Making Family Dinner Work for Picky Eaters and Reluctant Cooks

Making Family Dinner Work for Picky Eaters

By Melissa Summers

Family dinner often gets billed as a cure-all for various bad things: Researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University argue that “parental engagement can be a simple, effective tool to help you prevent substance use in your kids,” while other experts suggest that kids who eat family meals perform better in school and are less likely to have eating disorders.

As parents, we have lots of opportunities to engage with our kids, especially when they’re young and need to be driven everywhere. And while the car is a great place to talk with your kid about difficult topics, the dinner table is another good option. I’m pretty sure family meals can promote world peace and help you live forever.

I just made that last part up, but let’s say for a minute family meals don’t really have all these benefits — can sitting down to a meal and talking with your family really hurt? This is where my daughter would chime in with, “If you make that meat loaf again it could.” I suspect the positive effects of family dinner may have more to do with families slowing down, taking a break from distractions (including technology) and spending time enjoying each other’s company than with any actual meal planning.

I hope so, at least, because one of my kids hates everything I serve.

Making Family Dinner Work for Picky Eaters

For a long time my husband and I bowed out of family dinners because of our picky daughter. It seemed whatever food I put on the table would cause her to recoil in horror. Her dismay at being expected to eat a SINGLE BITE OF CHICKEN would be expressed loudly and emphatically, and since I didn’t want to get involved in a battle of wills over food, I would bite my tongue off during our meals. And though that probably sounds really enjoyable to all of you, it was not, at all — and in fact, we stopped eating as a family until my daughter was four or so.

What we realized at that point is that the food wasn’t the really important part of sitting down to share a meal. What was important was that we were spending time together talking. So we made a point of including some things we knew the kids would eat at every meal, like carrots, yogurt and bread. Having these options on the table eased the pressure of expecting our daughter to consume — GASP — a piece of chicken.

When you think about and plan family meals, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the goal is to spend time together as a family, and sometimes you’ll have to be flexible about the food you serve in order to do that. Maybe instead of spending an hour chopping and sauteing things after a long day at work, you grab a rotisserie chicken and a tossed salad from the market on your way home. Go ahead — it’s still family dinner, even if the food is takeout. Sometimes your kids won’t want to eat what’s on the table. That’s fine — no one’s going to starve, and it’s a good chance for them to brush up on their sandwich making skills.

How to Make Dinner Without Making Yourself Crazy

If you hate cooking, you may not be all that excited about the idea of family dinner.  And honestly, no one’s going to enjoy the meal if you’re exhausted and put out from having to cook for an hour. I really don’t enjoy cooking so I’ve ended up relying on simple and fast meals I can prepare in thirty minutes or so.

My go-to cookbooks are Desperation Dinners and Seat of the Pants Suppers. I’ve used them to develop a list of meals I can create quickly and easily and without having a total meltdown. This is no small feat considering my complete and utter lack of interest in cooking.

These aren’t Martha Stewart-qualities dinners, but remember the point is that you’re spending time with your family. You don’t need fancy gourmet cooking to accomplish that.

Of course, family dinner isn’t really about the food — it’s an opportunity to visit with your kids and hear about their lives. My dilemma is that I want to talk to my kids but I don’t necessarily want to play 20 questions to coax information out of them — and I definitely don’t want to talk about how disgusting this chicken is.

I recently heard about a great idea for getting your family to really talk at the table. The parents write topics on slips of paper; each person at the table draws a slip and talks about that topic. Providing something neutral and fun to talk about (“If you could be an animal, which one would you be?” or “What is something you’d like to be doing in ten years?”) and giving each child everyone’s full attention while they talk can help you get to know your kids in ways the typical dinnertime questioning — “How was your day?”— does not.

If making up your own questions feels like too much work, there are some simple boxed sets you can buy, like Table Topics or Dinner Games, that do the work for you. Both provide questions and activities designed to spark conversation, and the Dinner Games set even promises to “encourage kids to eat their veggies and finish their milk.”

I’d like to introduce them to my daughter, Madison “I-Don’t-Drink-Milk” Summers.

Show Us Your Family Dinner

I would like to challenge you to sit down tonight and eat dinner with your family. You can make your meal or grab take out. It doesn’t have to be fancy — we’re eating leftover salmon and couscous (this where Madison would insert her patented gagging sound) — but just making it a goal to sit down with your family at least a few times a week will have rewards. Sure there are health benefits, but really if it weren’t for family dinner, I might never have known that my son can quote entire scenes from Spongebob. Those are benefits you can’t put a price on.

Do me a favor, take a picture of you and your family enjoying a meal tonight and post a link to it in the comments. I can’t wait to show you a picture of my daughter gagging over her salmon. We’re making memories here, people.

More From AlphaMom

Breaking Your BLT (Bites, Licks, Tastes) Habit
Raising a Kid With Restaurant Manners
Breaking Bad Family Mealtime Habits

Photo source: Depositphotos/monkeybusiness









Melissa Summers
About the Author

Melissa Summers

Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.


Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.

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  • rootietoot

    September 25, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    Perhaps the reason kids are less likely to do drugs if they have family dinner is because the families that do dinner are less likely to get involved in drugs. eh..
    We’ve always done family dinner yet I still have 1 kid who leapt with great glee into that swill that is the drug culture. The other 3 are ok, tho.

  • chris

    September 25, 2006 at 5:08 pm

    I am making dinner right now and my 9 yr old is in tears because it it spaghetti and meatballs. What kid doesn’t like spaghetti? It is totally not normal.
    I think family meal time is difficult because not all member of the family are home together like they used to be. Mon through Fri my husband isn’t home. I usually sit down with the kids and eat and then again with my husband at night.
    But my ass really isn’t liking that.

  • mo

    September 25, 2006 at 5:42 pm

    i stopped letting my (then) almost three year old watch bob the builder when i realised that he could quote the whole fifty minute video from memory (but usually only in five minute chunks at a time). i do not want to have to put up with bob and his stupid talking vehicles more than once a day, thanks.
    i try and eat dinner with him every night but most of the time ‘dinner’ involves me eating and him taking two bites of carrot and then mashing the rest of his dinner into an unrecogniseable pulp before declaring himself finished. but he hasnt starved to death yet, so maybe its working?

  • melissaS

    September 25, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    I have proof it works just fine. I’ve had a picky eater for the last nearly 8 years and she continues to thrive, in spite of my ability to cook *the most disgusting meals in the entire world*.

  • Murray

    September 25, 2006 at 9:00 pm

    I like eating together as a family…only wish someone else would do the cooking…and the cleaning. Here’s our meal from tonight:

  • Zoot

    September 25, 2006 at 9:10 pm

    Our family dinner. It is a rare occurance during the week – but we made a point to do it for the photo-op!

  • Carly

    September 25, 2006 at 9:14 pm

    We have a toddler on the Air Diet, too. I hear it’s all the rage in Hollywood. Here’s a shot:

  • foodmomiac

    September 25, 2006 at 9:35 pm

    Thanks for sharing this! We didn’t have the time or energy to cook anything complicated, so we made pizza. I walked to Trader Joe’s, bought pizza dough, and my daughter helped me put them together. Here are pictures of the evening:

  • Chris

    September 25, 2006 at 9:41 pm

    I forgot to take a picture at dinner, but we did take pictures at Dairy Queen. Does that count? We walked over to get ice cream since it was such a nice day today here in S.E. Michigan. DQ is only open until Oct. 25, and who knows if we’ll get there again befor ethey close for the season.

  • melissaS

    September 25, 2006 at 9:49 pm

    DQ can count, you were spending time with your family and to me that’s the biggest thing.

  • Betsy

    September 25, 2006 at 10:22 pm

    Wierdly, tonight we invited a friend over for dinner, something we haven’t done in far too long. As we sat around, companionably burping and watching football, I thought “This is so relaxing! It’s like he’s family”(forgetting, for a moment, that ‘relaxing’ and ‘family’ don’t often go together.)
    No picture of the meal, but you can see my 9-month-old son helping me cook it at

  • chris

    September 25, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    Here is our family dinner picture:
    It’s too bad that you can’t hear the dinner too 😉

  • melissaS

    September 25, 2006 at 11:02 pm

    I love that you happened to invite a friend over.
    Since we’ve been ‘removed’ from family, we’ve had to create new family out of our pool of friends.

  • melissaS

    September 25, 2006 at 11:46 pm

    My ‘Family Day’ Dinner was the height of irony.
    My husband had his annual vendor sponsered golf outing today, which includes a dinner. Something he failed to mention to me.
    I decided to make a dish from my latest Martha Stewart Everyday Food magazine, which is something I don’t do if Logan isn’t going to be home. Since I’m not wild about cooking for two people. Bats and Cobwebs.
    Here is my son enjoying my meal (there’s sausage in it, instant favorite).
    Here is my daughter cursing me and my desire to prepare food with actual flavor. Oh she’s charming.

  • pixie sticks

    September 25, 2006 at 11:46 pm
  • nita

    September 25, 2006 at 11:49 pm

    I have been reading Suburban Bliss for over a year now and it/you have worked your way into my bookmarks and my routine…love to check in and see how you are dealing with what life has dished out for the day! Thanks for sharing, even if it is painful.
    The reason I am writing for the first time (ever!) is because I must disagree with the assumption that having family dinners will help kids avoid eating disorders. That is simply not true.
    We had dinner together all the years my daughters were growing up…at least 13 years worth…and my youngest still wound up with anorexia. It is a disease with so many variables that I hate seeing simplistic remedies put out there. I thought I did all the right things (never talking about weight,never dieting or saying “I’m fat”, never having a scale or making food a power play) and still the very worst happened. I just don’t like seeing information put out there that is so general and misleading. Sorry this is a negative-ish post, but I feel so strongly about this, since I just went through it!Thanks for considering it.

  • melissaS

    September 26, 2006 at 12:03 am

    nita, I absolutely agree with you.
    I think the research I was citing, via Dr Greene, simply says less children who eat meals with their families develop eating disorders.
    Much like less children who are breastfed develop things like ear infections, but still some breastfed kids to get ear infections.
    I agree with you though in being skeptical about these claims.
    I approach family meals a lot like I approach breastfeeding. It can’t hurt and hopefully you can make it happen because of the good things about it.
    PS: I had an eating disorder for many years and also spent many years eating dinners with my family.

  • Michelle

    September 26, 2006 at 12:32 am

    I’m afraid I’m too busy juggling dishes and spilt glasses of milk to handle a camera, but this link might give you the mental image you’re looking for:

  • birchsprite

    September 26, 2006 at 4:40 am

    Hi there Melissa. I don’t have any children of my own yet but I do have nephews and nieces (my partners anyway). Having watched them all with all of their associated pernickity eating habits, I think that whatever happens with the rest of the day, having one decent sit down meal is a good thing. Even if very little food gets eaten.
    This is a fantastic way of promoting it and I love seeing the snippets into other peoples lives.

  • J.K.

    September 26, 2006 at 8:54 am

    While we didn’t have a family dinner last night because of my husband’s work schedule, we manage family dinners probably four nights a week. My kids eat better when we eat together, occasionally try new things (even asparagus risotto!), and when friends of theirs joins us on these nights, the friends try new things. We started having frequent family dinners in earnest 3 1/2 years ago after my oldest was very sick. For a month after he was released from the hospital, a local group brought us dinner every single night (I was so emotionally spent after a day of meds and physical and occupational therapy for his recovery that I could barely form words, much less cook). There was no excuse for not sitting down together, and the longer term gift that has given us is one for which I am truly grateful.
    I’ve also turned some of the work of the family dinner into a group effort. About 15 minutes before the food is ready, I call a 10 minute family cleanup – everyone drop everything, set a timer, turn on some music, and help neaten the family room and get the table ready.
    There are many great cookbooks out there – but I depend on Sunset’s 30 Minutes or Less book from 1997 (unfortunately out-of-print) and “One Bite Won’t Kill You” by Hodgeman and Chast. Also, I post a weekly menu so I don’t have to think at all when it’s dinner time – I bought the “What to Eat” pad from to discipline myself to do this. My old home ec teacher would proud.

  • Chris

    September 26, 2006 at 9:26 am

    Well then, if Dairy Queen counts, here are our photos.

  • Jill

    September 26, 2006 at 10:24 am

    When my sister and I were young, my mother realized we had no concept of “company manners”. Her solution was to move us into the dining room for dinner, light candles, and for a week she used her good china to serve us. We slowed down, we talked, and we kept the dining room and candle part of the routine from then on.
    I’ve lit candles and used my dining room daily since my boys were born, and I can tell a huge difference between their dinner time behavior and that of visiting friends. Mine are required to wait until everyone sits before eating, to stay until everyone is done, and are not allowed to say unpleasant comments about the food. Dinner is an occassion, not just a way to fill your belly. I won’t deny that eating with two young kids is always relaxing, but I think the end result will be worth any extra struggle.

  • Jaida

    September 26, 2006 at 12:13 pm

    I feel such camaraderie with your daughter. I too was a terribly picky eater (oh, the struggles over just drinking the damn milk). I remember actually crying most nights when I found out what was for dinner. Although I was always a skinny kid, I never starved, and I was inspired to begin cooking the family meal just to ensure it would be something I could tolerate. Now, at 26 I like nearly everything (though still vegetarian) and can even think fondly about the power struggles that were family dinners. They were never really about the food, just catching up with each other.

  • Lena

    September 26, 2006 at 11:49 pm

    Melissa, why must you do this to me? In the spirit of supporting my beloved fellow blogger, I give you the World’s Most Awkwardly Taken Picture. Also, enjoy my bloat.
    Oh, right. And the family time was wonderful.

  • mamaloo, the doula

    September 27, 2006 at 9:54 am

    We were a day or two late with the photographic evidence, but as I say in my post, we made a family decision when my son was born to always eat as a family at the table. I’ve always instinctively felt that this was the best thing for families to do. It’s great to see that research proves what I felt in my gut.

  • Suebob

    September 27, 2006 at 5:27 pm

    I feel for the kid, though I know it is annoying to live with a picky eater. I was the worst. I never ate a raw tomato til I was 25 – they just looked so unbearably disgusting to me – and I still have never tasted gravy (I saw how it was made! Horrors!).
    God, with His/Her/Its amazing sense of humor, sent me a boyfriend that is even worse now than I was then. Doesn’t like marinara sauce. Only wants homemade chocolate pudding “if it tastes a little burnt.” Oh, I’ll burn it a little for you, pal.
    Thanks for letting me rant.

  • Lisa

    September 29, 2006 at 6:10 pm

    Notice the setting? Restaurant, not home.
    Hubby works late most nights, so it is usually just me and the kids, but we usually eat dinner at the table together.[email protected]/214187512/in/set-72157594235401519/