Colorado Springs mom Dimity Davis has a 3-year-old and a 9-month-old who have to eat at 4:30 to be in bed by 7:00 -- too early for her husband, who gets off work at 6:00 and "patches something together on his own" several nights a week so she can squeeze in trips to the gym.Things only get more complicated with older kids involved in sports and other activities that can force families to eat late, in shifts, or in the minivan.
Mealtime fix: Divide and conquer
The benefits of family meals hold as long as one parent is at the table, says Lauren Duran, communications director for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, where much of the research on eating together has been conducted. This is welcome news. It means I can feed the kids at 5:30, when they're hungry but not famished, winding down but not exhausted. If I sit with them and eat (even if it's something small, to tide me over until my husband comes home), we'll have shared a meal.
Reclaiming mealtime may require setting limits. Anne Moscony of Media, Pennsylvania, makes sure her four children play just one sport each and doesn't allow TV or computer games on school nights. Jennifer Bellwoar, of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, only lets her three kids join activities that end by 6:30. Both moms manage family meals up to four nights a week. But if you can't do dinner every night, start with one night.
And who says it has to be dinner? Maybe breakfast or a snack would better suit your family's schedule. My husband and his siblings still fondly recall milk shakes with their dad on Saturday afternoons. "What you want," says Weinstein, "is low-key time that everyone can count on."
Feeding a finicky kid can be frustrating enough to make a mom ditch family meals completely. "Amelia basically eats the cheese group these days -- pizza, quesadillas, grilled cheese," says Davis. If there's something new on the table, "she'll declare 'I don't like it' even if she's never had it."
Mealtime fix: Don't push
Since your child ultimately controls what she swallows, this is one power struggle you won't win, says Jan Faull, a Seattle child development and behavior specialist. It's normal for toddlers and even preschoolers to be extremely cautious about trying new foods. They love familiarity -- a big reason they often cling to a favorite blanket, book, or toy. So you may have to present a new food a dozen or more times before a child will taste it.
Satter advises parents to be "considerate but not to cater" to their children's tastes. Offer four or five items at every meal, including at least one your child likes, even if it's bread. This doesn't mean you have to cook four different items. If you're serving beef stew, for instance, put out some heat-and-serve biscuits, sliced peaches, and milk. Then let your child choose freely what goes on his plate.
Cajoling children to eat when they don't want to can keep them from learning how to manage their own food intake, Satter warns. By giving yours the autonomy to accept or refuse foods (without jumping up to offer an alternative), you'll help him develop healthy eating patterns -- and put an end to the suppertime food fights.
Faull also cautions parents against openly referring to kids as picky or even adventurous eaters, since they may strive to live up to these labels. (This may partly explain why "fussy" Jake's favorite meal is a buttered roll, while "chowhound" Sophie loves lox and steamed clams.)