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vjoliv0's picture Vanessa Oliver, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian
College or Department
Lancaster Aquatics Center, room 170
Email Address


Fall means back to school for many of us, and that usually means re-calibrating those laid-back summer schedules back into something resembling order and efficiency. Unfortunately, whatever plans we wrestle into place often fall by the wayside by dinner time. If that sounds like your household, read on for some tips and tricks to make your mealtimes an easier experience for both you and your family.

What makes a family-friendly meal?

It might help first to define what family-friendly means for YOUR family. This might look different from household to household, but we've got some definitions to get you started:

  1. Enjoyable, healthy-ish meals for adults and kids. What is "healthy-ish"? It's up to you, but we usually use this to describe a nutritionally balanced meal that might use some shortcuts along the way. This could look like picking up a rotisserie chicken and making quesadillas with some of the pulled meat, salsa, and cheese. Adding some bagged salad and fresh pico de gallo makes it a win!
  2. Quick and simple preparation. Shortcuts don't mean short-changing. Explore your grocery store to see what it offers in the way of bagged produce, frozen items, and take-home meals.
  3. Meeting kids where they are. It may seem like your kids' eating habits and preferences change by the hour! This is typical behavior and usually develops as your child is learning to set their own boundaries and experiment with things in their lives they can control. This means to not get too bent out of shape if they refuse to eat their broccoli. Your job is to feed them. Their job is to eat. Keep that division of responsibility in mind and remember that pressure rarely results in a good food outcome.
  4. Creatively and realistically challenging kids' comfort zones. That said, it is still a good idea to expose your children to new foods! Top tip: if they see YOU eating vegetables, they will be likely to want to eat them too. Eventually. You can make strong flavors more appealing by adding dipping sauces, crunchy breadcrumbs, and herbs. We've got more ideas down below.

Above all, try to remember that this is about the experience, not just the food. Be flexible about when and where you eat together, manage expectations, and set some ground rules that make sense for your family.

Getting them involved

Getting input from family members about food preferences and menu suggestions is also a gamechanger. One way to accomplish this, and it seems too simple, is to ask. What foods are they interested in? Do they have friends that eat foods that they would like to try? Or watch cooking videos or shows with your child (TikTok counts!) and see what sparks interest. Another way to gather input is to (when possible) bring kids grocery shopping to help select foods for the family. The grocery store or farmers market can offer many opportunities for building curiosity and learning! If you are currently ordering groceries via a shopping app, this is also an activity that you can do together. You can also delegate food prep duties, keeping individual skills and interests in mind. Kids often want to help and can do more in the kitchen than we realize!

Another consideration is to enlist your family's help in making your eating space a pleasant place to be. Some ideas could be making a family playlist for some background tunes or arranging a garden bouquet for the table. Writing out the "menu" for the meal can also be a fun activity. You can also try a conversation jar. Decorate and fill a jar with fun conversation starters that can help facilitate positive dinnertime conversation that engages all family members (dinner is not the time to discuss why someone got a D on their math test!). There are lots of ideas for jar decorating tips and conversation topics online - just search under "family conversation jar".

Getting them to eat

We promised: some tried and true tips for getting children to try new foods. See what works for your family! And don't give up if you try once and it doesn't work. Research has demonstrated that children may need to try a food 5-15 times before they decide they will eat it.

  1. At each meal, offer kids at least one food you know they will eat. Negotiate with them to try the rest. They don't have to like it, but they are expected to try it. If kids are being stubborn or making food a power struggle, tell them "This is what we have to eat" and let them decide for themselves whether they will eat it or not.
  2. Take familiar foods that kids like and put a new spin on it (i.e. pizza, macaroni and cheese, chicken fingers). Use caution with spices and take the heat down a notch for kids, if needed.
  3. Serve "assembly line" type meals that allow family members to customize their food (i.e. baked potato bar, taco bar, pasta bar, salads, sandwiches). Kids will love the opportunity to get creative!
  4. Kids like finger foods, so serve bite-size portions, when possible. They also like to "dunk," so offer dips in the form of condiments, hummus, yogurt, applesauce, peanut butter, etc.
  5. Make food fun! Skewer foods with toothpicks or straws, cut foods into fun shapes with cookie cutters, or let them use special plates and bowls (Pinterest is an endless source of inspiration!)
  6. Encourage kids to eat until their hunger is comfortably satisfied and don't pressure them to clean their plates. Let kids serve themselves as early as age 5 so they can begin to regulate portions themselves.


Family-Friendly Recipe Resources

Plate It Up Kentucky Proud Recipes
Cook Together, Eat Together (A UK Cooperative Extension cookbook)
Chop Chop Family Magazine
Kids Eat Right