3 Ways To Empower & Connect With Your Kids at Dinnertime

If you have followed A Fostered Life’s blog or YouTube channel for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard me emphasize the importance of empowering children. Two things children need most—all children, but especially children who have a history of trauma—is to feel empowered (or a sense of personal agency) and to feel connected (or a sense of belonging). This is the big takeaway I got from Positive Parenting Solutions (along with a fantastic arsenal of empowering and connecting tools), and when we began to embrace this concept and look for ways to empower and connect with our children on a daily basis, we saw a real change in our children’s relationships with one another and interactions with us.

One area of home life that is bursting with potential for empowering and connecting with kids is dinner time! In the midst of our hectic lives, with family members coming and going, the dinner table can be such a sacred space for a family.

Here are a few ways to empower and connect with kids at the dinner table.

Put your child in charge of dinner. About once every week or so, a child in our home is in charge of dinner. (Yes, this includes our five-year-old.) I communicate that child is in charge of dinner that night and work with them ahead of time to plan their meal. Sometimes that means looking at simple recipes, and other times it just means showing them a visual guide (keep reading) and letting them get creative. I encourage whichever child is in charge to delegate roles to others in the house. Sometimes they do, but I have one child who wants to do it all himself (or only have me help).

Give them a visual guide, then take your hands off the wheel. We use this one from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which is for omnivores. We have also used this one from Pick Up Limes, which is especially for vegans. This tool is a fantastic way to teach children how to have a well-balanced diet without them realizing you’re trying teaching them something 🙂 Giving a child a picture like this and letting them pick each component, with minimal input, is so empowering. Children are very perceptive, and given the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge! Some of the child-prepared meals we have had include spaghetti with meatballs and tossed salad, waffles with turkey sausage and sliced bananas, and fried chicken with tossed salad and bread. They look at the chart and choose foods that they can plug in to each section. It makes them feel very important and very grown up.

DIY Dinner. Another really simple tip for empowering your kids at meal times is to set out a bunch of ingredients and let them fix their own meal. Two meals that are really conducive to this are Taco Bowls (“Taco Tuesday” anyone?!) and Sandwich Bar (“Can you say charcuterie?”).

For Taco Bowls, everyone gets a scoop of rice in a bowl and then they get to add their own toppings from the bowls on the table: taco meat (vegan meatless crumbles work too), beans (this is the recipe I use in the Instant Pot), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, chopped avocado, corn, salsa, and taco sauce are our go-to taco bowl fixins. Sometimes I also put a bowl of tortilla chips out to scoop the bowls with. The kids love having independence and deciding what goes into their bowls!

For the Sandwich Bar, I just put out a basket of bread, a plate of lunch meat and cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. I usually also put out some veggies for dipping, like carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and mini sweet peppers. Each kid loves making their own sandwich, and it gives them a sense of personal empowerment.

Engaging conversations around the dinner table. Interacting around the dinner table helps promote the development of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional bonding. According to The Family Dinner Project,

researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.

IT’S SCIENCE: EAT DINNER TOGETHER, Anne Fishel, Ph.D, The Family Dinner Project

Dining together as a family is hugely important, for so many reasons. For example, according to this article from The Scramble, “kids and teens who share family dinners three or more times per week…

  • Are less likely to be overweight
  • Are more likely to eat healthy food
  • Perform better academically
  • Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
  • Have better relationships with their parents

This is important for all children, but it is especially helpful for children who may be experiencing developmental delays due to early childhood neglect and trauma. Dinner tends to be a favorite time of night for our kids in foster care. They love the predictability and togetherness of it.

There are other ways to empower kids at dinner time. Giving them each jobs to do, inviting their input on menu planning, respecting their choices about what and how much to eat, and avoiding power struggles around food all contribute to their sense of empowerment. We host a dinner party every Monday, which gives our kids opportunities to get to know other people in the context of hosting a meal. However you go about it, look for ways to connect with and empower your kids at dinnertime.

I promise, you’ll be so glad you did!

Image via Canva.com

5 Healthy Vegan Breakfasts Your Kids Will Love

Let me be clear right off the bat: my household is not vegan.

We have tried a few times, and will likely try again, but I have found it really hard to convert my family—myself included—to veganism. There are a number of reasons for this, which I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say, while we do still consume animal products, I am the first to say that I think a well-balanced, thoughtful vegan diet is the way to go.

Recently, I polled members of The Flourishing Foster Parent to see what topics they would like us to cover in upcoming coaching calls, and one request was from a couple who are vegan foster parents. They would like advice on how to feed children who come into their home via foster care without giving up their vegan values.

Honestly, this is a tough one. And if a child is in foster care, they are entitled to have food that is palatable to them—which, for many children, does not include almond milk and tofu.

While this blog post does not serve as my response to that couple’s question—I am actively looking for an expert (or at least experienced foster parent) who can speak into the specifics of their question—I did want to contribute a bit right now by sharing some meals we eat regularly that are nourishing, that our kids love, and that do not contain animal products.

If you have a favorite plant-based breakfast recipe, please share it in the comments below!

Kashi Waffles with Peanut Butter and Maple Syrup

What kid doesn’t like waffles? The trick is to get healthier version of waffles (or make them and keep them in your freezer).

Pictured above (I’m actually eating what you see there while typing this) is a simple, yummy breakfast with a good dose of fiber and protein—the two things I try hard to get into my kids’ bodies before sending them out the door to school. I really like these gluten-free vegan waffles from Kashi, which I discovered for $1.97/box at The Grocery Outlet (they are $3.50-3.99 in the regular grocery store). I started buying them there, then showed up one day and they were $.97/box! I bought the entire inventory (seventeen boxes) and now our extra freezer is stocked up for a bit. But you can make this so easily with any kind of vegan waffles you find.

Pop the waffles in the toaster. When they come, spread two tablespoons of peanut butter (or whatever kind of nut butter you use) and top with maple syrup. I also always try to put some fruit slices—apples or oranges—on the side to give a little burst of vitamin C as well.

Voila! Easy peasy, lemon squeezy—and so yummy and filling.

Oatmeal Cookie Smoothie

This Oatmeal Cookie Smoothie from The Kitschy Kitchen has been a favorite in our house since the first kids came to us in 2014. I can make a big batch in my Vitamix in minutes and each kid gets a delicious, filling dose of fiber, protein, and potassium—not to mention the fact that it tastes like chocolate!

I usually make some substitutions—for example, I use maple syrup or honey instead of agave nectar, and I will sometimes use soy milk instead of almond milk. I also usually use about half of the amount of cocoa powder called for, or I’ll use premade chocolate almond milk and skip the cocoa powder and syrup altogether (since the chocolate almond milk is already sweet). I also don’t always use frozen bananas—fresh ones work fine too, it’s just not as cold or thick. But this is the general recipe I follow—and my kids LOVE it.

Oatmeal with Maple Syrup

My kids don’t all love oatmeal, but the ones who do really love it. I don’t make it every day, but when I do, I usually add chia seeds while it’s cooking or sprinkle some on top to give it a little bit more goodness. Topped with maple syrup (or honey if you eat honey, which we do), this is a quick, simple, and really good-for-you breakfast. And did you know that, at 6g of protein per cooked cup, oatmeal is a higher-quality protein than many other grain-based foods? Now you do!

Toast, Fruit, and Yogurt

This is so simple and so quick. Whole grain bread, toasted and then topped with vegan butter and whole-fruit jam. Cut into squares on a plate with sliced fruit (I’ve never had a child who didn’t like at least one of the following: apples, bananas, and/or oranges) and a cup of plant-based yogurt. The vegan yogurt options have gotten really good in recent years—while my kids definitely prefer cow’s milk yogurt, they also like coconut-based vanilla yogurts, which are available at most grocery stores (though they are not cheap). I don’t give it to them in the container—I just put it in a bowl. That way, they are less likely to notice when it’s not the cow’s milk yogurt.

Vegan Breakfast Sausage on an English Muffin with Hash Browns

OK, this is not the healthiest option, but if you have a child who likes McDonalds’ breakfast, this might be a good substitute. There are delicious plant-based meat substitutes available in the frozen section of most grocery stores. Field Roast, Gardein, Morning Star Farms, and others offer both links and patties. Toast up an english muffin, warm up the vegan patties, and top with vegan cheddar (we like Daiya cheddar style slices) for a hearty and filling breakfast that rivals McDonald’s sausage McMuffin. For a true fast-food breakfast experience, buy frozen hash brown patties and put those on the plate too, and include a glass of OJ. Again, this is not your healthiest option, but if your kids are used to eating meat at breakfast, this might do the trick!

What do they drink?

Honestly, this is one of the hardest parts of getting my kids to go vegan. They all love cow’s milk, and there is no denying that it is good for them. I have tried to woo them with soy and almond and oat milks, to no avail. For vegan foster parents, this might have to be a point of compromise. The kids need calcium and vitamin D, and milk is a great source of both. We also give our kids water to drink at least one meal each day (usually dinner). They get milk at school with lunch, and usually want milk with breakfast.

That said, you never know! If you have a new child in your home who is willing to try soy or almond milk, give it a try! But be willing to let them have regular milk if that’s what they prefer. If you are concerned about it going bad, since the child is the only one eating it, consider getting smaller containers like these from Horizon.

Let me know if you try any of these! How did your kids like them? What are some of your go-to vegan breakfast favorites?

5 of My Favorite Easy Vegetarian Dinners

I’m a big believer in meal planning. It saves time, money, and—above all—my sanity when I’m trying to feed my family well in the midst of parenting four children in three different schools, running my own business, and being in grad school!

Having a few go-to meals that I can either prep ahead of time or whip up in a heartbeat are life savers during our family’s busiest seasons. Here are five of my favorite vegetarian options:

TACO BOWLS (VEGAN).

When I tell my kids we’re having taco bowls for dinner, they all erupt into a cheer. My family loooooooves taco bowls, and I love serving them! Here’s what’s involved:

  • Cooked rice (white or brown). I cook large batches of rice in my Instant Pot and freeze it in family sized portions—usually 6-8 cups cooked. It microwaves well and is ready in about ten minutes or so.
  • Tomatoes, chopped.
  • Lettuce, chopped.
  • Cilantro, chopped.
  • Avocado, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • Black beans or pinto beans. I cook large batches of beans in my Instant Pot and freeze them in family sized portions—usually 4-6 cups. I follow this recipe, which is delicious.
  • Shredded cheese (if you are vegan, Daiya makes a great cheddar flavored vegan “cheese.” I buy a lot of this when it’s on sale and keep it in the freezer.)
  • Taco sauce.
  • Meatless crumbles cooked with taco seasoning (optional).

Everyone gets a bowl with a scoop of rice. The rest of the ingredients are in bowls on the table. The kids love assembling their own taco bowls!

CHICKPEA STEW (VEGAN)

I can whip up this simple stew from the blog “Healthier Steps” in about ten or fifteen minutes. (I usually double the recipe for our family of six.) I also make large batches and freeze it, pull it out in the morning and it’s ready to heat up for dinner.

I serve it with quinoa, rice, or another grain (like farrow or barley), which I can cook pretty quickly in my Instant Pot or cook and freeze to thaw out in the morning with the stew.

My five-year-old daughter calls this her “Favorite Stew.”

VEGAN BURGERS WITH CORN ON THE COB

My favorite summer fare! We have some variation of this at least once a week when it’s corn season. I can make this meal in around thirty-five minutes or so. It’s a family favorite as well.

  • Meatless patties. We love these options from Simple Truth. I buy them on sale and keep them in the freezer. For a soy-free option, we sometimes use Carla Lee’s Nut Burgers. (Honestly, my kids are not as crazy about those, but if you need a soy-free option, that’s one to try. I’m sure there are others!)
  • Hamburger buns.
  • Corn on the cob with the husks on (one per person, or more if y’all love corn as much as we do!)
  • Watermelon, whole. You can save yourself even more time and effort by buying watermelon already sliced, but a) I’m too cheap for that, and b) it never tastes as fresh/good if it’s been pre-cut, IMO.

Turn oven to 350. Trim ends of corn husks and place them all directly on an oven rack. Set timer for 13 minutes.

Place meatless patties on baking sheet. When timer goes off, set it again for twenty minutes and place the patties in the oven with the corn.

Meanwhile, put the buns and condiments (ketchup, butter*, etc.) on the table. Slice your watermelon and put it on a platter or in a bowl on the table as well.

When the timer goes off, turn off the oven. Remove the corn and, wearing oven gloves to keep your hands from burning, remove the husks. Pull out the patties and place them either on a plate on the table, or you can plate the buns and patties individually.

BAKED PASTA (CAN BE VEGAN OR VEGETARIAN)

This is a great alternative to lasagne. It’s the same basic premise, but with a lot less work!

  • Cooked pasta (rigatoni works well, but any cooked pasta will do.)
  • Two regular jars or one large jar of marinara sauce of your choice.
  • Vegan meatballs. (I always have at least two bags of Gardein Classic Meatless Meatballs in my freezer.)
  • Ricotta cheese (if you’re not vegan)
  • Shredded cheese (asiago, parmesan, or mozzarella work best. If you are vegan, Daiya makes a decent mozzarella substitute.)
  • Optional veggies: mushrooms, peppers, zucchini, etc.

Turn oven on to 350. Place cooked pasta across bottom of a baking dish. Place vegan meatballs and any veggies you’re using across on top of the pasta. Place dollops of ricotta over the veggies/meatballs. Pour sauce over the whole dish, making sure to cover meatballs and veggies. Sprinkle shredded cheese over that and bake for about twenty minutes.

GRAIN BOWLS (VEGAN)

  • Cooked grain (rice, quinoa, farrow, barley)
  • Avocado
  • Sweet potato, baked in oven or microwave and then cut into bite-sized pieces
  • Black beans (canned or made in Instant Pot)
  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Other optional veggies: shredded cabbage (purple is my favorite), sprouts, steamed broccoli, spinach, sliced or shredded carrots, chopped bell peppers, black olives, artichoke hearts—the sky’s the limit!
  • Vegan Ranch Salad Dressing

This is such an easy and beautiful meal to throw together. It’s the same concept as Taco Bowls, but with different ingredients. Place 1/2 cup to 1 cup of a cooked grain into bowls. Place 1-2 T of avocado, 2-4 T of sweet potato, 1/2 cup of black beans, 1/2 cup of tomatoes, and any other veggies over the grain. Drizzle 1-2 T of ranch dressing over the whole thing. So simple, so nutritious, and so delicious!

These are simple, fast meals that I go to frequently during busy seasons of life. What are some of yours?