With my oldest kid getting traction as fussy eater, his little sister decided to pick up on it too. With both of them escalating their "I'm more particular than you" competition, and my own multiple food allergies, and a husband with a severe peanut allergy and sodium sensitivity, I felt like a short-order cook trying to make different specialties for everyone.
1. You Don't Have To Be a Short-Order Cook
2. Set Up Your Kids, and Your Kitchen, For Success
Shopping with a list is a very good habit for the whole family to get into as it saves time, money and waste. From Scratch Club has a great free downloadable food planning template that is useful for getting organized for a week's worth of meals and cooking projects. There are categories for setting up a menu for the week, but what I really find useful are the other sections like "Use It or Lose It", which reminds you to take stock of what's in the pantry already that you don't want to waste by letting it go bad. If you are a CSA member or get a weekly produce selection from a service like the one we use, Field Goods, there's a section to note what's coming in that week's bag so you can plan around it more efficiently. Then there are sections for What to Prep, Food Projects, and Food Preservation tasks that you may want to do during the week.
3. Kids Should Help Plan Meals
Having a weekly plan laid out clearly makes it very accessible for everyone in the household to see what's going on in the kitchen, and to be a meaningful part of it. The From Scratch Club Food Plan is broken down into different sections, no one has to feel like they must do the whole list by themselves. Even very young kids can be a part of the planning - if they have an idea, it's easy to add, and easy for everyone to see when it comes time to go shopping. By including children in planning, and shopping, you give them some control over what's happening at mealtime.
4. Kids Should Help Prepare Meals
Each child will be different as far as how much they can safely do. For example, my daughter was particularly into making food (as a toddler she called cooking one of the superpowers she'd like, along with flying) and she was baking at age 3 with moderate supervision. She particularly liked measuring ingredients, though she's still not keen on cracking eggs (too slimy!)
Her older brother tended to go off on tangents at that age. Even through middle school, he wouldn't stay on task as much and needed heavy supervision to keep things like "let's see how far this faucet sprayer can REALLY send jets of water" from happening. With time and consistency on my part, he's getting into age-appropriate cooking now too. Graduating to using real knives and machines like the blender and food processor was a big draw for him, so I made the use of these more dangerous (and super exciting) tools conditional upon him demonstrating that he could be trustworthy and not wreck the kitchen BEFORE allowing access to them.
*ETA: Here are the green eggs, sans ham, that the boy cooked earlier this evening. Electric neon food color gel for the win!
5. Enrich Kids' Food Environment With Classes and Media Resources
Another tool that worked really well in our house were the many cooking videos and television shows available. My son particularly liked ones with other kids doing the cooking, and a big favorite was Kids Cooking For Kids, hosted by twin boys Mike and Will. Suddenly, he wasn't just seeing other adults doing stuff, he was watching and learning from peers that he could relate to. For my daughter, the site Spatulata appealed to her, with lots of videos by sisters Isabella and Olivia. Both sites and shows are very accessible, and will help kids expand their horizons in a fun way.
If you have a DVR, it's worth setting up to record other cooking shows as well - some of our favorites are Jacques Pepin, Daisy Martinez, and America's Test Kitchen. You may be surprised at how much your kids will tune in to, and be inspired by, these shows that aren't specifically geared to children. They are also great inspiration for the adults in the house.
Food doesn't need to be a family battleground, and with a little strategy and some basic planning, you can successfully initiate a ceasefire at mealtime.