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Kids Eat Smart? There’s a Trick to Family Dinner

Broccoli, carrots and celery for kids to snack on. Credit: StockFood

Broccoli, carrots and celery for kids to snack on. Credit: StockFood

When my three children were little, we ate every supper and nearly every breakfast as a family at the table. When the kids’ friends ate over, they ate with us. Once, when my daughter was 9, one of her friends was over for dinner with his father. Toward the end of the meal when the kids were getting restless with adult talk, the little boy asked me whether he could be excused. His father’s mouth dropped open and he said “How do you get him to do that? He never asks at home.”

Well, I guess you know what I’m going to say next. Parents must not abrogate their parental responsibility. That’s a fancy way of saying “you make them.” You make children sit at the table. It’s not open for negotiation. You make a command decision as my U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. father used to say.

It’s not a negotiation … and there’s more to it

I’ve often been baffled by parents who negotiate with their young children over matters that are fundamental. Of course, no one wants to stifle the curiosity of the child or set standards that are too authoritarian or suffocating. But insisting on eating with the family hardly qualifies as that. Eating together as a family truly forges the ties that bind. Not only do you get to know your children, they get to know you. In fact, it creates a situation where the parent-child relationship becomes equalized for a moment because you can all have an opinion about life or about the food.

Get your kid’s dining review

My children were taught that you never say “I don’t like this.” Instead, you formulate a critique of what it is you don’t like. You taste several times to adjust, amend or change your opinion.

The author's son, Siri, with macaroni at dinnertime.

The author’s son, Seri, with macaroni at dinnertime. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

What you, the parent, are looking for is the budding little gourmet who can say,  “It’s too bitter, it’s too sour, it’s too mushy, it’s too hot, or it’s too brown,” or who can describe another way they might like the food you’ve served.

You can initiate such a discussion before they can articulate their feelings, especially, if you notice some avoidance behavior on their part. It’s no help, and is in fact counterproductive, to say “eat some of the spinach.”

You can guide their response by suggesting something they may not have considered. For example, you may ask for their opinion. “I was thinking of adding raisins to the spinach, do you think that would have made it better?” “Do you think I should have cooked it au gratin?” Unless your child is the least curious child in the world, they’ll ask “what’s au gratin?” This provides an opportunity to change the tone and nature of the whole dinner.

Kids eat smart when parents ask for their input

Children love to be asked their opinion, which they are so rarely asked, and they take great joy in giving you what for them seems an adult response. Or as one of my sons once said, “That’s very istresting.” It’s the gastronomic equivalent of walking around in their mother’s high heels.

In our house, vegetables were almost always part of something else — used in a stuffing, tossed with pasta, maybe added to a soup or risotto —  but there were several stand-alone vegetable dishes from which my kids would take seconds. I also used to serve vegetables as snacks. I’d pan-sear some broccoli pieces and salt them and set them out on one plate. On another plate, I’d set out carrots, celery and broccoli stems cut into equal-sized sticks. I would just leave them out, without ever saying “there are some vegetables for you, try them.” They would just lie there for anyone to try. They always disappeared without a word.

 Photo: Cut broccoli, carrots and celery for kids to snack on. Credit: StockFood

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).

  • Rose 10·16·12

    My daughter told me that my grandson did not like cottage cheese. One day when I was watching him he said he was hungry. I just gave him a few crackers and got out some cottage cheese for me and told him he couldn’t have any because he wasn’t old enough to have any of my special cottage cheese. Then I sat and ate and made some sounds really enjoying it. Before you knew it he was begging me to let him try my special cottage cheese.. Never had trouble getting him to eat it after that!

  • Monica 10·13·14

    We asked our 12-year old son what type of lettuce seeds he would like to plant for our family summer garden this past summer. He picked some interesting varieties, then helped to till and turn the soil, enrich the earth with topsoil and then plant the seeds. Then water the garden. And he is a salad eating fiend, who likes unusual varieties. We eat salad twice a day. And on a picnic where I was packing a salad this past summer, he said, “Bring the GOOD balsamic.” We love that he appreciates the difference. If they grow it, they will eat it.