Your Toughest Mealtime Challenges, Solved!

by Ann Douglas

Whether it's a toddler who brings a whole new dimension to leisurely dining, a preschooler who redefines pickiness, or the day-to-day challenge of getting dinner on the table, Ann Douglas offers these solutions to your family's toughest mealtime challenges.

Problem: Your preschooler wants to eat ice cream for breakfast.

Solutions:

  • Have some clear rules about what foods are breakfast foods and what foods can be eaten at other times of the day-and then stick to the rules.
  • Encourage your child to suggest healthy breakfast foods that he'd like you to purchase at the grocery store-e.g., his favorite brand of unsweetened cereal.
  • Look for foods that have strong kid-appeal and yet that still deliver the goods nutritionally: e.g., fresh berries on cereal or whole grain waffles.

Problem: Your child keeps changing his mind about what he wants to eat.

Solutions:

  • Try to determine what's making your child act this way. Some kids change their mind about foods because they like to be the ones in total control when it comes to food, even if that means playing head games with their parents. Others are simply rather fickle. By the time dinner shows up on the table, they don't want it anymore.
  • Let your child know that the time to change his mind about what he wants to eat is before you start making it. Otherwise, too much food gets wasted.

Problem: Your toddler just picks at her lunch. She hardly eats anything!

Solutions:

  • A toddler's appetite isn't nearly as voracious as that of a baby. This is because toddlers grow at a much slower rate than babies.
  • Toddlers only need toddler-sized portions: approximately 1/4 to 1/3 of an adult-sized portion of most food groups.
  • Most healthy children won't starve themselves. However, there are situations when children can run into trouble, so it's best to have your child checked by a doctor if you're seriously concerned. To make the doctor's job easier, keep a food diary for about a week, taking note of everything that your toddler eats. This will give your toddler's doctor a much more accurate idea of what she is-or isn't-eating than if you were to track her intake for a single day.

Problem:Your family is stuck in a convenience food rut.

Solutions:

  • Consider the health and financial costs of relying on convenience foods.
  • Load up on cookbooks that feature menus that can be whipped up quickly and easily, and that are both healthy and kid-friendly. (Ask other parents and your local bookseller for recommendations.)
  • Do some food preparation ahead of time or look for items in the grocery store that can save you time on the food preparation front (e.g., salad in a bag, mini-carrots, etc.).
  • Make at least one extra meal on the weekends, either by cooking that meal all by itself and popping in the freezer, or by making "doubles" of one of your family's weekend meals (e.g., a double batch of spaghetti sauce or lasagna) so that you can have leftovers during the week.

Problem: Family members' schedules make it tough for you to eat together on a regular basis.

Solutions:

  • See if your schedules will allow you to eat breakfast or lunch together instead. The health benefits of eating as a family on a regular basis are pretty impressive. Studies have shown that kids who eat with their parents are less likely to drink soft drinks and eat fried foods; eat healthier meals than they would if they were eating on their own; are twice as likely to eat the five servings of vegetables and fruit each day as prescribed by Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating.

Problem: It's hard to find a dinner that the whole family likes.

Solutions:

  • Instead of trying to play short-order cook, think about creating variations of the same meal. For example, if you're having spaghetti, you could serve the noodles, sauce, meat, and vegetables separately so that kids who only like certain parts of the meal (or who don't like the different parts of the meal to touch each other!) could come up with an acceptable meal alternative.
  • Don't be too rigid-but don't be too lax, too. Define your boundaries when it comes to making "alternative meals" (or allowing kids to make their own alternative meals), and then stick to them.

Problem: It's tough to find the energy and the enthusiasm to play chef

Solutions:

  • Know what you're making ahead of time. Sometimes the toughest part is coming up with the idea du jour-and ensuring that you have the right combinations of ingredients on hand.
  • Do some of the prep work ahead of time so that you're only left with the final steps in the meal preparation process.
  • Get the entire family in on the act. Depending on how your "teammates" interact with one another in the kitchen, you may discover that mealtime preparation makes for a fabulous team sport. (Or not.)
  • Get ahead of the game. Make some of your meals on weekends, double up on batches, do an entrée swap with another parent (you trade her your to-die-for lasagna in exchange for a batch of her world-famous spaghetti sauce), or form a cooking coop or supper club.

Problem: You can't get your toddler to stay at the dinner table

Solutions:

  • Accept the fact that your days of leisurely wining and dining are over for now. (You're in the whining and dining phase now!)
  • Keep your child engaged in the mealtime conversation rather than trying to carry on a one-on-one conversation with your spouse. She'll be entertained longer that way.
  • Teach your child that she can't get up and down from the dinner table like a yoyo. It's disruptive to other people at the dinner table and it could be dangerous when you're dining out in restaurants.
  • Excuse your toddler when she's sure she's finished eating, but let her know that she won't be getting her dinner plate back. She'll have to wait for her bedtime snack if she decides she's still hungry.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting including the bestselling "The Mother of All Pregnancy Books." She regularly contributes to a number of print and online publications, is frequently quoted in the media on a range of parenting-related topics, and has appeared as a guest on a number of television and radio shows. Ann and her husband Neil live in Peterborough, Ontario. with the youngest of their four children. Learn more at her site, having-a-baby.com.

Copyright © Ann Douglas. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.