Home / Food / Meal Planning & Shopping Skip the dinner debate: Make meals *you* want to eat, a dietitian and mom shares As parents, we can love so hard that we lose ourselves in the process. By Paula Cerqueira, MS, RDN December 9, 2023 Jayme Burrows/Stocksy In This Article A taste of freedom Family-style feasts: A culinary adventure Add a dash of creativity to your meal planning The beauty of putting yourself first As I sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by my husband and two wild animals amazing kiddos, Jack and Thomas, I couldn’t help but reflect on the beautiful sacrifice that motherhood brings. When my kids were born, I immediately knew that I would do anything in my power to keep them safe, healthy, happy. And as babies turned into toddlers, it became easier and easier to prioritize their needs. Gradually, where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, who I wanted to spend time with mattered less and less. As parents, we can love so hard that we lose ourselves in the process. Never was this more apparent to me then when it came to mealtimes. I’m a dietitian, but like many moms, I had fallen into the routine of planning meals around the kids’ preferences. After all, when so many meals end with food rejections and toddler tantrums, you just want to serve something healthy-ish that your kids will actually eat and maybe even enjoy! When mealtimes become just about our kids’ needs, our own needs and desires can end up taking a backseat. Related: The mental load of feeding a family is heavy—and moms often carry it But you know what? I’ve learned that embracing the craziness and nurturing my own palate alongside theirs can be a recipe for mutual meal joy. A taste of freedom Picture this: It was dinnertime, and rather than succumbing to mac and cheese mania, I decided to treat myself like the culinary queen I am and served up sweet potato and black bean tacos. And rather than composing the kids’ plates, I threw everything on the table and turned it into a DIY taco station, letting the kids pick and choose what they were interested in eating. While Jack and Thomas were munching on their shredded cheese and tortillas, I treated myself to a delightfully adult meal. As a mom, it’s easy to forget the joy of savoring the foods you love when you’re preoccupied with your little one’s dietary demands. But here’s the good news: prioritizing your own palate can improve your child’s eating habits. When you indulge in your favorite dishes, you introduce a world of exciting flavors to your child. As they watch you enjoy your meal, they’re more likely to give unfamiliar foods a chance. After all, children learn best through observation, and your genuine delight in eating becomes a powerful motivator for them to explore new tastes. (Kids are surprisingly intuitive, so they can probably tell if you’re faking it.) According to one study, parental modeling of eating behaviors significantly influences children’s food enjoyment and openness to trying new foods. So, go ahead, savor those delectable bites—you’re setting the stage for a food-loving little eater! Best of all, taking your dietary preferences into consideration will help you to enjoy mealtimes again—making for a less stressed experience for all. Family-style feasts: A culinary adventure So, at this point you’re probably wondering how you can possibly eat the things you like to eat and satisfy your child. There is a way around this challenge that supports children’s relationship with food. If you use a self-service, DIY, or family-style approach, where everyone starts with an empty plate and then serves themselves (with help, for the little people), you get to be way more creative with what you serve while also avoiding battles. At our dinner table, we embraced the family-style meal approach like it was our own culinary adventure. Jack, my 5-year-old, and Thomas, the 2-year-old tornado, were little food enthusiasts in the making. With a little help from the grown-ups, we let them serve themselves. And let me tell you, watching my boys wield those mini tongs was pure comedy gold! Did we need to spend a little extra time pulling shredded cheese out of Tom’s hair? Yes. But shockingly kids are more capable of serving themselves than you might think. Watching my boys confidently choose their favorite foods and gingerly explore new dishes fills my heart with pride (and assuages my dietitian’s ego). Taco Tuesdays? Pizza Fridays? Salad Saturdays? Oh yeah, we have it all (including Leftover Mondays and Girl Dinner Wednesdays)! Every night there’s something to look forward to—we make sure there’s something for everyone. And the laughs are as plentiful as the food. Add a dash of creativity to your meal planning Meal planning for a family with diverse tastes can be a… “fun” challenge. I discovered that incorporating variety and creativity into our meals not only satisfied my culinary needs but also encouraged Jack and Thomas to be more adventurous eaters. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a magical cure for picky eating, but gradually, the kids developed a curiosity about food and became more confident eaters. Here are some dietitian-approved tips for making this work for your family: Without voicing it, you can keep each family member in mind, and center the meal around everyone’s favorites (including yours!) at least once a week. Try not to draw too much attention to your master plan so that the kids don’t get fixated on favorite foods. Make sure there’s always one or two things included with the meal that your child accepts most of the time. Accepted foods don’t need to be the star of the meal either; they can be side dishes. This will ensure that the kids feel comfortable at the table and don’t experience feelings of deprivation. Provide enough of your child’s accepted foods for them to fill up. Let them eat as much or as little of those foods as they want. This helps them feel in control. There will be days that your kiddo only eats their accepted foods, but not to worry: if you serve a variety of food, most kids will meet their nutritional needs over the course of a few days. The beauty of putting yourself first The journey of motherhood is filled with surprises, and learning to savor the family feast together has been a transformative experience. By occasionally putting myself first, embracing family-style meals, and getting creative with meal planning, joy came back to the dinner table. I’m witnessing the boys become confident little eaters, just like their mama. Related: The Sunday family dinner is nearly obsolete, but it’s one that’s worth bringing back So here’s to embracing the chaos, laughter and love around your family table. Through this delicious journey of self-discovery, you’re not only nourishing your body but also nurturing your soul. Together, we can savor the feast of life, one joyful bite at a time. Sources Palfreyman Z, Haycraft E, Meyer C. Parental modelling of eating behaviours: observational validation of the Parental Modelling of Eating Behaviours scale (PARM). Appetite. 2015;86:31-37. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.08.008 This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother's journey is unique. By amplifying each mother's experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you're interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.