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Going Full Satter: Taking Back Control of Dinnertime

May28

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Dear Amy,

You’ve mentioned going from a less than Ellyn Satter dining plan to following her book pretty closely with dinners at home. I’ve read the “How to Get Your Kid to Eat: But Not Too Much”. My house is still a dang mess when it comes to eating! I was wondering if you would mind doing a post about how the transition went. How much belly-aching, complaining, not eating was there?

Specifically, I have a 5 year-old, a 3 year-old, and an infant. Oh, and a husband who is rarely home for dinner, won’t eat early enough to eat with the kids, and well, you get the picture. The 5 year-old is soooooo picky. Seriously. He has some mild sensory issues, that I think contribute. Namely, a very sensitive smell sense. He’s not texture averse, just smell sensitive. The 3 year-old is more adventurous, but not exactly adventurous. She is improving though. The issues we have stem from my path of least resistance approach in life, and well, the aforementioned infant spent nearly 5 months in the NICU and the babysitters are not cooks. So, there were several months of cycling the stock dinner options that were easy. Lots of chicken, meatballs, fish sticks, and a little spaghetti.

So, now that I want to try to clean things up a bit, I’m facing a possible revolt. I’m implementing 2 dinners a week at the big dining room table, with full focus and attention, myself and 3 kids. I’m trying to find dinners that are a slide from what they are used to, or somewhat adaptable (Sloppy Joes, I don’t care if you only eat the bun!). Any suggestions? Should I really go completely cold turkey? That’s really hard with Dad’s unpredictable schedule and habit of traveling and being accustomed to deciding what he wants no more than 5 hours before eating…..and eating later than the kids anyway. Sigh. I can only fix the kids here, not the DH!

Signed,
Short order non-cook who really wants to be more!

I have to admit: The Satter method works best when you can get the whole family on board, and can commit to “real” family dinners as many nights a week as possible. Even more so in the “beginning,” when presenting a united, consistent front for the kids shows them that this is the new reality: You will eat what Mom and Dad eat. The end.

That said, that’s simply not doable for a lot of families. Obviously, it would be GREAT if you could get your husband to commit to like, one solid week of eating dinner with the kids to help you out, but I don’t think it’s a lost cause if it’s just going to be you most of the time. I would suggest you re-think the “two serious meals a week” strategy, at least in the beginning when you’re hoping for some kind of breakthrough. While I fully support the expectation of table manners (and there is something nice about sitting at a table together) is it possible that the “full focus and attention at the big formal table” approach is stressing everybody out a bit (yourself included)? I know there is nothing — NOTHING — that wears my patience down than dinner time whiiiiiiining over foooood and I don’t liiiiiiike this and I’m going to hang upside down from my chaaaaaaiiiirr. The change of scenery/expectations might also be signaling to the kids that “THIS IS GOING TO BE FOOD I DON’T LIKE” before they even see what you’ve made.

(Or not! I don’t know. We usually eat dinner in our dining room but the kids eat at the kitchen counter for breakfast and lunch, and I did plenty of kids-only meals when we were first Satterizing Noah and Jason had to work late. Of course, Noah wouldn’t even eat kid-friendly stuff like fish sticks or meatballs at the time, so I considered getting him to eat that stuff a victory!)

So here’s what I’d suggest: Go cold turkey, but loosen up a little bit at the same time. Give them new things in the old scenery. Put the plates down and leave the room if you have to; if that helps you avoid the cajoling and begging and “just one bite” bargaining that is decidedly very un-Satter. OR: Could you possibly commit eating with the kids every night, dining room or otherwise, but simply try to make meals that your husband can simply reheat when he gets home? Maybe stuff in a Crock Pot that can basically be served whenever? That way you get to model the good manners/eating habits for the kids without THEN simply becoming a short-order cook for your husband a few hours later.

(Think chilis or stews with lots of veggies that you can serve over kid-friendly spaghetti, egg noodles or rice. Mild Indian-style curries are also a great way to make an adult-friendly meat/vegetable dish in a single pot or Crock Pot…let it simmer all day if you want, then serve it to the kids over rice and give them some bread. [Trader Joe’s has great frozen Indian breads that are super-convenient.] The bread and rice usually keep them from flipping out over the unfamiliar stuff in the curry. That’s basically how I got Noah to tolerate rice with “sauce” on it. Eventually, he would eat the actual contents of the curry — chickpeas, lentils, chicken, spinach, etc. Baby steps, though.)

Yes, there WILL be a revolt. An uprising. Whining out the wazoo. I think we had some full-on sobbing. Which is why you do kind of have to be SUPER CONSISTENT, EVERY NIGHT about it for a week or two. They…they need to get hungry. That sounds so mean but it’s true. This is like CIO for eating. They will try to wait you out, figuring that eventually you’ll get sick of making meals that go untouched (which: yes, grrrrr) and cave and they’ll get some macaroni and cheese.

I think Noah skipped dinner for about three days straight. He ate plenty at breakfast and lunch and I continued to offer him healthy snacks, but I did make sure he wasn’t snacking too close to dinner and getting lots of exercise and activity during the day. He wasn’t starving or getting malnourished by any means, but he WAS hungry at dinner. And eventually (day four), he lost the battle of wills, gave up and scarfed down a plate of fish sticks and peas. Hardly a culinary masterpiece or anything, but it was the first time in YEARS I’d gotten him to eat any kind of protein that wasn’t peanut butter. And the peas! GREEN THINGS. ZOMG.

Once Noah accepted fish sticks, I immediately switched up the brand so he wouldn’t get stuck on a particular color/shape/flavor. Then I learned how to make my own — frozen salmon or cod fillets, tossed in a food processor with whatever vegetable purees I had for the baby (squash, spinach, yams, etc.), whole wheat bread crumbs and some seasonings (onion powder, garlic powder, thyme, etc.). Roll in balls or sticks and bread them. I blend the breading up with some almonds, for extra crunch/texture and protein. (Thanks to one of those Sneaky Chef books for that one.) Freeze, bake, just like any other boxed nugget. These became my guiltless go-to when I DID need to cave and make a kid-only meal. (And yes, my kids still get macaroni and cheese sometimes. Sometimes from a box, sometimes homemade. I add pureed beans or cauliflower to the white sauce kind and butternut squash to the yellow. And a must-eat side of non-pureed green vegetable or grilled chicken. Meh.)

Instead of boxed (and processed and expensive) frozen things like pizza or waffles, we also started making our own versions of those, too. This helps with the kids getting visually “stuck” on how a certain food is supposed to look, AND has the added bonus of getting them to be much more flexible when eating out, or at other people’s homes: We no longer have tantrums when a restaurant’s mac-and-cheese turns out to be penne or rotini pasta, for example. Plus, it’s really so much cheaper to keep organic INGREDIENTS in the house, rather than splurging on the organic convenience versions that basically amount to one meal.

Pizza can be a crazy easy meal to make — buy store-made dough (if you can find some without a ton of crap in it) and keep it in the freezer, or make a big batch of your own and freeze that. (Just Google for “easy pizza dough recipe.” You can’t really go wrong. Whole wheat crusts are pretty yummy too.) Sauce is canned whole tomatoes in a blender with some olive oil and garlic. Maybe some dried basil, if you’re fancy. Our pizza stone broke so we just use a stupid cookie sheet with semolina flour and bake at 500 degrees. Make two pizzas — one basic that you know they’ll like, and one for you and your husband with perhaps more “challenging” toppings. (White pizza with spinach! Artichokes and pesto!) Give the kids a slice of both. There. You’ve done your division of responsibility for the night AND made something that will please everyone — easily reheated for hubby, and it’s healthier and cheaper than most of the frozen or delivery options.

Anyway, point is, you’re on the right track. You don’t have to immediately start giving them nothing but brussels sprouts and steak, or anything. Adapting or slightly tweaking their “acceptable” foods can make the process a little less painful. Trust me, we do a LOT of pizza, taco nights, and Things That Can Be Put On Noodles Or Rice around here. But I’ve also realized that hey, if we’re eating chicken with ratatouille on top of it, there is no reason why I can’t put chicken with ratatouille in front of my children. Noah might only eat the chicken. Ezra might only eat the zucchini. Ike might eat absolutely none of it. No big deal; they’ll all survive until morning.

Because on the other hand, Noah might agree to try the ratatouille. He might decide that while the zucchini and eggplant aren’t his thing, the tiny chopped bits grilled red peppers are yummy. And just like that…ta-da! Grilled red peppers are suddenly on the list of acceptable foods. (This actually happened, by the way. I’ve been grilling a LOT of red peppers ever since, because YAAAAY I WON OR SOMETHING.)

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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16 Responses to “Going Full Satter: Taking Back Control of Dinnertime”

  1. A May 28 at 9:20 am Reply Reply

    I am not sure what Satterizing is, but my three (and I sympathize with OP, I have a 4 yo, 2 yo, and 3 week old) kiddos eat what we eat. Its mostly just a survival tool for us, because I get the kids at daycare and get home with about 30 minutes to get food on the table before a massive OMG I AM STARVING TO DEATH meltdown from the two older ones. We sit and eat together, though my husband typically doesn’t get home until dinner is almost over.

    Meals are my personal line in the sand. I cook, so I decide the menu (that goes for husband too – if he doesn’t like the menu, he is welcome to fix his own separate meal). Our rules are that we eat at the table, and we don’t scream or throw fits at the table. If the kids can’t do that, then they are removed from the table until they are ready to try again. The kids don’t have to eat their dinner (though I am totally guilty of nagging and cajoling)with two caveats. They have to try one bite of everything, and the next opportunity to eat will be breakfast. Which at our house is served no earlier than 6 a.m. It only took a couple of hungry nights and early mornings begging for an early breakfast before the kids figured out they should probably eat their dinner.

    It does sound mean, and maybe it is, but I second Amalah, the kids won’t let themselves starve, and the end result for us is that the kids eat what we eat, including a wide variety of vegetables, stews, soups, salads, etc., sit and eat nicely at restaurants, and are pleasant to have meals with 80% of the time. Plus, being a short order cook stinks!

  2. Christine May 28 at 9:47 am Reply Reply

    I swear, I either have the most stubborn kid EVER or I am failing horribly at the Satter method, though I can’t figure out HOW.

    My 3.5 year old is picky to the extreme, and won’t even eat the “kid-friendly spaghetti, egg noodles or rice.” (He likes tacos though – go figure!) We tried the Satter method for 2 months. TWO MONTHS. Served him, didn’t cajole, plead or beg. Left it up to him, etc, etc. You know what he did? Ate what little bread there was on his plate (and we limited it like crazy!) or ate absolutely nothing. He’d sit at the table with us for a bit while we’d eat, and then he’d ask to be excused to go play. We didn’t give in and we didn’t give him snacks afterward. He just went to bed hungry. FOR TWO MONTHS.

    And then we went back to cajoling with three bites of this whatever I know you don’t HATE (usually a modified version of our dinner that was palatable to him) and then you can have fruit or ice cream or something as dessert before bed. Which works occasionally but still frequently results in him going to bed hungry because he refuses the three required bites.

    So… that was unhelpful to the OP (although I wish her good luck!) but maybe will help me a bit if anyone has some suggestions. I’m going to be hitting refresh on the comments all day in the hopes somebody says something that gives me an AHA! moment.

    • IrishCream May 28 at 1:25 pm Reply Reply

      Christine, is it possible that your son just isn’t that hungry in the evenings? We’ve been following the Satter method (thanks Amy!) since my kids were babies, and my almost-three-year-old is a pretty good eater. There are some things she won’t eat, but she’ll generally at least try a dish without prodding. However, she does not eat much dinner most nights. She eats a ton for breakfast, a moderate amount at lunch, and has a substantial snack around 3:00 pm. Dinner is usually at 6:30, and even when it’s something she definitely enjoys, she’s finished after three or four bites. It drives me crazy because I feel like she needs more than that, but she’s not complaining or asking for food later, and she’s certainly growing, so…guess she’s fine, even on those nights when her intake could be measured in molecules. She just likes to front-load her eating!

      • Anne May 28 at 1:44 pm Reply Reply

        I just did a Whole30 paleo challenge and I found that in the absence of foods that are easy to mindlessly eat (bread and pasta), I definitely front-load my food. I was eating a solid breakfast and lunch, and I would eat just a couple of vegetables and a small piece of meat for dinner. I don’t think dinner has to be a large meal if you have eaten good foods earlier in the day.

      • Kat May 31 at 7:07 pm Reply Reply

        Hi! Our kiddo is the same – big breakfast, good sized lunch, 2 snacks during the day and a small(ish) dinner. I have also noticed that he eats less when he is tired and has less patience with trying new foods. I don’t have a lot to add, other than I agree that you can’t force kids to eat anything, but offering them healthy foods through out the day sure helps with the “omg you haven’t eaten ANYTHING for dinner!” panic that I sometimes battle.

    • Olivia May 28 at 4:56 pm Reply Reply

      I totally sympathize. We did an overhaul of dinners when my daughter was about 3.5 yrs. We eat (nearly) all dinners at the table and only serve one meal. It was at least 4 months before we saw any progress, and I still can’t get her to take a bite just to try it and be polite. Even if we are having dessert, she’ll just say she doesn’t want any.

       I’ve seen a little bit of improvement with at least trying foods, and sometimes liking them in the last couple of months (she’s 4 now) when we came up with and incentive, but nothing remarkable. She gets a letter to spell her name on the fridge every time she eats her dinner (about 3 tblsp of food) and when her name is spelled she get a trip to the $1 section of Target. She’s completed this a couple of times, but there are a lot of nights she just doesn’t eat anything and I try my best not to care.

  3. Kate May 28 at 10:32 am Reply Reply

    I recently implemented a similar change at my house. I used to feed my kids (4 and almost 2) “kid food” when I got home from work, because I felt there wasn’t enough time to cook before they needed to eat, plus my husband often isn’t home early enough. Then my husband and I would cook and eat later. It was becoming untenable on two fronts: We were cooking at eating at 10 p.m. some nights, plus my kids were used to the idea that chicken nuggets in front of the tv was “dinner.” I finally said enough. It is a lot more work for me to prep a meal so that I can basically have it on the table 20 min from when we walk in the door, but it’s not impossible. We just start without my husband and he joins us when he gets home. Anyway… that’s my story but I wanted to mention that I DID change up the scenery (namely, insisting that dinner wasn’t on the COUCH omg, but with us all sitting around the kitchen table). I actually think this helped my 4 yo with the transition — new scenery so new food seemed to make sense to him. Rather than keeping everything the same but insisting he eat vegetables – I actually think that might have been harder for him. But, keep in mind that you’re actually doing two things (1) family mealtime and (2) family meal. That is a lot to change at once, so, don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t all click in a week.

  4. Myriam May 28 at 10:52 am Reply Reply

    I agree with Amalah’s advice on dealing with the kids. My daughter is 2 1/2, and doesn’t eat a lot of protein (she doesn’t like the texture of red meat, pork or chicken, even in nugget form). However, she loves beans, fish, tofu and recently eggs (she just outgrew an egg white allergy). So, we now eat a lot more vegetarian meals at home, which is good for us and cheaper as well! We also introduced a lot of breakfast foods for dinner, because why not! I also stopped begging for her to taste anything, and I noticed that if we ignore her, she will usually start eating about 5 minutes after the meal has been served. It might be a temperature thing too warm), but if I pressure her, she tends to protest, but if I ignore her, she’ll start eating on her own.

    My 2nd advice (this is turning into a novel), is to deal with your husband too, exactly like A adviced above. Your cook the meal, he eats whatever is served, or is welcome to cook and clean a meal for himself. You can also suggest that he (and the older kids) helps with the meal planning, and a little prep on Sunday for dinner nights. You don’t need to treat your husband like a spoiled older kid, he and you deserve better! Good luck!

    • Hannah May 28 at 1:23 pm Reply Reply

      Yes, thank you, that’s what I was going to say. Leave your husband out of it – if you’re doing the cooking and the cleaning up, then why does he get to decide what he’s eating on a daily basis? You aren’t a restaurant, OP.

      I have an 8yo, a 5yo, and a 16mo, plus I run a home daycare. I plan the meals in advance, with input from the kids. We shop once a week, and cook ahead as many of the one-pot meals as possible on Sundays to make evenings less hectic. We all eat the same foods, and everyone must try one bite. If you don’t want to eat, that’s fine; you are asked to leave the table and no more food is served until breakfast.

      My kids are fantastic eaters, all three of them – adventurous, not picky, fun to take to restaurants, and the 8yo even finds so-called “kid friendly” foods boring. It hasn’t come without effort, though. There were some times where I wondered if they were living on air, or something. But we came through it, and mealtimes now are a pleasure most of the time.

  5. Autumn May 28 at 5:00 pm Reply Reply

    OP:  I hope your infant is now home and growing too quickly for you.  Try “Satterizing” with the littlest one from the beginning.  It could help reverse peer pressure the older two

    We use Satter’s basic premise with my 21 month old, and she’s a pretty good eater.  Somedays she loves something, the next day she turns her nose up at it (sliced red peppers are an every other day thing around here).  We are working on just leaving what she doesn’t want on her plate.  I try to incorporate one preferred food into our meals so I know there is something she will start with, usually a fruit, and then she works her way into other foods.  

    As far as the DH problem, I feel your pain.  I now ask him on Sunday how many nights I have to feed him during the week (so I know if he has a late meeting, etc) and what he thinks he might like.  He gives me several suggestions (this week was fajitas, fish, and some grilled meat) and usually incorporate 2 of them into our meal plan, based on sales and what’s in the fridge/freezer to get used up.  

  6. Heather May 28 at 6:22 pm Reply Reply

    I only have one kid, so it has been a little simpler for us. We have pretty much followed Satter’s division of responsibility from the beginning. But my son, who is now 7, is an extremely picky eater and just last week has decided that maybe french fries are an acceptable food. So just because we have followed Satter’s approach did not mean we have created an adventurous eater. But it does mean that we have never had crying or begging or tantrums at the dinner table (from adults or children) and a child who is pleasant to be around during meals and who is able to decide on his own what he wants to eat from the available food and how much he is hungry for, and to me that is a huge success. For what it’s worth, he has had a lot of sensory issues though he seems to be outgrowing most of them, and he also has a lot of traits in common with Asperger’s; those may contribute to his pickiness.

    What works for us: 1) Consistency – always eating breakfast and dinner at the dinner table even on nights one parent isn’t home and dinner is just boxed mac n cheese. Snacks are at the kitchen counter. 2) Weekly meal planning that both my husband and I participate in, with a little input from our son now that he’s getting older. 3) Deconstructed serving – sauce separate from noodles, stir fried vegetables separate from rice, etc so my son can eat the parts of the meal he is ready to try. 4) 2 things on the table that my son is likely to eat, usually a starch like rice, noodles, tortillas or bread, and a fruit or vegetable side. 5) Alternating more kid-friendly meals with less kid-friendly meals so he doesn’t perceive that we “always” serve stuff he doesn’t like. 6) Really truly ignoring what he is eating. Left to his own, he is much more likely to try something; any kind of comments feel like pressure to him. This is probably the hardest to stick to but I think it’s the most important. If he complains, I acknowledge once and then ignore any further complaints. 7) The Feeding Doctor at http://thefeedingdoctor.com/blog/, and she also has a facebook page. 8) We don’t have dessert every meal, but when we have it, it is just dessert and doesn’t require having eaten X number of bites of dinner.

  7. Marissa May 28 at 7:11 pm Reply Reply

    “And a must-eat side of non-pureed green vegetable or grilled chicken”

    Amy, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought one of Satter’s points is that you can’t actually force a kid to eat anything.

  8. Melanie May 29 at 4:48 pm Reply Reply

    I sort of did this with my husband when we moved in together. It was “this is what I am making an if you don’t like it make something else.” He eats a lot more veggies now than he did when we first met! My LO is 16 months and she pretty much eats whatever we are eating. There are a few exceptions like when my hubby and I eat late, or if I only have two pieces of fish left or something (although honestly she usually ends up eating mine in that case). I say hang in there you can do it! Just be consistent about whatever you decide.
    Amalah, do you cook the fish before putting it in the processor or do it raw? I really want to try making my own fish sticks now!

  9. ksmaybe May 30 at 11:55 pm Reply Reply

    OP here :) The dining room experiment actually worked a little, but I fell down on the job and have let it slip. The baby is home and growing phenomenally well….she’s not my problem, and yes, I will attempt to indoctrinate her early, but I tried that with #2 and it didn’t go as well as I had dreamed. I have been trying to persist with a couple of from scratch meals per week, some more kid friendly than others. Mixed results, as expected. Kid #2 has become a fan of a few veggies served crudite style, raw, no sauce thank you! So, win there! #1 persists in picky picky and stubborn style. The issue with DH is mostly travel (2-3 nights per week, every week) and that the travel has created a man used to eating out. So, I tend to give him weekends and he cooks after the kids are in bed. On nights when he is home, we either order or cook late, and the kids get one of their kid friendly meals. This is the part that drives me nuts. They woud eat meatballs for days on end. The snacking is and issue too, and I’m trying to curb the endless cracker obsession. I guess, I’m going with a baby steps approach for now, taking victories where I find them and trying to get as many of us at the table together as I can as often as I can manage. They do eat some weird non-kid foods, fish and seafood are generally hits (clams? my 3 yo loves clams!) and sometimes the strong flavors are the ones that my oldest loves (prefers salmon in his fish sticks to cod, sharp or swiss over mozzarella by a mile). I guess it all just feels like a crap shoot and I fear the months of rejected meals if I go cold turkey. Oh, and how to keep them at the table? That’s where the dining room thing came from. A change of scenery to get them to focus on the food. They are up and down and all over the kitchen if we eat in there!

    • Myriam May 31 at 10:40 am Reply Reply

      Hi, me again! I just want to reassure you that baby-steps are ok… il will definitely take longer, but if you prefer “slowly peeling the band-aid rather than ripping it off” approach, do what works for you. I would make one suggestion however. I think your family would benefit more from you eating with the kids on husband-traveling nights, and then just seating down with your hasband with a beverage, than the other way around…

  10. Adam Share Jun 06 at 5:28 pm Reply Reply

    Dinner times can be really tough. I have 3 daughters (1, 2 & 3) so I feel your pain. My 1 year old Ronni is like a dustbin, she gets the hump if her food is not with her the second she sits down, she eats it all and generally has seconds and thirds if she can get away it. My daughter Violet, 2 only seems to like sweetcorn, beans, peas, buscuits and chocolate. She will also eat chicken but as long that it is in a curry or a heavily spiced sauce. My eldest daughter Maiya, 3 was really picky with her food but is now to scared of me shouting at her or missing out on pudding to not eat her dinner. I think that you have to stay strong and stand your ground as kids smell fear and they will destroy you given the chance. I was always made to eat my dinner as a child, regardless if I liked it or not and I was not allowed to leave the table until I had finished. They might not like it but it is for their own good. If they had their way then they would not wash, brush teeth, go to bed or eat anything decent. I just think that rules are rules and when they get used to it is cool. One final point, even if I had the time to serve up different meals to them because of likes and dislikes I wouldn’t. Not out of spite of course, just that I think you leave yourself open to a lot of hard work and chaos and they will not appreciate it anyway.

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