You're doing a great thing, but it's tough - we struggle with one of ours in particular. I think having 5 kiddos would multiply the frustration at waste of time and effort enormously.
ITA on your idea of bringing dinner forward. Mine get a small snack on school pick up to walk home with (so, 3-3.30pm) then have to go hungry until dinner at 5.30pm. If they are starving, they get raw veges and some ham or cheese. If I am making something I'm pretty sure they will turn their noses up at, I will do a large platter of raw veges, ham, maybe some seeds etc. Also are you trying to prepare 'interesting' meals or just meat and veg? A friend gave me her take on food preparation for kids - there is an inverse relationship between how long you spend preparing the meal and the likelihood of them eating it. KISS principle. So while it is a little dull for us ATM, we do lots of meat and veg variations.
Mine also have a grab bag of minor sensory issues, neither ate any 'baby mush' - so we did baby led introduction to food before I'd ever heard of it. They also have a strong aversion to pumpkin and sweet potatoes (they both got this as a first mush food which was strongly rejected and, we think, imprinted on their psyches for all time!!). So don't rule this our either.
In our house, letting kids go to bed hungry is not an option (6 and 3yrs), because they have my metabolism and wake in the night with hunger pains and come downstairs. No 1 is particularly bad and her mood in the morning can just flip to ogre once those blood sugars get critical (which means I struggle to get her off to school coz her mood is set to 'bad').
Do you serve up their plates or let them serve themselves? I find mine will tend to try more if they get to select it themselves. Not as much as I would serve them - but self regulating their appetites is important to me (having had "clean the plate" drummed into me as a kid). Mine eat 1 piece of fruit after dinner - its not a 'reward' but if they are 'not hungry' they don't get it. Saw something on a kid's show they other day about having a "no thank you portion", where you have a taste and say 'no thank you' to the rest. I have been able to use this to my advantage!
I also wonder if it has become an 'issue' beyond the actual food. This can happen, esp w some personalities (like my no 1 and then the little one decided she could do it too!). This is where the self serve option is good. As MOTH (man of the house), you explain (not at the dinner table, some other time) that your job as parents is to provide nutritious food to ensure they have long and healthy lives (blah, blah). Then set the expectation that they will respect the effort that your wife has made to prepare the meal by trying a little of everything. Every time. No arguments or discussion at the table. No faces or disparaging comments about food. If they are not going to comply they need to sit quietly (I find if one complains it can be really off putting for the other) until it is time to leave the table. The last thing you want is your family table (an important bonding ritual) to be turned into a power struggle, so take the focus off the food and put it back on the family and ritual (I'm not religious, but showing appreciation for plentiful food is nice). My kids are well versed in nutritional info (we have eaten organic whole foods their entire lives) and often notice/comment on foods which provides me with further opportunity to educate them (just not at the table).
As far as replacing the sit down meal, I would say no. It has been shown (sorry, no links to hand, Australian research I think, need to access the filing system in my head for the source!) that families who sit down to a meal together have lower incidences of many social ills (teen drug use, promiscuity etc).
Anyway, know that you are not alone, that it is baby steps and you are giving your kids the gift of a long and healthy life (they will probably eat McD's 24/7 the first year they leave home, then revert to the default setting - your lessons in nutrition).
Good luck and keep us posted.
And ... my condolences. Divorce sucks, even when it's the right thing to do. Best of luck to you ...
We got rid of all non primal food in the house. It took some some time for them to adjust and there was some fight back, but when there is nothing else to eat the kids will eat. The benefits of my kids eating primal are as follows:
No more asthma, improved mood, better focus at school-my daughter has a special teacher that comes and reads with her she is so advanced in reading, no snacking, no tantrums, more affectionate, and an overall two happier kids. The transition for me was probably a bit easier as both my kids have celiac disease. I do allow them to have a good amount of fruit and nuts that I do not eat myself and now fruit is the bees knees. They love what other kids will dismiss. It is not easy, but it is not just for you. Your kids will benefit so much from the great choice you've made. Keep it up and you are doing the best for them.
I feel the same way about Sarah Fragoso's book, when she says her kids "gobble up" all the delicious meals she makes for them, I just want to throw the book out the window! I mean good for her, but my kids sure don't love the food like hers do. I have not been successful at 100% primal meals with my kids, and I do cook potatoes and rice and bread for them. My compromise is that I prepare everything from scratch so that I know they're getting only good fats and none of the horrible preservatives and PUFA laden crap. Here are some meals that have worked for us:
Everyday Paleo meatballs and sauce over approximately 1/4 cup rice spaghetti (found at Whole Foods, can't taste the difference from regular spag.)
Chili- with lots of GF beef, beans, peppers, onions, garlic
ChocoTaco's chili/garlic sauce chicken sauteed in coconut oil
Fried pork chops
Homemade potato fries tossed in paprika, salt, chili powder and onion powder
Steamed brocolli and carrots
Curried chicken over small quantities of white rice
I make my own bread, and they still take almond butter sandwiches to school. I also pack pepperoni sticks, cheese sticks and lots of fruit.
I make fruit smoothies every night (they used to drink juice): 1 banana, whole cream, whole milk, whole fat Greek yogurt, frozen blueberries
They have a choice of chicken nuggets or eggs for breakfast. After they've eaten that, they can have cereal with milk if they'd like. 5 out of 7 days they're too full for cereal.
Good luck, this has been really hard, but we've been making micro-progress.