My friend A and I were talking once about whether or not we allowed our children to choose their own outfits.  She said that growing up, it was, “Do you want your red bow or your white one?” and never “Do you want to wear a bow?”  That’s how she handled the dressing situation with her boys, too.  She selected one or two outfits from which they could choose instead of opening the whole closet up to them.

Parents vary widely on how much choice they give their kids, and I tend to be more like A when it comes to clothing.  Of course, the level of independence children can exert on matters like clothes, food, activities, etc. is highly dependent on their age and developmental level.  So, please, don’t take anything I’m about to say as prescriptive – take it only as descriptive.

You’ve got your kids, I’ve got mine. We’re all doing the best we can.

I believe that the most important influence I have on what they choose to eat, now and in the future, is largely dictated by two things : what I provide them to eat and how my husband and I eat around them.

When they were wee little, I just gave them good quality food with a wide variety of macronutrients – fat, protein and carbs.  I didn’t fret much when they ate a carb-heavy or a protein-heavy meal, because I realized that over time, their macronutrient consumption tended to balance out.

At the core, I really trusted my kids’ instincts about what they should be eating.

But, as with so many things, kids’ instincts get all messed up as they are exposed to the world.  They see highly motivational advertisements for food, they are exposed to hyper-palatable food-like items that are chemically designed to be alluring, and they interact with peers who inevitably label some foods as gross and other foods as cool.

So, as my kids have aged, I have tried to walk the very fine line between giving them autonomy over their food choices and making sure that they eat well.  Over various blog posts, I plan to explore the different ways I have navigated this journey and I hope you will share your experiences with me, too.

One of the most successful techniques is to offer circumscribed choices – like the red bow or white bow option my friend A experienced.  They get to pick their protein and their veggies from multiple choices and, nearly without fail, when they have had the opportunity to choose, they scarf them down.

Mind you, I do not offer them the opportunity to choose at every meal, or even every day.  I am simply too busy to whip up multiple food choices at every turn.

I also want them to learn to try new foods, to eat what’s been served, and to cultivate the skill of gracefully declining something they don’t care to eat.

But there are a few nights – and I try to have at least one a week – where they get to exert some decision-making.  One is Salad Night.

I chop up leftover and new veggies along with leftover proteins.  I pop open some nuts, seeds, dried fruit and olives.  I usually dice an avocado and an apple.  Then, I get a big bowl and a set of tongs, and each kid gets to come over to our little salad bar to tell me what he or she chooses.  Then, I toss their salad, dress it with olive oil and salt, and serve.

Here’s how our “salad bar” looks:

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And, this is what my kids’ salads looked like at our last Salad Night:

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Beyond being healthful and veggie-laden, our salads are fun!  The kids sometimes agonize over their choices, which is such a great reminder to me of how vital it is that they have chances to flex their “decision” muscles in a safe, non-threatening environment like home.  But mostly, we have a good time comparing our salads, making the ultimate delicious bite, and talking about whose salad is the best.

Other versions of this night include “Make-Your-Own-Pizza” night and “Stir-Fry Night,” with the latter being much less frequent since Baby A’s arrival.  It takes the most work and time over the stove.

So there you have it.  It’s not exactly rocket science, but it is something that works for our family.

What ways do you offer your kids choice around food selection?

(Enjoy this and other similar posts at Thank Goodness It’s Monday #17 here!)

5 Responses to “Kids & Food Choice : Salad Night”

  1. on 23 Apr 2013 at 7:34 amMonica

    Offering choices definitely works best with T. I often let him choose our veggies at night (between several choices) or have them help build the salad to accompany dinner – once he has ownership of it, he definitely eats more of it. Tacos, pizza and omelets are also other times they get to choose and they always make better choices than I would have imagined.

    I also think our routine dinner “nights” make a difference. We instituted taco night (because they will eat anything when housed in a tortilla) which forces them to be creative about what we’ll do with them each Saturday – they’ve suggested shrimp, lettuce wraps as an alternative, taco pizza, all loaded with a variety of veggies. We just started a designated fish night (instead of me just serving it) on the nights T has swim lessons (since he’s learning to swim like a fish!). The boys are getting excited to try new varieties and recipes.

    Plus, choosing and cooking together is fun for all of us!

  2. on 23 Apr 2013 at 10:00 amKristine Rudolph

    Fish has been the one food that I consistently have trouble getting my kids to taste. Baby A eats it, but the bigs don’t … even though they willingly take fermented cod liver oil. Go figure. Anyhow, we have a suspected shellfish allergy with the biggest (negative on tests but seems to happen every time he eats shrimp) so I worry that that has been a barrier to him trying other “fruits of the sea.” Shrimp seems to be a “gateway” fish for people, right? I keep offering it up but they won’t touch it. And that gets pricey.

  3. on 23 Apr 2013 at 8:43 amSusan

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the salad night idea! I am going to do that for my husband!

  4. on 23 Apr 2013 at 2:24 pmMonica

    They both gobbled up salmon one night but now the 6 yo says he doesn’t like it (even though I’ve prepared it the same way and he raved about it). We thought we’d try letting him select and we’ll see…we always get small enough portions for the boys to try so it doesn’t break the bank and lends itself to yummy leftover lunches for the hubby and me if they turn up their noses.

  5. on 30 Sep 2013 at 6:02 amKristine Rudolph » Family “Feast”

    […] ago, I wrote about one of my family’s favorite dinner rituals – Salad Night.  Another of our absolute favorites is something we call […]

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