Making Meals Fun

In the first few months of transitioning my family to eating gluten and casein-free, I wanted everything to be perfect:  I would scour recipes to find the perfect gf bread, order expensive snacks online and spend hours planning meals. What usually happened when serving those meals was that my son, who has autism and motivated the dietary change, would take two bites of whatever food that I had slaved over and then get up and run away from the table. I would bring him back to his plate, cajole him to eat more, and maybe he would take one more bite. Mealtime in our home became, in a word, miserable.

Soon I realized that something needed to change if we were going to be able to stick with dietary changes as part of my son’s healing process. And I was motivated to stick with it: within a few months of eating gfcf, my son was finally sleeping through the night and having normal bowel movements. I realized that it wasn’t the diet that needed to change, but my attitude and approach towards it.

Over the last five years, these are some of the ways that I’ve been able to sustain and embrace the gfcf diet:

1. Awareness of my attitude:

I first needed to acknowledge the amount of pressure that I was putting on myself in creating meals and the pressure that I was bringing to my son at mealtime. I started to take a few deep breaths before sitting down at the table. Rather than slaving for hours making complex recipes, I started to cook simple, whole foods: chicken breast sautéed in coconut oil, meatballs made with grassfed beef and served over gf pasta. These meals were much more successful with my whole family than the ones that took hours to prepare (recipes are in my book “The Kitchen Classroom”) and I didn’t come to the table completely frazzled.

2. Getting the Kids Involved:

One of the best ways that I’ve been able to make eating gfcf work well in my house is involving my kids in meal preparation. What I’ve discovered is that all of the fine and gross motor skills that my son works on in therapy can be practiced through chopping, stirring, mixing, unpacking groceries, etc.  Bringing my kids in to wash fruit for a fruit salad or break apart the celery stalks that will be on their dinner plate makes them both more eager to taste everything that I serve!

3. Playing with your food:

This one might seem like a no-no, but I like to find ways to play that are good for everyone. To encourage my kids to eat a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, I started picking a letter of the week and  buying produce to match the letter. Although my son is just now learning to read, working on the letter recognition was an important part of developing his pre-literacy skills. I’ve made my 45 alphabetical recipes into an ebook called ABC Fruits & Veggies 4 Me!

4. Setting the mood:

As busy parents, sometimes our goal is simply to get through our meals with everyone intact. When I’m able to take that extra moment before we sit down, I put on some mellow music to listen to while we eat and this also helps to shift everyone’s mood.  My son takes longer to eat than my daughter does but what we’ve worked out is that she can choose a few books to bring to the table when she finishes. This helps her to enjoy staying at the table with us. Think about what simple elements like music and books that could help to make your meals more pleasant.

5. Remember 2 words—“Not Yet”:

I often coach parents who lament that their children will not try new foods, especially fruits, vegetables and protein and have trouble sitting for meals. My answer is always “Not Yet”—but with patience, persistence and some creative strategies,  here is hope that your child will begin to eat a wider variety of foods and that meals in your home will become important family connecting time.

Please don’t hesitate to send me your questions or concerns—I’m happy to brainstorm:


About the Author:
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a writer, cooking instructor and parenting coach. Visit her at
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