Motherly Collective

As a food writer and onetime-restaurant critic, I’m used to getting emergency phone calls from friends in need: Where should I eat in Brooklyn or San Francisco or London? (And can you get me in?) Do I really have to use cake flour? (No, add a tablespoon or two of cornstarch to the all-purpose kind.) Then I became a mom, and the floodgates opened. 

Food was all anyone wanted to talk about—from the playground to dinner parties (not that I attended that many after I became a mom.) The questions I received were as varied as they were endless: How important is family dinner? When did picky eating become a thing? Can you teach a kid to actually like vegetables?

Feeding children is one of the most basic of human responsibilities. So, why does it feel so complex and why do we so often feel like we’re failing at it? Those questions are the ones we try to answer on Pressure Cooker, a podcast I started this year with fellow mom and veteran food reporter Liz Dunn. In each episode we dig deep into the research to answer the questions that plague parents and highlight real parents’ stories about feeding their kids. As important as knowing the answer is knowing that you’re not alone.

Related: 5 easy ways to help your picky eater get the nutrition they need

In my experience, parents’ struggle to feed their kids can be traced to three realities of modern life:

1. First, the food environment is stacked against moms who want to feed their children healthy food

Healthy food is often more expensive than ultra-processed meals and snacks. And even when it’s not, it certainly takes more time to prepare and cook. Moreover, because sweet and salty snacks are literally designed to hit a “bliss point,” our kids crave them more intensely than the home-cooked meals we planned, shopped for and prepared. If it sometimes feels like you can’t win, you’re not wrong. 

2. Conflicting nutrition advice 

Parents are often faced with a flood of nutrition advice, which can be difficult to unravel. Does their favorite yogurt have too much sugar? Do I need to buy organic everything? The reality is that for most questions, there simply isn’t always a right or wrong answer.

Related: The FDA’s new definition of ‘healthy’ could make grocery shopping easier

3. The rise of foodie culture in America 

This is not a bad thing, especially for food lovers like me. Once hard-to-find ingredients like Calabrian chilis or Vietnamese fish sauce are available in supermarkets or on the internet. But this can result in unnecessary pressure on parents: Food magazines suggest “easy” weekly meals that would have you making sheet-pan pizza on Monday, one-pot shrimp and rice on Tuesday and simple coconut chicken curry on Wednesday. None of that is easy at all after a full day’s work at the office or chasing the kids around the house—or both. 

So how do you win despite, well, everything? Here are my top three tips for feeding kids:

1. Tune out (most) of the “good” advice out there 

This, I admit, is deceptively simple. The desire to be a good mom—the perfect mom—runs deep. But the fact is, it’s OK if your kids don’t love kale (or spinach.) For most kids, those dislikes don’t last forever, and in the meantime, they can get plenty of nutrients from kid favorites, carrots and peas. It’s also OK if your kids don’t have a rotation of Instagram-worthy lunches for school. A boring but relatively healthy lunch they like will get them successfully through the day. And a quick personalized sticky note conveys as much love (if not more) than a fancy rainbow-themed bento box.

2. Set your own schedule

Our collective vision of what it looks like to feed kids well is stuck in the 1950s. You know, the family all together at the table at 6pm, then hearty breakfasts of bacon and eggs. But that ideal is irrelevant to how most of us live today (and it probably wasn’t as common as we think back then either.) Despite what you may have read about how children who eat regular meals with their families get better grades and are less prone to substance abuse, it’s not the meals that keep kids on track. It’s a regular and open line of communication with their parents. So, if family meals don’t work for your family’s schedule, simply find a different moment to talk with your kids. It might be when you drop them at school or while walking the dog. It doesn’t have to be dinner! 

3. Make food fun (when you can) 

Our stress to feed kids right often is unintentionally passed on. We make our kids take one more bite, or finish everything on their plates. But kids, like adults, are more receptive if eating isn’t a punishing experience, but an enjoyable one. So let little ones play with their food. Spaghetti with red sauce can be an exploding volcano. A cucumber can look like a boat and be pushed around the plate. And, no, dinosaur chicken nuggets are not really that bad. Because you know what’s fun for a 4-year-old? Dinosaurs! 

If I’ve learned anything talking to parents and experts, it’s that feeling uncertain or guilty is how moms feel most of the time. It doesn’t mean that you are doing anything wrong. And you certainly are not alone. It just means you care.

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.