One of the hardest lessons I’m learning as a parent is when to be flexible and when to stand firm.  This is especially true regarding my commitment not to cook separate meals for my picky eaters. Take last Friday. My sons picked at their burritos, cried about wanting “oatmeal, mommy,” threw grapes, left the table after barely eating and completely melted down an hour later because they wanted a snack.  All this after refusing oatmeal for breakfast, wolfing down two burritos a piece the week before and picking out the grapes at the store.

Picky eater eats same meal as family.

Cameron eats most of the same foods as the rest of the family . . . without a fork!

This is when I want to pull out my hair.

This is when I make myself sit on my hands and ignore the “mommy instinct” to fix something else just so they   a.) get a little protein and nutrients or b.) stop all that crying.

This is also when I question how well I balance the need to be flexible and firm.

Why I don’t make separate meals:

1.) Eating the same meal reinforces eating and working together as a family.

2.) Eating the same meal reinforces (eventually . . .) learning to try new foods, developing new tastes and learning to tolerate things that are not exactly to our liking.

3.) Eating the same meal (without forcing kids to actually eat), sets the dinner table for peace, relaxation and fellowship instead of negotiation, manipulation and whining (at least most of the time!).

4.) Eating the same meal gives parents a chance to model healthy eating habits.

5.) Eating the same meal gives tired and busy parents more time to enjoy other activities or to just sit down and rest.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I am fully committed to this idea.  The problem I have is deciding what exactly is a separate meal?  It’s easy to see that making chicken nuggets and tater-tots for your three-year-old while the rest of the family eats roast beef with mashed potatoes is making a separate meal.  But what about grilling rib-eyes for the adults and chopped steaks for the kids?  What about putting so much food on the table that everyone has at least four things they like to eat (although not necessarily the same things)?  What about fixing one meal but allowing endless snacks later on?

Where do you draw the line?

Luckily I had a good role model when I was growing up.  Soon after my fourteenth birthday I announced that I would no longer be eating meat. After realizing I was serious, my mother laid some ground rules.  I still had to eat dinner with the family.  If I wanted to eat something that was not on the menu, I would have to make it myself and add it as an offering for the whole family to enjoy.  If I wanted ingredients not in the cupboard, I would have to help with the grocery shopping.  With these few rules, my mother stood firm.  But she also showed remarkable flexibility.  She learned to make vegetarian spaghetti sauce with meatballs on the side.  She agreed to try new foods and menus for family meals.  She started serving rice and beans or cheesy vegetarian casseroles as side dishes to ham and roasts so I would have something filling to eat.  In essence, she learned to change her cooking style just a little in order to accommodate a well-meaning and earnest teen.

My mother’s example has helped me adopt a style of cooking that allows me to be both firm and flexible with my own children.  I do not make separate meals, but I also don’t rigidly make meals that my children won’t eat and say “This is dinner.  Eat it or go hungry.”  Actually, I have said that . . . but only after following a few simple guidelines.

Picky eater happily eats same meal as family.

Aidan happily eats his meal after choosing not to have sauce on his spaghetti.

How to avoid making separate meals:

1.) I plan nutritious, kid-friendly meals that other children seem to like, even if my children won’t eat them (yet!).

2.) I try lots of new foods, but I make sure most meals are ones I’ve had success with in the past.

3.)  If it’s easy to do (think spaghetti), I keep sauces separate from meats and grains.  For example, I might steam some veggies and rice, bake some chicken, and make a fabulous Tai peanut sauce, serving each separately at the table.  The adults and more adventurous kids get a spicy treat, while the picky eaters get some nutritious, plain foods that can be served (without touching each other!) on a separator plate.

4.) If it’s not easy to keep the main dish separate (think lasagna), I try to make sure there is at least two other (simple!) foods on the table that my kids will usually eat (think bread, celery sticks with peanut butter, carrot coins, or milk.) For example, I like to serve chili with grated cheese, whole wheat crackers and apple slices on the side.  Aidan and I enjoy it all, while Cameron happily fills up on crackers, apples and cheese, avoiding the “yucky” chili.

5.) If things get ugly, I remind myself that it’s not my job to make my kids eat, but to set the foundation for good eating habits now and later on.

So far, these guidelines have worked well for my family, although the boys occasionally test my limits.  Take last Friday. Although the meal was a disaster, I stood firm and did not make them oatmeal or anything else.  I patiently (and later impatiently) allowed the fussing and picking to go on until the grapes started flying; then I ended the meal.  I did not give them a snack (which is just a separate meal removed in time), but I didn’t stop Cameron when he helped himself to his left-over milk.  In fact, I went ahead and poured a cup for Aidan.  After all, they are learning too.

I tried to be flexible while imposing limits that I believe are important, and I think it worked.

Since then we have had a week of mostly peaceful meals and fun dinner conversations.  No, we haven’t achieved a balanced diet (yet!).  But we are starting to enjoy relaxing meals together.

For this busy mother that is what’s most important.