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The Real Way To Cook For A House Of Picky Eaters

It’s okay to be a short order cook for your family sometimes.

My household consists of me, a single parent, and my two kids, both of whom are beyond picky eaters. I myself have been known to have a sensory-based aversion or two. There is a lot of discourse on picky eating and how to "solve" it, but for parents of kids like mine, much of the psychology simply doesn't work, leading to dinnertime tantrums and hangry children. I'm a decade into this whole parenting gig, and this is how I cook for my family.

Delight in the mundane

Meals my younger kid eats at breakfast include plain cheerios with or without milk, oatmeal with peanut butter, and waffles (Eggos only). For lunch and dinner he will accept anything from the breakfast menu, or will do an entree-sized bowl of yogurt, a white bread sunbutter sandwich or Uncrustable, several cheeses, or dino nuggets. He will eat broccoli and several fruits, along with a rotating list of cracker-based products. He likes some desserts. He drinks water. End of list.


Yes, we do "tester bites" or "no thank you bites," whatever you want to call them. Yes, we've seen an occupational therapist. However, to keep him going every day, my grocery list contains those aforementioned items every time. I personally eat the same breakfast (oatmeal with peanut butter) nearly every day. I feel great afterward, and I see no need to "mix it up." So, while you can build your kids' repertoire as much as possible by switching up dinner every night, I see no harm in repeating the same consistent, and therefore reliable, foods. Better fed than not.

It’s not what you cook, but how you think

No recipes will be distributed here. If I've learned anything from every single recipe I've tried, it's that from one kid to the next, from one day to the next, nothing will be a surefire hit. I used to keep a spreadsheet of the foods my kids currently eat, but it grew depressing because there was very little overlap between kids and they kept dropping and adding foods faster than I could update it.


Instead of changing how I cook, I changed how I think. Food is food, their doctors and therapists have told me. I've read up on Intuitive Eating for myself and the kids. We eat dinner together, kinda, in that we are in the same room and some of us are eating, but one kid needs a full meal right after school, another won't be hungry until five or six, and I would prefer a later light dinner but often adjust for the team.

There are other ways I could approach mealtimes with my kids. "I'm not a short order cook!" I could tell them when they request something specific, or I could insist that they "Join the clean plate club!" or make them sit at the table until they'd satisfied my expectations based on some metric or other ("three more bites," etc.). These tactics would almost certainly cause them to cry, go hungry, or throw up.


I'm not exaggerating. You might now say, "When they're really hungry, they will eat what you cook." They will not. You might give me some cooking tips or tell me to get them in on the "fun" of food prep. I'm good. Frustrated, you might think that surely there must be some way to bring any family's meals into alignment.

But I would suggest thinking about all the various stressors that occur throughout the day: work, chores, personal life matters, and parenting. Do you need to fight another parenting battle at the end of the day, every day? Besides, kids have quite a few stressors, too. Do you remember being a little kid and thinking you might die if you had to eat lima beans or whatever? If you can let it go, at least some of the time, I recommend that you do. We frequently have "tester bite dinner," where I give the kids a little of everything I've made for myself alongside their preferred foods. They mostly hate it, but it's not every day. It's just a gentle stretching of their limits.

Feed yourself, too

Bringing myself to cook and eat in a way that makes me feel good has been a constant struggle. I'm tired at the end of a long work and/or parenting day, and preparing a meal just for myself feels pointless when there's string cheese and popcorn to be found. I've raved about how life-changing grilling has been for my overall nutrition, but when I don't want to stand outside for any period of time, I've come up with a few tricks.


I keep some fast-ish stovetop recipes in my back pocket that approximate the success of my summertime grilling adventures; I portion out what would feed a family of four into storage containers and then eat them throughout the week until I never want to see another forkful of chicken again. Souper Cubes have been a game changer for these freezer meals. Previously I had been freezing meals in bigger batches and then feeling stressed about eating it all within 24 hours of defrosting, or I'd freeze individual portions in glass containers and promptly drop them on the floor (which might be more of a "me" problem). But the silicone Cubes make it easier to freeze and cook single or smaller portions.


The second trick is, of course, Trader Joe's.

In letting go of trying to make a meal that everyone at the table will eat, I've opened up recipe options for myself. My kids will never eat curry, so they can eat nuggies, steamed broccoli, and white rice while I enjoy a more complex meal. I keep hoping they'll ask to try my food unprompted, but even if they never do, at least we're all eating something we feel good about.