family sharing a holiday meal

Parents all over the nation will sit down to a beautifully prepared meal only to hear "I don't like any of this food!" As most anyone who has cooked a large celebratory meal knows, it's not always the fun, effortless bonding experience the movies portray. It's a stressful and difficult balancing act. Add trying to accommodate special diets and making everyone happy to the task and it becomes even more daunting. You don't have to compromise the integrity of your holiday table to make the kids happy. Try involving them every step of the way to ensure they don't complain about this year's holiday dinner.

Keeping Kids Involved
"Kids will be more likely to eat unfamiliar foods if they're involved in the process," says culinary expert Jessica Goldbogen Harlan. "Take them grocery shopping so they can help pick out ingredients and involve them in simple cooking tasks." Harlan points out that all children can be helpers in the kitchen. "Even little kids can do stuff like sprinkle ingredients on top of a casserole or a salad or shuck corn," she says. Kids Eat Right, a venture of the American Dietetic Association, provides some tasks that different age groups can do in the kitchen:

  • 5 and 6-year-olds can help with putting together salad ingredients.
  • 7 and 8-year-olds should have the fine motor skills to crack eggs and to place items in the toaster oven.
  • 9 and 10-year-olds are usually careful enough to stir things on the stove or check a dish in the oven to see if it's ready.
  • 10-year-olds and older are old enough to chop vegetables and prepare simple soups and gravy.

Food Choices for Your Family
It can be hard to strike a balance between creating a traditional holiday meal that adult guests will enjoy and filling the bellies of the younger, pickier eaters in attendance. Harlan cautions not to underestimate your child's desire to have a grown-up dining experience. A lot of those "grown-up foods" may appeal to a child--especially when you make slight, alterations or substitutions.

"Naturally sweet but healthy foods like squash or sweet potatoes are always a favorite," says Harlan. "If you're concerned they won't eat turkey or ham with gravy, you could always serve a fun dipping sauce, such as a sweet-tangy barbecue sauce."

If they're still not convinced, budding historians might be more willing to try a dish if they know it's made from the recipe of someone famous. The United States Government's American Recipes website provides time-tested recipes by people such as Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman.

Kid-Friendly Food Presentation
As with adults, the way a table or plate looks helps to whet a child's appetite. The difference is that some kids are more willing to eat if their food looks less like food and more like fun. If the old making a face out of food on your child's plate trick doesn't do it, Harlan suggests trying a food turkey.

Create a "food turkey" using a slice of turkey meat as the body, mashed potatoes or stuffing in the shape of the neck and head, a raisin or cranberry for the eye, and cooked carrots for the feathers. If your child eats the whole turkey, they'll hit all the necessary food groups.

It's worth remembering that teens and tweens would rather be more like the grown-ups. They're going to be more willing to eat what's served if they are given the autonomy to serve themselves without parental input. As long as they eat more than just dessert, it's OK to ignore the fact that there aren't any green vegetables on their plate.