Susan Dominus has a great article today in the NYT about a restaurateur's philosophy about family dinner, which is influenced not only by his profession but by his European background. Basically, he believes that there should be no "children's menu" of bland pasta and chicken fingers; the kids should eat from the regular menu, trying new things. Perhaps a side plate of something more kid-friendly can be conjured up, but a special menu is not required. He walks the walks as he demonstrates his own kids' eclectic eating habits fostered at a daily family meal cooked, served and eaten with his wife, while he is at work.
It's not that surprising that a chef's children eat well, but more telling, I think, is that this philosphy begins at home, around the family dinner table. In order to make the best of family dinner, the whole family should eat the same thing! Too many parents unwittingly turn themselves into short-order cooks when they make special orders for everyone. It's too hard and it makes meal time all about what each person wants rather than setting time for sharing the experience as a family.
In our house, we have the most trouble with our four-year old who is the most picky child of our three children and would definitely eat mac and cheese every night if we let her. As the classic mom, I am always trying to make sure that there is at least "something" on the table that she will eat. My husband, as classic dad, says let her eat what's on the table, eventually she will try it. Reality falls somewhere in between, but the stance of insisting that she at least "try" the family dinner has begun paying off. Recently she enjoyed some Chinese Sichuan fried fish and she's been known to eat bok choy, but only if we tell her its "baby bok choy." Even the "plain" food she might have at our table tends to be more adventuresome that most: rice with Nori (seaweed) or dumpling wrappers. Our basic strategy is to have at least one side dish we know everyone will eat available.
The bottom line is it doesn't matter what you are serving, but everyone should at least taste it and not be allowed to make a special order. Persistence and neutrality are key. Just keep offering the food, without arguments or fights, and eventually it will click and your kid will try it, maybe even like it. Always having the "side" of rice or pasta just gets too boring!
Looking Past the Children's Menu, Susan Dominus, NYT 5.24.10
Sara Moulton's Family Dinners, a restaurant chef talks about dinners with her family on the WNYC Leonard Lopate radio show, 5.10.10
Family Meals from examiner.com, 5.24.10