A couple of weeks ago, I recommended the Six O'Clock Scramble as a means to get good food on the table in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable amount of money, but how do you get the food from the table into the kids mouths? Just like anything else in their life, you set expectations and you enforce them.
This is our expectation: on a normal night, kids eat some of everything being served. We give them a reasonable portion. They don't have to eat everything on their plate, but they need to eat most of it. One bite in an attempt to try something is not alright. They also don't get away with eating all of one item and none of the other and then declaring they are full. They have to eat items in proportionate amounts. They also need to be thankful for the food. If I took time to cook it, I don't want to hear "ewww".
Why do we have these expectations? I heard somewhere that kids are most likely to turn into healthy adults without weight problems if they learn to eat a wide variety of foods. This made sense to me. No, not forced to eat, but taught to eat a wide variety. The term "picky eater" isn't used in my house. Yes, some kids need more "teaching" than others, but I think anybody can learn to like and maybe even love lots of foods.
Learning to eat a variety of food is all about frequent exposure. If you only have to take a bite of something to determine if you like it or not, the flavor is new and you tend to focus on what is unpleasant about it. However, if you have to get through a whole side of something, you begin to get used to the flavor and you focus on what you like about the food. Some flavors or textures you will never "love". They might never be your favorite, but you can begin to tolerate and even enjoy them after time.
I hated spaghetti as a kid. I remember spitting my noodles out into my napkin. Then I met and married Stephen who is happy to make spaghetti for the family every week. A wife doesn't turn down a night off of cooking every week. So I eat spaghetti. I still don't love it, but I eat it and on a good day I like it. It nourishes me, and the kids, who inherited their daddy's spaghetti gene, love it.
As a parent, I come to the table prepared to parent. Teaching my kids to eat well is one of the most important things I'll do. I make my job easier by minimizing the kids snacks so they actually come to the table hungry. Again, we give them reasonable portions. It's always easier to give them less and have them ask for seconds than to force them to eat food when their full. Also, if I'm having a hard day, I'll pick a meal that the kids will eat with less instruction.
The instruction looks just like it would for any other discipline. Verbal instruction and then corner time if there is disobedience. Stephen and I were talking the other day and discovered that most of the instruction we give to our kids at the dinner table is about focus not food. We give almost as much instruction when we're at Burger King as we do at home.
What's the reward for the work you do at the table? The reward comes when Julian comes in and says, "MMMMMMmmmmmm...are we having beans and rice for dinner? I love beans and rice." or when D'arcy asks me, "Mom, why haven't you made tortellini or homemade chicken noodle soup lately?" These moments make me feel loved and appreciated and good at my job.