Cook Just One Meal For the Whole Family. Yes, Really.

Dying to know how to make one meal for the whole family? Read our top 7 tips that will have you spending less time cooking like a short-order chef & more time enjoying dinners with your family!

how to make one meal for the whole family

One of the most-asked questions from our community is how to make one meal for the whole family. Parents are so over having to be a short-order cook for all the different people in their household. We understand the pain! Some nights, it’s hard enough to get any dinner on the table. It can be so disheartening to have our kids reject it. I like to keep the bigger picture in mind. With five people at a table, it's unlikely that everyone will love every part of the meal.

My job is not to be a restaurant and earn a five-star review. My job is to provide a healthy meal (and hopefully a loving atmosphere to eat that meal in). It’s the job of each person at the table to eat until they are satisfied. Here are some great tips that keep our dinnertimes running smoothly.

Talk about it and set expectations.

If serving just one meal for the entire family will be a change, set expectations ahead of time. Have a conversation with your family at a time when your kids are relaxed and otherwise happy. A casual tone, with a brief explanation of why we are making changes, usually does the trick. Keep it age-appropriate without a bunch of extra explanations. Setting expectations for what you expect at the dinner table is important, too. For example, my kids are required to be polite about what’s served. Instead of saying, “this dish looks disgusting and I hate it”, my kids can say “I’ve tried one bite and that’s all I want tonight.”

Create a routine around eating.

Kids that graze all day long are far more likely not to want to eat planned meals. For one, they just aren’t that hungry. If your child has had three snacks between lunch and dinner, they probably won’t be physically hungry for dinner. Secondly, kids usually don’t love the idea of sitting anywhere for long periods of time. If they can eat while they are in the car or at the playground, it’s an obvious kid choice. A more structured routine, like three meals and two to three snacks is preferred to grazing anytime. This structure will help kids be truly hungry at mealtimes. As an added bonus, kids will likely have a similar structure in elementary school, so you can be happy to know that you are setting them up for school success.

Evaluate your snack choices.

I realized we had a problem when my toddler started saying things like “I don’t want lunch. I want a snack”. We had inadvertently fallen into the rhythm of having healthier whole-food options at meals and “snackier” things at snack time. Make snacks more like mini-meals and include some snack-type items at meals. You don’t want your kid to ignore your delicious meal because they are holding out for trail mix. I’ve started incorporating more snack-type foods into meals and more fruits, veggies, and leftover meals into snacks. I have had great success with keeping at least a few healthy snack options in the pantry. We buy freeze-dried beets, carrots, and fruits with nothing else added. They might be more expensive than the fresh options, but they are crispy like chips and they come in “snack packs” so they are fun like chips. If my kids want something crispy and snack-like, but I want them to have something nutritious, these types of foods can be a great compromise. Other healthy pantry options include packets or containers of no-sugar-added nut butter, healthy trail mix or nut mixes, no-sugar-added dried fruit, dried seaweed, or kale chips. (By the way, we do recommend serving a healthy fat or protein with each snack to ensure that your kiddo isn’t hungry two minutes later.)

Meal Plan.

This is one of the most impactful tips for how to make one meal for the whole family. Many people feel that meal planning is a huge time commitment. But, people who meal plan find that it actually SAVES them time overall; as much as 2 hours per week! More importantly, when you plan your meals at least the day before, you can talk about what’s on the menu. Kids are generally more receptive to what’s on their plate if they knew it was coming. We keep our weekly meal plan near our fridge. At breakfast, we often talk about what we will be having for dinner or lunch. If we will be having a dish that is not a favorite, we can talk about when we will be making their favorites. Or we can give them a choice on the side dishes to be served. You can try out one of our family-friendly meal plans here.

Serve “deconstructed” meals.

Some kids don’t like foods to touch. Many kids love to feel in control of what they are eating. Serving meals deconstructed appeals to both types of children. Instead of making tacos with the beans, lettuce, and cheese already stuffed into the shell, put each ingredient in a separate bowl on the table. Let kids build their own tacos at the table. (Or help them build their taco, but ask for input on the ingredients.) As an added bonus, this type of dinner is less work than pre-assembling meals! Here's one such meal that we love. Virtually any meal can be served this way. If you are making chicken with a sauce over rice and broccoli, serve it that way for the adults. For the kids, add each part of the meal to their plate in separate sections. The sauce can go in a little bowl for them to add on their own.

Include at least one food that each member of the family likes.

If I have a meal that I’m not sure my kids will love, I make sure that they have at least one side dish they like. This gives my kids confidence when they sit down at the table. It means that everyone has something to eat and nobody will go hungry. I recommend serving hard-boiled eggs, whole wheat toast, brown rice, or other filling (but not terribly exciting) side dishes. We also keep sliced, raw veggies in the fridge, which I pull out at most meals. This gives my kids a few different sides that they know and tolerate.

Make dinnertime fun!

Mealtimes can be really stressful for parents, especially if we are very involved in what our kids eat-- or don’t eat. Buy some fun plates and utensils for your kids to use at the table. Cut fruits and veggies into adorable shapes with mini cookie cutters. Play games like “I spy” or Tongue Twisters. Eat outdoors or have a picnic. Try to channel your calmest friend and remember the bigger picture. A relaxed atmosphere takes the pressure off for kids and parents. As an added bonus, you’ll have more fun, too. Isn’t that part of the point? So there you have it: this is how to make one meal for the whole family! By talking about it with your family ahead of time, giving them some insight into what meals are coming, and creating a routine around eating, you will be setting yourself up for success. The types of meals you serve can be powerful too. Deconstructed meals give kids control, and fun meals take off the pressure. As long as there’s one thing on the table that each person will eat, nobody will go hungry.

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