Snack Effectively, a New Approach to Stress-Free Dinners

One of the most maddening things about feeding kids is that when you try to expand their repertoire, you end up with a load of recipes that initially get your hopes up—Yay, a new dish they like!— but which end up being one-timers.

I’m sure you know what I mean. You scour the Internet looking for the perfect meal. You carefully prepare the food and it’s well received. You do the happy dance because you’ve succeeded in your goal of growing the number of dishes you can serve for dinner. Only the second time you make exactly the same recipe it’s met with horror. Disgust. How could you think anyone would eat that? Hopes raised. Hopes dashed.

So here’s the thing. It’s no guarantee that when children eat something today, they’ll also eat it tomorrow. Unless, that is, you’re offering one of their surefire go-to dishes. The ones you’re sick of making.

The good news about this cycle of acceptance and rejection is that it PROVES that what children say about liking or disliking a particular food doesn’t mean anything about how much they like or dislike that food. Children use the words, “like” and “dislike” (or more accurately, “blech”) because we teach them that disliking a food is the only “legal” way to say they don’t want to eat something. And, we teach them this lesson by uttering the most famous parenting food-phrase out there: Just taste it, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it.

Today I want to offer up some advice. Stop looking for the perfect recipe. Instead, shift your approach to dinner and then start using snacks more effectively. It will improve how your children eat, and lay the groundwork for more successful meals.

Shift your approach to dinner.

Most parents I know think of meals as The Nutrition Zone, the time when they try to pack in all the nutrients.  And even though breakfast and lunch are also subject to the healthy meal rules (You’ve got to eat that carrot stick), dinner is the big daddy of the day. That puts a lot of pressure on dinner and pressure is the source of all the stress.

Dinner is also a difficult time for getting kids to eat new foods because everyone is tired. Tired kids want comfort food. Tired parents want their kids to eat without a fuss. The solution is to take the pressure off of dinner.

  1. Serve a variety of foods, even ones you like but your kids don’t.
  2. Make sure there is at least one thing on the table that everyone eats (or at least normally eats). It doesn’t matter if that is bread, broccoli or baked beans.
  3. Don’t insist everyone eats everything. Not even the famous “one bite.”

The only caveat I would add is, make sure that whatever the “safe” food is changes from meal-to-meal. That way your children won’t get in the habit of looking for the bread.

Use snacks more effectively.

From a habits perspective, snack time is the most important time of the day. If meals are The Nutrition Zone, snacks are the Fun Zone (or maybe the Forgotten Zone). Here’s the math on fruits and vegetables. On average, children consume

  • Fewer than 3 servings per day
  • Less than half of one serving at snack time
  • Slightly more than 1 serving at dinner.

Changing snack behavior is easier than changing dinner behavior because adding some to zero gives you a bigger mathematical bang-for-your-buck than adding more to some. Beef up (or, rather veg-and-fruit-up) snacks and you can worry less about dinner.

There are other benefits to improving snacks. You’ll be teaching your kids that fruits and vegetables, not crackers and other crunchy things are go-to foods. By rotating through different snacks you’ll be teaching your kids to be open to new foods. You’ll avoid teaching kids to snack because they’re bored because no one reaches for an apple as mindlessly as chips. Grocery shopping will be more pleasant, because fruits and vegetables don’t produce brand loyalty. The list goes on. Most importantly, though, you’ll be teaching your kids the right habits for a lifetime of healthy eating. And that’s the goal, right?


About Dina Rose

Dina Rose, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator, feeding expert and the author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee). Dina has been training parents, pediatricians, dietitians, and early childhood educators in the Habits Approach for the past decade. Her work has been featured on TV, radio, and in both print and online news sources. Dina frequently speaks to parenting groups, early childhood educators, and at pediatric grand rounds. Her approach is so unique it has been called “transformational.” In addition to writing her own blog, It's Not About Nutrition, Dina is also a regular contributor to Psychology Today.

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