Brilliant, Researched Ideas from “How to Be a Happier Parent“

KJ Dell’Antonia is a writer I’ve followed for a long time, starting with the parenting blog that she wrote and edited for The New York Times, Motherlode. So when her book, “How to Be a Happier Parent” came out, I snapped it up. Here are the best game-changing tips she shares about Food, Fun, and Family Time.

What you’re eating isn’t as important as who you’re doing it with.

We’ve all heard the research. That kids who eat meals as a family benefit in many ways, from stronger vocabularies and greater feelings of family connection to decreased likelihood of drug and alcohol use. “But putting research aside, there is an enormous obvious value for us as individual parents and children in the act of eating together, and every meal does not have to reflect some imaginary ideal.”

What actually counts most? It’s that togetherness. No matter what you’re eating or how often.

“Our children are absorbing powerful memories about who we are, how we eat, how we sit, how we talk to one another, about the food, our lives, the people and things around us–but not all at any single meal. Eating together is cumulative; the rituals evolve gradually. When your children eat in other houses, they’ll compare those rituals and expectations. When their friends come to your house, you’ll see little clues to how they expect a meal to go in how they act and respond to your meal. Family meals reflect family values. They show us not who we want to be, but who we are.”

Meal planning can change your life, but it doesn’t have to be set in stone to work

A self-described fanatical weekday meal planner, Dell’Antonia maps out a game plan for the week on Sundays. She considers sports schedules for her four children, her own time constraints and that she probably won’t want to cook by Friday.

“I make it easy on myself. Some days, the plan involves nothing but putting a prepared meal from the grocery store into the oven and slicing up some bread, or dropping frozen meatballs into the slow cooker with a jar of sauce and pressing start before I walk out the door at seven a.m. I plan takeout nights. I plan to make a box of macaroni and cheese.

Then I’m set. All I do at night is look at the list; I know the ingredients are there, I know whatever is planned will work for our timing, and the kids know what to expect for dinner, which they like. I get that little flash of worry during a work afternoon–Shoot, what am I doing for dinner?–and then I relax. I got it.

I don’t always cook what I’ve planned. Things change. Someone is sick, and I move Thursday’s soup to Tuesday. We decide to get takeout because something ran late. That’s all fine. I rarely plan more than two weekly meals that ‘have’ to be cooked or the ingredients will go bad, and I’m very willing to just stick stuff back in the freezer. It doesn’t really matter if we follow the plan. What matters is that I have a plan.”

Dealing with Picky Eaters is a lot about what you don’t say

Establish a set of family rules, Dell’Antonia suggests. (This is one version of our own food rules.) Her family of six follows a set including ideas like “one family, one meal” and “you don’t have to eat it but you do have to look at it”. But above all, this rule is her favorite:

No insulting the food. At our table you can say, ‘No thank you,” ‘I don’t care for that,” and “That’s not my favorite.” Unless you’re asked for more details, that’s it. No attitude. No faces, no ‘yuck’, not ever.”

But what about feeding a child who won’t eat? “Sally Sampson, founder of ChopChop, a nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine and coauthor of The Picky Eater Project, suggests shifting the focus away from the picky child and what they eat entirely. Make meals that accommodate them or can be customized and then do nothing more. Do require that the picky child join you at the table if they’re out of the habit, but ‘don’t focus on the food or what your child is or isn’t eating–not a peep,’ she says. ‘Instead ask them about their day, tell them about yours. Treat your child with the same courtesy you would an adult: don’t make them eat anything they don’t want and don’t make a scene about their choices. How one child is eating should not be the topic of conversation when you’re eating. If you need to have a conversation about it, have it anywhere else than your kitchen or dining room table.’”

How to stop stressing out about food

“Women in particular, feel pressure to prepare meals that meet external standards like ‘healthy’ and ‘homemade’ within an often-limited budget of both money and time, and can be disappointed when those meals aren’t met with enthusiasm by children and partners.” Sound familiar? So how do we break out of this frustrating cycle?

Think about your ultimate goal here, which is enjoying your family while eating a nice meal.

“For most Western parents, there is nothing wrong with our lives around food. If you can afford enough to eat, a table to eat it around, and a roof to eat under, finding the rest of what makes you and your family happy is just gravy.”

Take the pressure off and outsource!

Do you know a cook who makes lasagnas, pot pies or other dinners for delivery? Don’t hesitate to sign up for a weekly service, suggests Dell’Antonia.

Consider the ease of having a meal kit shipped to your home with pre-measured ingredients plus having the work of deciding what to make done for you.

Plan an afternoon cooking party with a friend where you each make two or three freezable meals, then swap.

And don’t underestimate meals that can be assembled in a snap with shortcut ingredients like store-bought pasta sauce, pre-shredded cheese, rotisserie chicken and other time-savers, she explains. “‘Almost anything you’ve prepared at home using mostly fresh or minimally processed ingredients will probably be healthier than the takeout you didn’t get,’ says Maya Adams, a mother of three and a lecturer on food and nutrition at Stanford who developed a massive open online course called Child Nutrition and Cooking. ‘There are no inherently unhealthy foods. The question is always: what would I have been eating instead of this food? Homemade grilled cheese sandwiches may be less healthy than a quinoa and Persian cucumber salad with toasted pistachio nuts and shallot vinaigrette, but if the alternative is a fast-food hamburger and fries, go for the grilled cheese.’”

Happy cooks make what they like most

If you’re the family cook, that doesn’t mean every meal has to be centered around what kids like. Instead, do what Dell’Antonia does: make your own favorites! And do it often.

No wonder she enjoys family meals.

“Family dinner are about dinner, but first and foremost they’re about family. So here’s my final piece of advice for happier family meals: sit down and eat. Don’t wait on the table. Stay in your chair, enjoy yourself, have a glass of wine if that’s what you do. It’s not a family meal if you’re not really there, too.”

There’s SO MUCH MORE good advice where this came from in “How to Be a Happier Parent“. On every possible parenting topic, from siblings to sports and how mornings are the worst. Highly recommend.


  • The Easy Way to Encourage Kids to Eat More Veggies
  • What I Do When Kids Say “I Don’t Like It” Before They Take a Bite
  • You Won’t Always Like Dinner and Other Life Lessons I want My Kids to Learn

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