Do your children eat all their dinner each night?
Do they happily devour whatever you cook for them without complaint?
Does your family compliment you on the time, effort and culinary skills you used in preparing yet another delicious and nutritious meal?
Maybe, I had a dream like this once, because this is certainly Not what happens in my house. Dinner time does not have to be so complicated!
Out of frustration, I constantly rack my brains and the internet for ideas that are healthy and easy to make but most importantly, meals that will please six hungry people with picky appetites! My kids want to eat foods that they like, that are ready to eat quickly which are mostly starches and meats. As teenagers, this is not a long list.
As an adult, I prefer lots of fresh vegetables, lean meats and minimal starches, I don’t want to eat kiddie foods. My husband prefers meats and whole foods but will usually devour anything and everything available. Over time, I have been able to create some meals that offer a variety of choices for my family but don’t have me prepping and cooking for hours to make each meal.
Dinner Foods with Choices
When I get home from work, one of the first questions is always, What’s for dinner? I often cringe at this greeting. Somehow when I was at work, I forgot to spend time planning what to make for dinner and shop for it on the way home. While I like to try new recipes and experiment with new foods and flavors, my children are much less than excited about that. I find dinner to be a constant challenge of what to make that will keep all six people satisfied. Very few dinners that I was making would be eaten by each person. I don’t have the time or energy to make six different dinners each night but I have been trying with some success to work around this dinner issue.
Three Basic Foods
My new food approach is to cook 2-3 main foods and then my family can top, dress, compliment, add and flavor their foods any way they like. In general, I cook a meat, starch and vegetable and my family creates their own meal from there. Certain dinner foods work well with this method as I have outlined below. I also cook at least twice as much as we need so that we always have some leftovers. I may only cook vegetables twice a week but I make plenty extra to use over the next few days. I make a point to keep my vegetables far away from the other food so “nothing touches”. Goodness knows, we don’t want to contaminate a food by allowing a vegetable to touch it!! Some nights, my table or kitchen counter looks a bit like a salad bar at a restaurant, but as long as they eat real food, I’m happy. What is starting happen is my kids are seeing, smelling and finally tasting some new foods!
Pasta is obviously one of the easiest foods to work with since it is so versatile.
Years ago, when I cooked pasta, I would leave one bowl of plain pasta on the side. Now, I do exactly the opposite. I leave all the pasta plain and just make my own favorite in a pot. Not only does pasta come in endless shapes and sizes, we also have flavors to like spinach, tomato or whole wheat, not that my kids would ever touch those.
Pasta Sauces I keep several types of jar sauce on hand including marinara, a la vodka, pesto, sun dried tomato, diced tomatoes and a re-sealable box of chicken stock. This way I cook one type of pasta but my family can choose which type of sauce or flavor they like. Aside from the sauces we have garlic and oil, butter and cheese or just plain with nothing at all. I know how to make my own sauce but there is rarely time on weeknights for real cooking in my house.
Pasta Toppings I like to add grilled chicken and vegetables of any kind to my pasta. Other pasta bar topping we use include ground chicken, sausage, grilled salmon, beans, goat cheese, sautéed spinach, peas and more. A huge tray of baked ziti with garlic bread is one of the few dinners that everyone will eat without complaint.
Rice White rice, brown rice or the current favorite in our house is homemade fried rice. At a restaurant, my kids eat the rice the way it is served. At home, of course, they are picky! Fried rice is one of the foods we all we all like it but we all eat it differently. The kids like when I make fried rice at home but they like it very plain. They only want egg and onion added. Since this isn’t really enough to consider a well rounded dinner, we add to it. I have diced sautéed carrots and peas on the side along with grilled chicken, plain or Teriyaki.
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Soups I make a very basic soup with pasta and onions along with the chicken. On the side, I have steamed carrots, peas, beans and more to add to the soup. Everyone gets a dinner they like and I don’t have to watch my son pick out peas and carrots one at a time. Other favorite soups in our house include potato soup and Avgolemono, Greek chicken, lemon soup.
Chicken & Steak Chicken is always an easy economical meal but I also like all the choices it offers. We enjoy grilled chicken, breaded cutlets, fried chicken legs and whole roasted chickens. We also often eat ground chicken, which in my house is known as curly chicken. I can cook three pounds of ground chicken and use it to mix with rice, pasta, vegetable, sauce or any combination. Now that I have teens my children are more interested in steak so this has finally become a dinner choice. London broil and skirt steak were usually our favorites but recently, they have discovered filet mignon. Delicious but certainly not on the menu each week!
Baked Potato Lately, baked potato has become an easy dinner addition. I bake several at a time and again, we eat them differently. I prefer the potato skin while my kids like mashed potatoes. They get the scooped out middle that I have mashed for them and I get the crispy skins that I like. If there are leftovers, we turn them into home fries with lots of bacon and onion.
Smorgasbord When I cook extra food for intentional leftovers, we sometimes fill up the whole fridge with containers. So about once a week we have a clean out the refrigerator night that I like to call, a smorgasbord dinner. This means I take every leftover container out of the fridge, pops the lids off and everyone finds something they like for dinner. Oddly, this works fairly well since my kids are used to it. No one really remembers what they ate a day or two ago and they use a few leftovers to create a new meal.
Ice cream We often have a build your own sundae night. Of course, we all like different ice creams flavors and toppings. I don’t think we have too many arguments about building their own sundae!!
Since I was a picky eater as a child, I am definitely more lenient with my children as far as food. No, I don’t make them sit at the table until their plate is clean, that doesn’t work. I’m often too lenient, sometimes I’m not sure what they have eaten for dinner. But they are all teens, one less than nutritious meal won’t spoil everything. If I know they didn’t eat an overly healthy dinner, I try to catch them up with some healthier food the next day.
Other Easy Meals with Choices
Tacos Since the taco fillings allow you to create your own, freedom of expression is easy. We buy both hard and soft taco shells to add to the available choices. I include as many toppings as possible to keep everyone happy. When I do clean up the leftovers, I make taco salads that are ready to bring to work the next day.
Hamburgers & Hot Dogs We love grilling in the nice weather and this is an easy dinner to make when you have extra kids for dinner time. The base meal is easy and whatever you choose to top it with is up to you. Cheese, relish, pizza burger, avocado, lettuce, tomato, sautéed mushrooms, onion, anything goes! I now keep chicken burgers and veggie burgers in stock as well. Sliders are also fun since they are small and you can top several of them differently. Beware of the sliders like the ones pictured above – they came from the bakery section!
Salad At present we only have 3 of 6 salad eaters in our house. I like to build the base salad with or without dressing depending on the type. Then we have a few choices of toppings to add on if desired. Cranberries, sunflowers, goat cheese and walnuts are some of my favorites but not everyone has the same tastes. When I go through the trouble to make a nice salad, I hate to see it wasted. Before we even eat, I often pack up two lunch salads without the dressing so they are ready for work the next day.
Humans like to have choices; they don’t like being forced into things. Kids are most certainly included in this, they don’t want to be forced into eating foods they don’t like. I hated when I was supposed to sit at the table and finish all of my dinner.
My siblings know that I was often the last one left sitting at the table. My brother, always a teaser, loved wiping the table around me. Next he turned off the light while I sat there trying to figure out a new method to make my food vanish (having a dog was helpful).
I have tried the take it or leave it method if my kids don’t like dinner. They decide to “leave it” and say they ate enough or aren’t hungry. Later, after I go to bed, they have ice cream, chips, cereal or some other not exactly dinner food.
Keeping your family healthy is number one, less struggles at the dinner table can certainly keep everyone happier. How do you keep your picky eater happy?