How To Have A Happy Meal

Once upon a time, I had a 1 year old who ate eggplant and zucchini, and I thought I had the best-adjusted kid in the world. That was the  last time that happened. As my 1 year old edged closer to 2, she began to demand hot dogs and macaroni & cheese. Fruit still went down pretty well,  but forget about vegetables. Then, we added twins to our family, and Big Sister learned that she could dip into the snack cupboard when I had both hands busy with the babies, so she lived on Goldfish crackers for several months. Yet, she continued to grow and never lacked energy.

Since parents sometimes neglect better choices and resort to saving their sanity, the twins were introduced to hot dogs and macaroni &  cheese earlier than Big Sister. They were immediate fans, which was great since all three kids could eat the same meal! This went on until Mommy Guilt got the  upper hand, and I had the brilliant idea of making a casserole with ham, shredded cheese, and pasta. Ham is squishy and the same color as hot dogs, right? And whole wheat pasta and shredded cheese are almost like Kraft Easy Mac, aren’t they? I expected the kids to be thrilled!

They all took one bite, spit it out, and left the table. Soon after, I observed Big Sister eating a thick slab of Velveeta cheese drowned in Ranch dressing for breakfast and realized what I was really dealing with.

I’ve either given up, or gotten a little smarter, because here’s what I’ve learned.

  • Whether you spend 5 minutes or an hour preparing a meal, kids will spin up and down from the table faster than the Tasmanian Devil in Looney Tunes.
  • Kids will tell you they’re “starving,” eat two bites of a chicken nugget, and tell you they’re “stuffed.”
  • Kids will love a food one day and abhor it the next.
  • If you make more food than your kids eat, you will eat the leftovers while standing at the counter. Do your waistline a favor and make small portions!
  • Kids won’t touch broccoli lying on a plate, but if you stand it upright and call it a tree, they’ll ask for seconds.

After we experienced that last point, I started experimenting less with recipes and more with presenting simple foods in creative ways. The kids actually ate it! All of it! And they were excited about it! Here are some of our favorite meals:

  • Arrange cut up fruit, cheese, lunchmeat, vegetables, and/or crackers into a face shape. (Example: Lunchmeat or string cheese for hair, Ritz crackers with blueberries on top for eyes, a wedge of cheese for the nose, sliced strawberries for lips and ears.) I’d rather use my kitchen skills to create a fun plate like that instead of slogging over a casserole no one will eat. If your kids are old enough, you can set out the cut-up foods and let them create their own faces. That’s a sure winner if you’re hosting a playdate lunch, and it’s less work for you!
  • Make a car with a hot dog bun (thanks to the recipe book “Favorite Brand Name Silly Snacks” for this idea: ) Slice out the top of the bun and fill the space with lunch meat. Use sliced circles of string cheese for headlights, julienned carrots for wheel axles, and cucumber slices for wheels. You can even draw a street on the plate with ketchup.
  • Fill a 6-cup cupcake tin with various foods, and let the kids choose which one they’ll eat first. I include a meat (usually cut up hot dogs, chicken nuggets, or summer sausage), baby carrots, fruit (grapes, cut up apples or bananas), pretzels, crackers, and a small cookie or chocolate chips for dessert. (I’m of the mind that it’s good to occasionally eat dessert first, and kids seem to agree.)

These are just a few ideas. I’d love to hear about how you’ve gotten your kids to eat!

I’m learning that kids have a very simple relationship with food. They use it for fuel, nothing more. There’s no emotional eating for a 2 year old. (Sadly, I haven’t achieved that yet.) One day when Mr. Twin had a category 5 tantrum, I first asked, “Do you need a snack?” He got more angry, because he wanted his shoes off, not food. I realized how easy it is to impose our adult eating habits on our kids, whether it’s eating to soothe emotions or too-large portion size.

And sometimes our children need to learn about food from us. Big Sister once declared that she wanted salt in her applesauce. She said she had it at preschool and “loved it.” Since this meant she wanted to administer the salt herself, I took a deep breath and handed her the shaker. She dumped several teaspoons worth of salt in, took an enormous bite, and nearly threw up. It was painful to watch, but I’m grateful for the experience now. Whenever she wants to try something questionable, either food related or not, all I have to say is, “Oh, honey, that’ll be just like salt in your applesauce.”

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Margo Dill
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 16:02:54

    This is something I fear with my daughter who is now only 10 months old and seems to already love something one day and hate it the next. 🙂 I want her to eat everything, too, especially because her cousins do. I love the ideas you have presented here and will definitely remember these as I get closer to the 2-year-old issues. 🙂


  2. jcnierad
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 16:17:32

    I love the edible art. When you come up with more ideas, please share more photos! I have watched my nieces (3 and 5) enjoy “make your own pizza” days. Use whole wheat pitas or english muffins for the pizza base and offer up healthy topping choices – fresh tomatoes, mushroom, peppers, etc…add a little cheese and voila! personal pies for each child. Can also encourage the child to create a smiley face or other scene on her pizza canvas.


  3. Marilyn
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 16:43:58

    Hi, Abby. I love this post, especially the title. Food is so wrought with so much “baggage,”” so I love how you manage to make it fun! I tend toward being rigidly healthy, and my teenage son insists there’s never any food in the house. (I.e., fruits, veggies, and beans are not food.) Today’s triumph? I treated him to something called a tender crispy something at Burger King to make up for a “tiff” we had last night that, in hindsight, had my fingerprints all over it. I can’t say that I ate BK, but it did feel right to enjoy his company while he enjoyed fast food. It also allowed some time for us to just chitchat and be together on his food terms. Best, Marilyn


  4. annettecrey
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 19:43:52

    I agree with Marilyn who said in another communication, “You are an amazing parent.” This article is thoroughly well-written and has exceptional value to young mothers at wits’ end. One real big problem, though – You should have credit for this article – Your name should be beneath the title along with the date. Often I am surfing so much and reading so many pages, I forget where I am and scroll back up to remind me of the author’s name. I know I could look at the address box, but most sites I visit have the author’s name with the article. (I think mine does – I have to check). Grade A work!


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