Family Dinner Ideas: Fun and Easy Interactive Meals to Make with your Child

AllisonMS, RDN, CDN

Read time: 4 minutes

What to know about cooking with your child

  • Getting kids involved in the kitchen can help them become more adventurous eaters

  • Understand how to make meals fun so that kids can help

  • Learn interactive meals the whole family will enjoy

What are the benefits of having kids help cook?

When children participate in the kitchen, they get to experience all the elements of food preparation: touching, feeling, and smelling. This sensory interaction with food can help reduce the likelihood of picky eating, allowing them to be more willing to taste a new or disliked food.1,4 In fact, children may be more likely to eat more of a food they’ve helped prepare.2

Read on to learn how to transform a simple and healthy meal into something kids are excited to eat!

Learn more:

The Division of Responsibility: Helping Avoid Picky Eating

Family Meals: Developing Healthy Eating Patterns

What are interactive kid-friendly meal ideas?

“What’s for dinner?” Sound familiar? Many parents struggle with this question from the moment they wake up in the morning. Interactive meals are a fun way to get your child involved with the preparation of the meal as well as perhaps enticing them to try something new.

Breaking down a recipe into a DIY meal allows the whole family can participate in and may help turn a sometimes-stressful event into a fun and relaxed activity.

Interactive meals can have something for everyone, from your pickiest eater to your most adventurous child.

Ideas for interactive kid-friendly meals:

  • Make your own pizza

  • Family-cuterie boards

  • Pasta bar

  • Salad bar

  • Taco bar

Learn about: How Can I Get my Baby to Love Veggies?

How to make a kid-friendly interactive meal

First: Think about the base

Dough for pizza, taco/tortilla for tacos, bowl of greens for salad bar, and bowl of whole grain pasta for pasta bar. Give everyone a plate with their base item.

Tip: If it’s pizza, you can either shape the dough into a mini pizza for them or if your child is ready, give each person a rolling pin and ball of dough, showing them how to get started.

Next: Choose the toppings

While there are so many vegetables, fruits, proteins, beans, nuts, and seeds you could use as toppings, here are some ideas to get you started.

Make Your Own Pizza topping ideas:

  • Tomato sauce

  • Shredded mozzarella or cheddar

  • Grated parmesan

  • Sliced bell peppers (quickly sautéed first if you’d like!)

  • Sliced mushrooms, chopped broccoli, sliced tomatoes (de-seeded)

  • Sliced steak or chopped chicken

  • Baby spinach leaves

Family Charcuterie Board topping ideas:

  • Chopped tomatoes and sliced bell peppers

  • Turkey and cheese pinwheels, hard-boiled egg slices

  • Mini mozzarella balls

  • Dried fruit such as apricots, figs, and dates

  • Roasted chickpeas, edamame in the pod

  • Sliced apples and pears, pineapple slices, watermelon chunks

  • Whole grain crackers or plain pita chips

  • Hummus

Pasta Bar topping ideas:

  • Tomato or pesto sauce

  • Parmesan cheese and shredded mozzarella

  • Chopped tomatoes, roasted cubes of butternut squash, steamed broccoli, sauteed asparagus pieces, steamed green beans

  • White or black beans

  • Cooked ground turkey or beef, or chopped grilled chicken

  • Sliced basil leaves

Salad Bar topping ideas:

  • Chopped cooked chicken, fish, or steak

  • Chickpeas, edamame, or baked tofu cubes,

  • Shredded carrots, cabbage (purple for color!), sliced cucumber and bell pepper

  • Steamed and cooled beet cubes or sweet potatoes

  • Chopped, oil-massaged kale

  • Halved grapes, pitted cherries, or diced apple

  • Feta cheese or grated parmesan cheese

  • Quinoa, wheat berries, or farro

  • Oil- or yogurt-based salad dressing

Taco Bar topping ideas:

  • Sliced sautéed onions and bell peppers, steamed chopped green beans

  • Shredded carrots, lettuce, and cabbage

  • Shredded cheese

  • Cooked ground beef, chicken or turkey. Chopped grilled chicken breast or chopped steak

  • Flaky fish, seasoned ground turkey, black beans, chickpeas

  • Brown rice, quinoa

  • Guacamole or avocado slices

  • Plain Greek yogurt or sour cream, salsa or pico de gallo

  • Lime for squeezing!

Be sure to provide foods in the texture and size that your little one is able to handle and eat without difficulty.

More interactive meal ideas: Picky Eater Meal Plan: Recipe and Snack Ideas

Tips for getting started with kid-friendly interactive meals

How to encourage your child to choose their toppings

Once each child has their base plate, let them explore the items that you have put in bowls for them to add to their base.

To help get them excited and decide which foods to choose, you can ask them different questions:

  • Which food is your favorite color?

  • Which food has the sweetest smell?

  • Which food feels the softest/hardest/slipperiest?

These questions along with the touching, smelling, and playing with the toppings, can help with picky eaters as it allows them to learn and explore in a low expectation environment. They get to choose which foods they’re ready to try and skip those that still make them nervous.

Handling foods and being allowed to choose which they will and will not try helps develop trust and understanding, and ultimately helps build positive pathways in the brain linking these new foods to safety.3 Eventually your little one may surprise you and try a food they’ve never had before!

Learn More: Picky Eating Guide

What age does my child need to be to participate in an interactive meal?

The age range for each activity will depend on a few things:

  • What stage of textures your little one is managing or ready to tackle

  • What specific assortment food items you are offering

  • How much adult interaction and supervision is involved

For the most part, these activities are appropriate for children starting at 18 months (with adult help and supervision of course). You know your child best, so be sure to have them help with things you know would fit their abilities.

3 tips to help make an interactive meal fun and delicious for everyone

Tip #1: Offer one bowl of a freshly chopped herb that the kids can touch and smell and add to their meal creation.

You can also get them to participate in the kitchen more by having them help you grow a small herb plant. They can water the plant and even pick the leaves when it’s time to prepare a meal.

Here are some herb ideas for different meals:

  • Basil for pasta, pizza, and charcuterie board

  • Dill or mint for salad

  • Cilantro for tacos

Tip #2: Season at least one of the items that will be used in the meal (beef, chicken, fish, etc) in a way in which you prefer, and which you may want your child to begin to appreciate. For example, grilled chicken may be seasoned with some lemon juice, oil, pepper, and oregano before cooking to help get kids to try new flavors. Also provide toppings that you know the kids will enjoy so there are plenty of new as well as already-loved options available.

Tip #3: Use leftovers for next day’s meals or for other fun activities to do with your children.

Learn More: Fun Food Activities to Do with My Toddler

Enjoy and let the fun begin!

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles

Learning To Love Healthy Foods

How To Include More Beans/Legumes Into Your Diet

How To Include More Dark Greens Into Your Daily Diet

Include More Whole Grains Into Your Daily Diet

Strategies for Creating a Healthy Kitchen for your Family