Photo: Monica Yavrom via Tribetrektacos

The kids have been chanting, “we’re hungry” for the last hour.

You finally have dinner ready and you call the kids to the table.  Now that everything is finally ready, the kids are dragging their feet.  It takes you 15 minutes to finally have everyone gathered around the table.  Then, your picky eater points at the food and exclaims, “What is that?”

You enthusiastically explain what you have prepared.  The first protest begins, then the second–you now find yourself trying to “sell” the dinner menu to your curious and spirited kids.   You tirelessly request that they “just try” a bite of everything on their plate.

You go through your list of persuasive things:  you will grow tall and strong; eat your favorite thing first; and the last resort is the guilt-laden “people are starving in other parts of the world.” Alas, another battle at the dinner table lost.

First let’s talk a little about kids and food.  To begin, let’s ask ourselves, “why has food become such an issue for American families?”  Has it always been like this?  What are we doing right or perhaps more importantly, what are we doing wrong?

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These are questions that began to surface as soon as our first-born son was able to start eating solid foods.  Of course, as a new mom–it became my mission to figure out how to make sure my kids were good eaters.  I was determined to beat this “picky eating” phase.

My initial “research” began with reading every article and blog I could find on toddlers and picky eating.  Eventually I landed on a book that I still refer to today called “French Kids Eat Everything” by Karen Le Billon.  Like any advice in life, I feel it is good to be open to ideas and then apply what works for you and your situation.   Also, I found I actually know very little about kids and food.

To begin, my research has taught me that kids must try foods many different times- approximately 15 times before they can decide if they like something.  It is also important when presenting kids with new foods to include a food item you know they will like.  Also, snacking between meals should be limited to healthy whole foods such as fruit, nuts and water.   In the book by Le Billon, she talks about how the French make dinners feel special by setting the table, and not only on special occasions.  This could be as simple as placing some left-over herbs or flower from the garden in a drinking glass.

One of the most important and challenging concepts I have learned has been to avoid using food as a means for bribery, reward or punishment.  This is something that seems to be quite ubiquitous in American culture.  You often hear tactics like, “You won’t get any dessert unless you finish your vegetables.”

In the final analysis, teaching your kids to eat and enjoy food is a PROCESS that takes time–it is unrealistic to expect immediate results.

This all seems easy enough to do in theory.  However, in the midst of our busy and chaotic lives, it is not always so simple to implement.  Enter TACO NIGHT at our house.  Allow us to share with you how Taco Night saved our family dinners.

I am of Mexican heritage and grew up eating different tacos 2-3 times a week.    My husband and I are both crazy about tacos.  Therefore, making Taco Night a special dinner at our house, as well as an opportunity to put into practice some of what we had learned was an easy choice.

We decided that once a week we would grill some delicious meats, make homemade salsa, warm-up some tortillas, chop a variety of vegetables and garnishes, make fresh fruit drinks and play some festive music.

We start by having the boys help pick out vegetables at the grocery store or farmer’s market.  They like to pick the avocados, radishes and limes.  Next, we get them involved with the meal prep.  They can do things like removing cilantro leaves from the stems, mashing avocados and pressing the tortilla press for the homemade corn tortillas.

What happened next was both amazing and eye-opening.  Our boys suddenly started asking things like, “Is dinner ready yet?”  They were also rushing to the dinner table.  Once at the dinner table, they could not wait to “customize” their taco with all the garnishes they helped prepare.  They would grab their warm soft tortilla and add steak, pickled onions, tomato, cilantro, guacamole and a twist of lime juice.  Voila–a perfect taco with all their favorite toppings.  Then, the next taco might have a different combination of ingredients.

Add some Gypsy Kings to this taco making madness and suddenly family dinners have become something to look forward to.

The truth is that dinners are still not perfect every night of the week, but they have significantly improved.  I think that Taco Night really has set a positive precedent on how dinners can be when everyone is involved.  The main take-aways I would like to share from one mama to another are:

Getting kids to Enjoy Food is a Process

In the end, the goal is to raise healthy and mindful eaters–this takes time and work.  Focus on good eating as a long-term goal.  Take one day at a time.  If things don’t work out for one meal, one day or even one week, don’t give up hope.

Involve Kids in the Kitchen

Including kids in the kitchen is key.  They are more likely to try foods that they help shop for or prepare.

Food is Food

Refrain from using food for anything other than what it is–nutritious and enjoyable.  Any other association may lead to unhealthy practices.  This can be really difficult to do, especially when we are used to the common practice of using food as a reward.

Limit Between Meal Snacking

Reduce snacking between meals.  We try to limit snacking to fruit, nuts, cheese and water–that is it.  You’d be surprised how hungry they are for dinner when they haven’t filled-up on empty calories.

Set an Example

Eat the way you would like your family to eat.  Make better choices together as a family.

Relax

Try not to hover or focus too much on your child at meal-time.  Allow them some space to explore the food in front of them.  Sometimes they might not eat and that’s okay (this was hard at first). Use dinners as a valuable time to enjoy food and conversation together–remember this is quality family time.

These are some ideas and practices that have helped our family.  And, we continue to work on these daily.  Taco Night continues to be one of the highlights of our week!