Parenting

Why I Make Separate Meals For My Kids Every Night

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Like lots of parents, almost every night, I cook a nice meal for my family. It’s my favorite parenthood “chore,” to be honest. All the stress of the day melts away when I’m making dinner. My kids don’t have any interest in “helping,” which is fine with me. My husband uses my cooking time to catch up with the kids after work, and I get a few minutes to myself.

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After the main dinner is prepared, I pull out three plastic divided plates, and I start thinking about what my kids will eat. Usually, I can pull together dinner for each kid using some of the components of the meal I already cooked, but some nights, I end up cooking four different meals for five people.

I know a lot of parents are adamantly opposed to this idea. I’ve heard plenty of people say things like, “I’m a mom, not a short order cook. Eat what I make, or don’t but I’m not making a second dinner after I’ve already cooked.” Putting your foot down might be a perfectly fine approach for your family. I’m not against the idea.

I used to do it differently, too. We had house rules about trying two bites, and if my kids didn’t like the dinner I made, I had simple, approved alternatives that they could prepare on their own. I still think that was a good plan, and I haven’t ruled it out for the future.

Somewhere along the way, it just stopped working for us. I have had to make some changes to accommodate my kids’ current needs.

I have tabled all of my dinner rules for a season, and I might never go back. Here’s why making one meal doesn’t work for my family right now. Maybe you can relate.

1. Each of my three kids has a legitimate need that I am working to accommodate.

My oldest will actually eat almost anything. He had a picky toddler phase, but he’s since outgrown that. Unfortunately, he has a recurring GI issue that has proven difficult to manage and is very uncomfortable for him.

My second son is autistic. He is working hard to overcome food aversion related to textures and tastes. If we push too hard, he will eat dangerously little for much longer than you would think. “He’ll eat it if he’s hungry enough” is not true for him. I make sure his plate is full of things he will eat, even if none of it comes from the main meal.

My last child is only a year old now, and she’s on the bottom of the growth chart right now, barely clinging to her growth curve. She needs to eat every night, whether she likes what I made or not.

2. I don’t always want to eat the things my children will tolerate.

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Since all three of my kids have different food-related challenges at the moment, it’s just not possible for me to create one meal that checks so many boxes. My husband and I are grown adults, and we don’t always want to eat a kid-approved dinner. It gets boring. Variety is the spice of life.

3. I truly don’t feel one bit of frustration or resentment about it.

Maybe if I didn’t have reasons that felt valid to me, cooking something different for everyone would annoy me. But as it stands, I don’t mind making them separate meals one bit. Cooking isn’t a chore to me. The only reason I ever did it any other way is because I thought I was “supposed to.” I’m realizing now that there are a million different ways to achieve the goal of creating adventurous, healthy eaters who enjoy a wide variety of foods.

4. I realize how much privilege is involved in this whole multiple dinners thing.

I am among the luckiest people alive to have access to enough variety of nutritious food to even do this. All over the world, there are parents going to bed with empty stomachs so their children can eat. I’m not going to complain about having to scramble an egg or warm a quesadilla after I’ve already made dinner. It is immense privilege that makes that possible. I’m just grateful for a kitchen full of foods to keep them full and healthy.

5. I want my kids to know that their no always means no. Every time.

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Probably the most important part of this is that I just don’t value the concept of eating whatever is in front of you, regardless of your own feelings. I can’t think of the last time I had no say in what I ate for dinner, and I don’t think it’s a life skill that is necessary for them.

As an adult, I have full control over what and when I choose to eat. I don’t have to prepare foods I don’t enjoy. If I’m not hungry at mealtimes, I don’t have to eat. If I’m hungry and it’s not a meal time, I’m free to meet that need for myself.

I would rather my kids learn to listen to their bodies and trust their preferences than learn to choke down food they don’t like when they’re not hungry just because I cooked dinner they never asked for.

A polite no thank you is always welcome. My husband and I have spent a lot of time teaching them that their no is non-negotiable. I feel okay about extending that to mealtimes.

6. I don’t think they’ll miss any important lessons.

We can and do teach our children about nutrition, trying new things and being gracious and polite to people who prepare food for them.

My husband and I don’t require our kids to eat whatever I make, but we emphasize how important it is to try things more than once, and we often ask our kids to take a bite of something new. We also tell them all the benefits of eating a wide range of foods, and explain how their bodies need lots of different nutrients to function.

We most certainly teach our children to be polite when someone offers them something to eat. They know better than to call anything they don’t like “yucky” or to make a face. My kids know if we aren’t at home and they decline a meal, there won’t be another option, and they’ll have to wait until we get home to eat again. If they want to choose to remain hungry for a while, that’s okay with me.

My kids are going to grow up. It’s very likely that, just like their formerly picky dad, they’ll eventually come around and eat more types of food. My older kids add new foods pretty frequently. Maybe that’s despite my willingness to make them a separate meal at night. Maybe it’s because of it. I’m not sure. But either way, this is how we are doing things right now, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to requiring everyone to eat the same dinner.

As long as we are at the same table, who cares what’s on our plates?

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