Meal Planning Step 3: Pair

Do you want to know the way you serve ONE meal to the whole family?

You pair appropriately.

Being intentional about how you pair items at a meal is the step too many parents overlook the importance of. Instead, we too often assume our kid "won't eat anything" that we offer and we jump to making them another item we are sure they will eat. We try to throw together meals with our own devices or in using pre-made meal plans that may (or may not) work for the average family.

The problem is, most of these efforts don't get us the result we are looking for.

Dinner being served is the most simple, immediate goal. That fulfills the checkbox for "Feed family dinner" on our daily to do list. However for most of us, we know that this seemingly simple to do becomes increasingly stressful when the food we offer is rarely if ever eaten, let alone touched.

That shifts our goal to something much greater.

How do we actually get our kids to eat the same meal as everyone else?

If you have a kid who will eat almost anything, then you may actually get away with avoiding this step in meal planning. Whatever you want to offer usually goes over okay, or at least without leaving you worried they are going to "starve" from not eating enough.

For the rest of us, however, this haphazard approach to meal planning doesn’t work. We are unsuccessful at feeding the whole family one meal. We are fed up with kids who refuse the food we offer. We are increasingly adding in "kid food" for the sake of our sanity. And although all of this may seem to save everyone in the moment of meal time strife, it sabotages the opportunity to raise a healthy eater.

Instead, we need to consider my “Love it, Like it, Learning it” approach with meal planning.

Despite first introducing this concept using lunchboxes, the"same concepts applies to all meal times. With a family meal, utilizing “Love it, Like it, Learning it” actually applies even more. That's because when feeding several family members, we all know that not every family member will eat and/or enjoy every item they're offered. That’s okay.

If you can choose to be okay with that, this step can radically transform how you approach a Division of Responsibility at meal times.


So here are the steps to how that kind of transformation happens:

1.     Evaluate the main entrée for Love it, Like it, Learning it.

As you begin to fill in your meal planning template, make a note about if you anticipate your child will: love, like, or still be learning the main entree?

If you have multiple kids, consider this same question for each of them. While doing so may feel a bit daunting at first, don't skip this part. It quickly becomes an intuitive step that is integral to meal time success. Also, considering if one or some children/parents enjoy this meal (while others may not) helps you to get into the habit of rotating meals that appeal more or less to each family member. This prevents you from falling into the trap of repeatedly catering to your "pickiest" eater, while teaching them how your family rotates through everyone's favorites.

2.     Add in sides accordingly.

Once you determine  if the main entree is a "love it," "like it," or "learning it" food, select your side dishes to counter. Use sides to make sure there is at least one “love it” food for each family member. This may often be items like whole grain rolls or bread with butter, but that's okay. The goal is to continue to expose "like it" and "learning it" foods alongside safe yet healthy foods you know your kids usually love.

Depending on the ages of your children, you can involve them in this process. Ask them what item they would like to go alongside the main entrée, especially if the entrée was something they "like" or are still "learning." This helps ensure there will be something at the table for everyone.

3.     Serve dessert with dinner.

Did you know I believe in serving dessert with dinner? Surprising to most parents, we can use this approach to our advantage with adopting "love it, like it, and learning it" at meal times.

Instead of using dessert as a bribe or to bait your child(ren) into eating more of their dinner, consider adding a sweet element to every meal up front. This being said, use your discretion when doing so. Ice cream and cupcakes won’t compete with roasted carrots for almost any of us, most especially not our kids. By offering something sweet like fresh fruit however, it acts as a sweet option and a healthy staple that counts for most kids as a food item they would "like" if not "love." With this approach, fruit also provides something for any family member to eat if nothing else worked for them that night. For many kids who are still "learning" to "like (or love!)" vegetables, fruit helps fill in the nutritional gaps for a diet void of vegetables too.

4.     Sip smart.

Make it a rule that water, milk, or the occasional healthy smoothie are the only beverage options at meals. Besides being smart, everyday options, milk or a smoothie gives your child another source of solid nutrition at every meal. Additionally, either can act as the "love it food" for meals when you know there may be fewer other foods they love or like. This gives you that added peace of mind that even if they don't take a bite of anything else, they aren’t going to wither away until food is offered again.

5.   Branch Out

For parents of adventurous eaters, what you pair with a main entree may not matter a whole lot. If you have an apprehensive eater who doesn’t touch any non-spaghetti-shaped noodle, rice, quinoa, mixed textures, or anything with a sauce though (as I do), fancy sides aren’t going to get you very far. Consider starting with more "safe" yet tasty staples and continue to reintroduce them in new yet familiar ways. As your family develops more of an appetite for adventurous flavors, dress these recipes up and add additional ingredients!

Either way, maintain a Love It, Like It, Learning It approach and you won't have to worry about if your sides are too boring or too complex of flavors. Some nights, buttered whole wheat noodles are our love it food. Others, Mediterranean Quinoa is a "learning it food." By using this approach, you will be able to quickly identify which nights you are most likely to be successful in serving a well-rounded meal with bland and/or adventurous options.


Next Steps

If you know you have at least one child who often refuses what is offered, it is time for you to reevaluate your meal plan in light of what they will eat. Apply the “love it, like it, learning it” approach to promote there being at least one item on the table they love, while also feeling freedom to offer items they may only "like" or still be "learning."

Stop right now and go fill in what sides you will pair with each entree on your meal plan this week.

For additional ideas, get the FREE download below for a list of side ideas. These are perfect mix-n-match options for any family wanting to establish a Love it, Like it, Learning it approach and to experience LESS meal time stress and MORE feeding success.