A couple months ago I shared some of the woes of feeding a picky toddler, as well as the lessons I've learned so far, and many of our readers shared their own stories of the challenges of feeding picky kids. There was some great advice in the comments, and two tips in particular really resonated with me; I was inspired to totally revamp how I plan meals for our family. I started planning all of our dinners around five specific templates designed to keep everyone in the family happy and well-fed. And you know what? It really helped.
The Comments That Inspired Me
Both of the comments that caught my attention talked about the importance of consistency and familiarity for children when it comes to eating. After years of only cooking for myself and my husband, I was used to choosing any type of food from any type of cuisine using any of the myriad of ingredients I was comfortable cooking with. Cooking for my son was a challenge in part because he would usually cry when he saw something new on his plate. I didn't want to revert to a bland, starchy diet just because that would be the easiest for him to eat. If parents around the world could get their kids to consistently eat foods that are more complex and challenging than the typical American kids' menu, why couldn't I?
Ah, but I was forgetting one important thing: As complex as those flavors may be, there is actually a lot of consistency from day to day when you mainly cook the food of one culture.
If you look at other cultures, though, families tend to eat the same few dishes day in and day out. Meals follow a predictable template, and there are no unpleasant surprises. French relatives would have a protein, veg, bread, a green salad, a milky dessert, and fruit. Every day. Chinese families have meat or fish, veg, and rice every evening. Iranian families I know eat kebab or a small number of stews, salad, and rice. Every. Single. Day. There is not so much emphasis on trying new things, exotica or global cuisine. I have said many times before, children are creatures of habit. Help them form those habits, and make mealtimes a source of comfort and familiarity.
I also realized that my son would eat more happily when I served him something his daycare included in their lunch rotation, an observation that one commenter shared — and then expanded on in an intriguing way.
I started copying the daycare method. They have a monthly meal plan and the kids get the same food every four weeks. This repetition works wonders. They taste everything (peer pressure takes care of that). And they eat almost everything, or find stuff in each meal they can eat because they know it's all they are getting. If my kid hated risotto at lunch, she made up her caloric intake with two fruit muffins at snack time.
So I made a month-long meal plan built around meal templates. Not the same as daycare. And it really, really helped. She doesn't care about variety. I try to incorporate one item in each meal that I know she'll eat, and go from there. It usually works, and when it doesn't, she has the option of eating cheese, bread, or just extra milk.
After reading these two comments, I suddenly remembered how, when I was a child, the worst answer to "What's for dinner?" was "It's something new, but you'll like it." I didn't want something new! It might taste bad, or feel terrible in my mouth, or look really gross. Why couldn't we just eat the same casserole or stir-fry I had eaten and loved hundreds of times before?
I realized had been eating as an adult for so long, I had forgotten what it felt like to eat as a kid.
The Plan: 5 Dinner Templates
Putting some constraints on my weekly meal plan might help us all, I figured. I would still have the space to incorporate recipes or ingredients that interested me, while my son would have the familiar framework of the template to reassure him. So I sat down and came up with five meal templates, each one including at least one filling component that my son typically likes and all of them broad enough to let my husband and I have some variety. Here's what works for us.
- Meatballs with roasted vegetables
- Noodles with protein and vegetables
- Frittata with salad and bread
- Seafood or bean burgers and vegetable side
- Soup or stew and bread
Of course, this plan is quite personal, tailored to our family's likes and dislikes — my husband and I like a lot of vegetables, we all love eggs and salmon, and my son hates cheese and rice — and the limits of my son's eating abilities — namely, his lack of a full set of teeth. But despite its limitations, I've been surprised at how flexible this plan can be. Here's what a typical week of dinners might look like.
- Best-Ever Beet and Bean Burgers (I make a way simplified version — not as good as the original, but less time-intensive)
- Sliced Avocado
- Garlicky Roasted Broccoli
- Easy Turkey Chili with Kale
It's also important to note that on any given day, my son will only reliably eat one of the items on the menu, so just because I serve him roasted broccoli, that doesn't mean he would ever put a piece of broccoli anywhere near his mouth — yet!
So How Is It Going?
We have been following these five templates for about two months and, while my son is still very particular about what he eats, dinnertime is much less stressful than it used to be. We don't have the meltdowns and tears at mealtime that we used to, and we are all happier when we sit down for dinner. The adults at the table are still getting to enjoy a variety of foods, but there is always at least one substantial part of the meal that the toddler will eat as well — and sometimes he totally surprises me by trying and enjoying something on his plate that I thought he would ignore. (Roasted parsnips were the last big shocker.)
Of course, some of these changes could be credited to time — he is getting more mature, and I am getting more confident in making meals that satisfy the tastes of the whole family — but having a predictable plan for putting dinners on the table that are toddler-friendly without being boring has certainly made meal planning and cooking easier for me. And I think it has made dinnertime easier for my son as well. After two months of seeing the same types of meals, he now recognizes what I am cooking when he wanders into the kitchen before dinner and gets excited about what he knows he likes to eat, rather than upset about the foods he isn't sure about.
No, this plan hasn't transformed him into an adventurous vegetable-lover, but it has created a level of trust between us when it comes to mealtime. He trusts that he won't sit down to a worrisome array of completely unknown foods, and I trust that he will try a new food when he is ready for it — so until then, it is fine for him to ignore it completely. I hope someday we'll happily chow down on a big plate of roasted broccoli together. Until then, I'll settle for just happily being together at dinnertime.
Do you use meal templates to plan dinners in your household?