and foods vs. if they eat mac and cheese and chicken nuggets for most meals
  • Because you don’t NEED “kids” food
  • It’s a great way to show and model balance
  • It’s a great way to model eating ALL types of foods
  • It’s a time of connection for families in a busy world
  • It can be a positive peer pressure
  • It can break the cycle of “mom is on a diet”

How One Family Meal Can Prevent “Picky” Eating:

I don’t like to label kids as picky eaters, so I usually I put picky in quotes. If your kids aren’t trying as many foods as you’d like them to, because I really don’t like to label kids as picky eaters! I have a few approaches to this:

  1. One Family Meal. Stop “picky” eating before it starts by fixing ONE family meal.
  2. Expect it. Your kids are going to have strong opinions about the food you put in front of them. No matter how many meals of quinoa and broccoli you feed them, the time will come. And it’s 100% normal. If you go into it expecting that it will happen, it will be that much easier!
  3. Don’t label it. They aren’t picky, they are learning to eat a wide-range of food! Some foods may take 15 (or more!) exposures before they will accept it – or eat it. Just as it takes time and practice to learn your colors or learn to read, kids need to learn to eat. Some will do so easily and quickly – others not so much.
  4. Look at snacks. This is super common and an easy fix. Parents think their child is picky because they aren’t eating a lot at meals…but really it’s just that they aren’t hungry! When snacks have been adjusted, they eat more! I know this one is painfully obvious in my own kids as well.In an ideal world, specific snack times would be set. If it’s not time for a snack, then they’ll need to wait. (Obviously this doesn’t always work, right?) Snacks can become a vicious cycle of always snacking –> not being hungry at meal times –> needing a snack shortly after. The problem with this is that they are eating mostly snack foods, which may not have the nutrients they need. Veggies before dinner: this snack strategy has worked really well for us!
plate with baked chicken tacos

Keeping Food Neutral:

One family meal can also help model what a balanced relationship with food looks like. If you grew up in a house where the parents (most likely the moms!) ate different meals than the rest of the family, you might have picked up on the idea that some foods are good and some foods are bad.

Keep it neutral by having one family meal – if it’s good enough for your family, it should be good enough for you!

There’s no need to use the term “healthy” or “bad” when it comes to food if it’s neutral. It’s not good or bad; it’s FOOD!

pierogies and kielbasa sheet pan dinner on a plate

How to Transition to One Family Meal:

Ok, so is anyone thinking that this all sounds great, but it’s TOO late for us?! You are not alone.

But, good news. It doesn’t have to be too late! Is it easier to start from day one? Probably. But is it the only way to do it? Definitely not.

Let’s start with the division of responsibility. This approach was designed by the Ellyn Satter Institute. Satter is a registered dietitian and family therapist that I’ve followed for years, whose mission is to “help adults and children be joyful and confident with eating.” Her method is that the parent/caretaker role is responsible for the whatwhenwhere aspect of the meal and the child is responsible for the how much and whether to eat the foods offered.

Ok, let’s soak that in. YOU decide what goes on the plate, when it’s meal times and where meals will be eaten. 

CHILD decides what to eat and how much to eat. 

If this sounds too simple – it is! But it’s also not. The hard part is to relinquish control and just let them decide. If you spend meal times trying to convince your kids to eat certain foods and telling them that they should be eating certain foods this will be very hard to do at first! But eventually, you’ll get in the habit. And the immediate benefit? Meal times will be infinitely less-stressful!

Why is this important? This method allows children to listen to their own bodies. We are born with the innate skill of giving our body what it needs. Eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re not. Over time, we lose this and if you’ve tried to get back into mindful eating yourself, you know that it’s really hard to gain this back. Trust that they can do this for themselves!

Once you’ve mastered your role, start transitioning to one family meal. Make sure that there is always one or two things that you know your child will eat that’s a part of the meal.

Example: Say we’re having something I know my kids won’t be SUPER excited about. (Why do I do this? Because it’s exposing them to new and different flavors, this is important!)

I serve the components separately, so they can choose what to eat AND I serve them something I KNOW they will eat (aka rice + animal crackers in this example), so that they won’t be hungry.

The rest is up to them. Once your family gets into the swing of the same meal, the meal time requests + drama becomes nonexistent.

Here’s how I handled this meal:

Eden: “I don’t want lettuce.”
Me: “You decide what to eat off of your plate.”


caesar salad with pasta in a bowl

One Family Meal FAQs

What if they don’t eat their dinner and then they are hungry later?
Whenever I talk about the division of responsibility, I get this question. You’ll need to decide what’s right for you. Because this doesn’t happen on a regular, daily basis at our house, I’ll often give them a snack before bed if they are hungry. BUT, it’s usually something with some nutrition like a cheese stick or some fruit/veggies. If you have snacks like crackers or cookies, they may not want to eat their dinner…so they can have their snacks!

How do I teach my child healthy eating habits? 
Teach your child healthy eating habits by modeling them! Eat dinners as a family (if possible!) and eat the same meal (one family meal!). Eat meals that are full of flavors and colors. Have set meal times so that kids aren’t grazing all day. Show them what a healthy relationship to food looks like.

How do you explain healthy eating to a child? 
This answer may surprise you, but we don’t actually talk a lot about “healthy eating” at our house. We don’t label food as good or bad – it’s all food! We talk a lot about food: how it tastes, what it looks like, how we cook it, where it comes from.

The only thing that we sometimes talk about is treats and just that we don’t have them at every meal – not that they are bad.

How to feed your child healthy food? 
Feed your child healthy food. Wait, is that enough of an answer? Serve balanced, nutritious meals to your family…and then let them decide what they eat. Serve nutritious food that tastes delicious. And expose them to the flavors over and over and over again. At first they may throw it off their plate. Then they may touch it. Then they may taste it. Then they may eat it. Sometimes it takes a while and a lot of exposures.

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  1. Mercedes

    This is such a great summary of everything you and I talked about! Great post for anyone who struggles with stressing about feeding kids!!

  2. Sara

    Super helpful approach! If the children decide what and how much, does that mean they can request (and get) 2nds and 3rds of one specific food? Or does everyone get 1 plate of food and decide how much to eat from their plate? What do you recommend?

    • Emily

      Hi Sara! So this answer will sort of depend and I don’t think there always needs to be a hard/fast rule. If it’s something like dessert, then most of the time, we’ll only give one serving. If it’s something like fruit or bread, I usually give them more if they are asking for it because I trust that they know what they need. (And there is plenty of nutrition in fruit, too!)