Before I became a parent, I thought I would never cook separate meals for different members of my family. “What a waste of time!” I thought. “I’ll never become one of those short-order-cook parents!” I told myself. “Our kids will eat anything we put in front of them!” I told my husband. Fast forward 13+ years and I have eaten my words. Many times. And in many ways.

There are lots of reasons why I have, in fact, become one of those short-order-cook parents, making my family multiple dishes for the same meal time:

  • Pickiness. All three of my kids have gone through periods of pickiness. Some when they were toddlers, others when they were middle schoolers. Who knows why or how long it will last, but they’ve all had their moments. And to be fair, I’ve had my own bouts with pickiness, like when I ate only bagels and green apples during one pregnancy.
  • Availability. It doesn’t happen often, but there are times when I find that I don’t have enough of one thing to go around to my family of 5. For example, I only have ground beef to make 3 hamburger patties. On those evenings, maybe the pasta-lovers among us will eat that instead.
  • Peace of mind. Even though I know it’s not the “right” thing to do, when one of my kids has a big event coming up (say, a soccer tournament) I have been known to make them a special meal that I know they will eat. This gives me some peace of mind (maybe foolishly) that they will head into the event with a full belly and a heart full of love for their mama (I know, I know, it’s silly).

So, what can be done to spend less time cooking and more time eating together and enjoying your family’s company?

Identify what works. Does your family love to go to the burrito place down the street? Try re-creating their recipes at home. Do you all love pizza? Have a make your own pizza night, where each family member gets to choose their own toppings. Identify the things your family does agree on, food-wise, and start from there. Even if the only common ground is strawberries, that can be a good place to start.

Make your kids the cooks. Try turning dinner time on its ear and ask one of your kids to be the cook. Let them know that they can make whatever they want and you will eat it. This strategy has several benefits:

  • It gets the kids cooking.
  • It gives you an opportunity to model the behavior you’re hoping to teach them (eating what’s put in front of them).
  • You all get to enjoy a meal together without arguing!

Don’t give up. I’ve known a lot of families who have tried to change their cooking and eating habits, only to quickly become discouraged by the enormity of the task. Habits (especially eating habits) take a long time to form, and take a long time to change. By setting small, realistic goals and giving your family lots of grace, you will notice positive changes over time.