When children in foster care join, each family meal can become a challenge. Children from difficult places are often accustomed to processed, bland, and low-nutrition foods, not healthy or varied meals. Mealtime behavior aside, just encouraging these children to try new foods can be a trial in itself.

However, family meals don’t have to be a battle ground. As with many things in foster care, the groundwork for meltdown free (and even enjoyable) dining must begin with the parents. Through experience, research, and consulting veteran foster parents, I’ve compiled a few tips to help all families (foster, adoptive, or otherwise) make dinners together peaceful and productive.

Ask for input.

This one is tricky. Obviously if you have five children and ask them what they want for dinner, you’re going to get five different answers. But, offering a choice of two different vegetables or taking a vote on entrees when planning meals can be helpful and make some children look forward to eating together.

Let them help.

Asking or allowing my kids to help make a meal has proven to be the best way to get them to try something new. Sure, meatloaf doesn’t look very appealing, but when I enlisted my kids in cracking the eggs and forming the loaf with their bare hands, it got them excited to try it! And, wouldn’t you know it, now meatloaf (covered in ketchup) is now one of their favorite foods.

Serve sides they’ll eat.

When planning or making dinner I always strive to serve at least two sides that all the kids will eat. In our house, that means a fruit of some sort, broccoli covered in cheese, and/or buttered whole grain bread. It is important to us that our kids sit down and eat some of the same things we are eating. If that means we are serving the exact same vegetables and apple slices at every dinner, we’re okay with that.

Offer an alternative.

Because kids from difficult places are often used to eating whatever they want, have food/control issues, or have little to no history eating fresh fruits and vegetables, at dinner we allow each child to make an alternative before we sit down to eat. Our rule is that they have to make it by themselves, it can only be one of a few limited choices (often PB & J, cereal, or ramen noodles), and they have to eat with the family.

Keep rules simple.

We have only a few rules for mealtimes, but we stick by them like they are law:

  1. Kids do not have to eat the entrée we are eating, but they do have to make something and eat it at the table with everyone else.
  2. No electronics are allowed at the table and the TV is off during dinner.
  3. We stay seated during dinner. Children may ask to be excused and take their plate/utensils/cup to the counter when finished eating.
  4. If kids don’t eat a vegetable at dinner, they won’t be allowed to have a snack or treat after dinner.
  5. We work on our manners at mealtimes by treating others with kindness and saying, “please” and “thank you.”

Relax and enjoy.

We believe that parents set the tone for meals and if we are anxious, then the kids will be too. Therefore, we try to approach meals with a relaxed attitude and keep everything in perspective. We want to enjoy this special family time together and we have faith that everything will work out as our kids grow up (they aren’t going to starve or have stunted growth if they skip veggies for a while).

The truth is, children in foster care have already survived a whole lot worse than eating poorly at dinner. Family mealtimes are as much for parents as they are for kids so do what you can, but don’t stress. Relax, unwind, enjoy your family, and let the little things go.