Every now and then, my kids go through this endearing phase where they won’t eat a darn thing I put on their plates. I’ll fix a wholesome, healthy meal, and they will take one look at it and groan and whine and wither in their seats like a flower that has been poisoned. I can’t tell you how full it makes my heart.
One night when I can always count on them to eat is taco night. They love tacos because I put all the trimmings in small bowls down the center of the table and they get to pick and choose what goes on their tacos – lettuce, sour cream, cheese, tomatoes, black beans… The possibilities are endless, and they love having the choice of what they eat. Over time I have realized that it is less about the taco and more about the choice.
And so I started experimenting with the center of the table by putting little bowls of various fresh fruits and vegetables there at each meal time. There are no real hard rules to this process. But generally speaking, you’re allowed to eat anything from the center as long as you are also eating what’s on your plate. This is really a win/win for everyone because either the kids are eating what I made or they are eating raw fruits and vegetables. They are getting to choose what to eat and I am happy because they are eating healthy dinners.
Things we put down the center of our table include:
Chris’s cucumbers (Always on the table at dinner. Always. The kids love them.)
Chunked up watermelon
Blueberries (fresh or frozen)
Apple slices (served on a plate)
Chunked up pineapple
Cut up strawberries
Sliced up squash and zucchini
Black beans (strained and cleaned out of the can, but not cooked – just served at room temperature)
Edamame beans (steamed in the shell – you can buy them in steamer bags)
Here’s the thing, though. If your kids aren’t mystified by the center of the table, then there is no draw to the food there. You have to sort of teach them how special the center of the table is. We did this by never actually talking about the center of the table when we first started using it. One night, food just appeared there. Chris and I casually took from the center throughout our meal, without ever offering it to the kids. They watched us, completely intrigued, because it seemed like something only adults were allowed to do. Finally, when I saw that they were totally hooked, I casually told the kids, “Oh, you can have some if you want.” And that was it. They thought it was too cool that they got to do something that only adults were doing.
Another thing that made the center of the table special was that they never had to dish food out and put it on their plates. They were allowed to eat straight from the bowls themselves. If it was finger food, they could just pick it up and eat it. If it needed a fork, they could spear the food right in the bowl and eat from there. Not having to use their plates was part of the magic of the center of the table. It felt more like snacking to them. And snacking during meal times? Magical!
Once they understand that it is really special to eat out of the center of the table (and you can totally make it special however it fits your children – for ours, nothing is more special than doing something only adults get to do), it’s game on.
Occasionally, we have to tell them they can’t have anything from the center of the table anymore until they eat their dinners. We try not to do this often, though, because then the center of the table loses the appeal of being completely their choice. But every now and then when they become a little too dependent on the center of the table, we’ll put some parameters around it. One of the best for them is a hard, concrete rule: You have to eat three bites from your plate to get anything from the center.
If you’re struggling with non-eaters, grab some small bowls and go to town. Freedom is, apparently, very appetizing!