Ideas for Meal Planning when the Kids are Around

Some dads are culinary geniuses, while others are all thumbs when it comes to the kitchen. And even if a dad can cook, there’s no guarantee that his kids will eat what he’s prepared.

One common obstacle many single dads experience is the transition between meal planning and cooking when the kids are in the house versus when they’re at mom’s. Everything from grocery shopping to meal preparation and cleanup becomes more complicated, and the more kids you have the more perilous it can get.

Smaller children tend to prefer simpler foods, while many teenagers have developed a more complex palette… but not always. Younger kids can be open to trying new foods or “adult” foods, while sometimes older kids have formed strong opinions about the foods they think they don’t like.

If cooking and meal planning isn’t your forte or your kids are just picky eaters, try some of these healthy, child-friendly meal ideas and tips.

Start at the drawing board. If your kids can talk then they can tell you which foods they like and dislike. Sit down with the family and map out some ideas together, even if it’s just a list of acceptable ingredients and meals. Ask them about both foods and meals—what do they like for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks? Which food items are blacklisted from their personal menus?

Plan a balanced menu. When it comes to kids a balanced meal doesn’t just mean the four foods groups. It also means offering a variety of foods to ensure that everyone eats something, if there are picky eaters around. For example, don’t just serve spaghetti and meatballs; also add a salad or side vegetable, bread, and slices of apple. 

“Cook” only one meal a day. Meal planning, preparation, and cleanup can be a lot of work, and you want to spend time with your kids instead of your kitchen stove and sink. Make things easier on yourself by cooking one labor-intensive meal each day and keeping the other ones simple.

For most families the big meal of the day is dinner, so eat a no-cook breakfast like cereal and a lunch of leftovers or sandwiches, for example, when planning a more extensive dinner. On days that you cook a big breakfast, consider pizza delivery that night or a late lunch followed by some evening snacks.

Keep plenty of snacks on hand. It’s healthier for kids to graze than to eat large meals, as long as they’re eating whole foods. Fresh fruits, cheeses, nuts and nut butters, popcorn, avocado slices, sunflower seeds, and raw veggies dipped in hummus or salad dressing are all healthy, easy-to-prepare snacks that can be a great supplement between meals.

Make “fun” foods. Fun foods are healthy foods that taste great because they look fun to eat. Fun foods require a lot of creativity but not necessarily extensive cooking skills, so they can be inspirational for creative dads that don’t cook much. Some examples of fun foods include:

  • Ants on a log – celery boats filled with nut butter and topped with raisins
  • Pancake designs – take the Mickey Mouse pancake one step further with your own customized templates
  • Egg shapes – cook a plain, flat omelet and then use a pizza cutter to slice it into fun shapes, letters, and numbers
  • Smoothies – combine a banana and your kids’ favorite fresh or frozen fruit, yogurt, and diluted fruit juice in a blender for a healthy snack. Freeze as homemade popsicles for a treat on a hot day. 
  • Homemade French fries – try any number of recipes online or make up your own as a healthy alternative to this classic kid favorite
  • English muffin pizzas – whip these up in the toaster oven in less than 15 minutes when you’re having a dinner dilemma
  • Miniature foods – bite sized foods are fun to eat and easier for kids too

There are endless ideas so get creative and experiment. Veggies are often the hardest foods to get kids to eat, so see how you can find ways to make vegetables fun. Try presenting broccoli and carrots arranged standing upright in hummus, cheese and fruit platters, and peas or soybeans in the shell. And make sure you eat your veggies too—kids will have a much harder time accepting them if dad doesn’t like them either.

Get the kids involved. Kids of all ages can learn to cook and it’s a fun, family-centered activity with plenty of jobs to go around. Get your kids involved in meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking, and they’ll be more likely to eat and appreciate the foods that you cook for them too. If you’re not much of a cook, try learning together. Read food blogs, try online recipes, and watch Cooking Channel and Food Network shows. Share the recipes that you create together online or make a YouTube demonstration video. Before long, your kids will be making dinner for you.

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