How do you cook for your family?
June 5, 2019 3:35 AM   Subscribe

I know this may count as a google-able question, but I cannot read another family blog that begins with a story of giving their dog a bath or the crazy thing that happened to them at the supermarket. I need to figure out how best to do dinner for my family with some complications. Please help!

I'd love to hear how you've solved the dinnertime issue. Do you do meal plans? Meal schedule? I have not been able to ever commit to anything. Complicating factors:

1. One child does not do dairy (aggravates eczema).
2. I am a mostly pescatarian, but OK to cook meat, especially since I find it hard for child 1 to get protein without dairy.
3. Kids are a bit picky, especially Child 1. I know people say, just put food out there they will learn to eat it, but Child 1 is also underweight, and simply will not eat dinner sometimes if it's not something appetizing. What is appetizing? I have no idea -- that is the problem. Pasta and pizza always go down well -- sometimes a prawn stir fry is yummy, sometimes it goes untouched.
4. Like everyone else, short on time; also a bit short on money.
5. Willing to purchase some equipment to make this easier.
6. HATE TO CLEAN. We have a dishwasher but I even hate loading and unloading it. Fewer pots is better.
7. Also hate grocery shopping, though where we live (in the UK) has excellent grocery delivery services, but means I have to plan in advance.
8. Leftovers for lunch the next day VERY WELCOME.

Every night, we look at each other and are like, what's for dinner? I want this to end, please. Thank you!
posted by heavenknows to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes, you can just feed your kids chicken nuggets and cut up veggies with a dip. Or burger with a dip. Or premade squash ravioli. And then make a large batch of vegan something for you to eat and have for lunch a couple days. My kid is also skinny and into novelty. So mixing up the veggies and relying on frozen semihealthy options a few times a week keeps him fed. I am not winning an award for best mom ever doing this, but my child is healthy, I still have my job, and I still have some of my sanity.
posted by Kalmya at 3:56 AM on June 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Hi---ok, here's how I think about it:
I shop 1-2 times per week. Each shop, I try to focus on buying a protein and a veg for each dinner. I do roughly meal plan to have a sense of what I'm going to do with them. I also try to have some dinner elements that feel familiar and will be liked, and some that are going to be more adventurous, with some degree of optionality. So, some examples from our meals that *might* work for you:
- A bean based soup. Protein is the beans, soup has veggies, I'd throw tomatoes and pasta in to make it feel like pizza in soup form. Cheese is optional.
- BBQ tofu/broccoli sheet pan dinner served over rice.
- Egg frittata with veggies (cheese optional)
- Curried tuna salad sandwiches (cheese optional).
- Bibimbop bowls with lots of veggies, tofu, and egg, over rice.
posted by papergirl at 4:00 AM on June 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a lactose intolerant child and a low-carb diet MIL and I am vegan before 6 and I feel your pain. What works best for me (right now) is either what I call a meal pattern or a three week meal plan.

A meal pattern for dinners goes like this:
Sunday roast two chickens, roast a pile of veggies, cook rice
Monday - fried rice for some, chicken over salad for keto lover (could be rice/kale bowls)
Tuesday - slow cooker day, make a large (Instant) pot. Also make breadmaker bread. Low carbs have soup/salad, kids have soup/salad/bread. Examples of soup are butternut squash, pea soup, etc.
Wednesday- we have a crustless quiche, more salads
Thursday - assorted leftovers
Friday - fish and veggies - almond-crusted etc
Saturday - new recipe day, this week it was zucchini/pea/mint fritters

Obviously yours will have pasta and pizza (we used to have Friday make your own pizza using the breadmaker for dough), but a routine cuts down on the thinking.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:11 AM on June 5, 2019 [7 favorites]

I too got sick of this so spent an afternoon making a very simple A4 overview of all the dinners we eat, with all of their ingredients as tick boxes, and the per-meal cost. (Ours is based on two adults eating, yours would obviously be different.) I stand in the kitchen with a print out once a week, pick 7 meals, and check for what we have vs what we need. I then do a Tesco order.

My favourite time saver is frozen chopped onions and frozen chopped garlic. Cheap and MAGIC.

(My spouse is a very picky eater, these are the only meals and only vegetables he'll eat.)
posted by DarlingBri at 4:13 AM on June 5, 2019 [27 favorites]

When my kids were little, I was a big fan of casseroles. Here's one for a dairy-free tuna noodle casserole:

I also made one from leftover chicken, you can use rotisserie chicken, which was a layer of rice, a layer of chicken, a layer of canned chicken gravy, then repeat, and put breadcrumbs moistened with olive oil or margarine on top, bake until bubbly, about 25-30 minutes. Kids loved this!

Sometimes we'd make homemade pizza, using a pre-made crust, and I could do one portion for Very Picky Kid with plain tomato sauce and cheese, the other half stuff the adults liked.

My daughter was very fond of plain white fish, pan fried with a bit of oil, and sprinkled with lemon pepper seasoning (somehow the lemon pepper made it special). You can serve frozen microwaved veggies on the side, and get those microwave packs of rice (check the labels, some have very little sodium, some have huge amounts), or instant mashed potatoes, or microwaved potatoes, or oven fries from frozen. If you need bigger quantities of rice, make a big batch on Sundays and refrigerate it, and reheat with a bit of water in the microwave (make sure it's wrapped well in the fridge, as it can dry out).

BTW, I started doing dishes when I was 8 years old. My parents put a stool in front of the sink, and a quarter on top of the refrigerator. When I was done, I would get the quarter and race up to the store to by penny candy. I was also in charge of dusting furniture and matching socks at laundry time. I still hate doing dishes, but at least I have experience.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:44 AM on June 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

I hate grocery shopping too and once I had a kid I knew something had to change. I hadn’t used Ocado before. Game changer. There should be coupons around for a year of free delivery and 25-40 pounds off your first few orders. The app is easy to use, the selection is great, deals are good and it’s just a pleasure to use (this is form someone who hated online shopping with Sainsbury’s/Tesco etc).

I can’t help you with the what to cook, but I figured out about 15 meals that are doable, add them individually as lists of ingredients to Ocado plus a stabiles/basics list, and every 1-2 weeks I add 8 meals to my cart plus the basics and I’m pretty much done. I also add things to my cart as I think of them in between orders so when I get around to making the order I’m less likely to forget stuff.

So I can’t help with the actual meal ideas (my go tos are super basic like spag Bol, pulled pork, chilli con carne, chicken and chips, etc). I did get a lot of my recipes from a baby led weaning cookbook which means they are more kid-friendly.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 5:04 AM on June 5, 2019

On Saturday or Sunday we plan out the week and make sure we have what we need. We put the meals in a google calendar.
We try to have something new to expand kid palates every other week or so.
posted by k8t at 5:06 AM on June 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not an overall approach but handy when looking for ideas: Chrome Recipe Filter. Cuts the bloat from recipe blogs.
posted by look busy at 5:12 AM on June 5, 2019 [7 favorites]

I am not ashamed of sandwiches. We eat a lot of sandwiches in the summer. Or wraps. Or tacos/burritos/gyros--whatever you want to call them, everyone picks their contents. We will eat this two or three times a week; you can do a lot of prep ahead of time. Chopping is a pain but it's most of the work.

So one day it's sandwich meat and sliced bread with lettuce and tomatoes, and another day it's diced cucumber tomato, feta and hummus with pita. Then maybe tortilla with refried beans, sauteed onions, shredded chicken for the meat-eaters, salsa and avocado. I buy as much prepared/sliced ahead of time, but dicing is a thing. This is at least twice a week in summer.

If I were you I'd probably also do a lot of breakfast for dinner. Eggs are a great protein, you can scramble all kinds of things into them, and pancakes are a crowd-pleaser (we eat a lot of leftover pancakes).

I try to have planned two or three meals out, and I like to have emergency meal ideas for when no one has the energy. Fishsticks with microwave frozen veggies are a good one there--we get both heavy breaded and fancy frozen fish so everyone has something they enjoy.

I know your pain, and we eat a lot of takeout, but these are some of the stopgaps that have gotten us through.

(Oh, one more idea for the summer: pasta salads with lots of veggies can include chickpeas or white beans for protein. And of course all this will depend on the relative pickiness of your clientele. Good luck!)
posted by gideonfrog at 5:19 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Nobody's said this flat-out yet, but the cost of cooking for picky eaters with dietary constraints is you cook and eat the same few things over and over. This can be frustrating if you like variety. I deal with this with adult family members, not small children, so there's a bit more room for negotiation. But even still, I try to limit myself to one interesting meal a week, and make the rest from things that I know have gone over well in the past. I have a list now of dinners that my whole house will eat, and it's not a long list, but I rotate through it and put up with the boredom of cooking this way and it's fine.

It's also good to find one or two convenience foods or minimal-effort foods that everyone likes. In my house, it's a particular kind of frozen vegetable ravioli, and tiny pasta shapes cooked with canned beans and canned tomato. Yours might need to be even more simple and kid-friendly than those. The point is, if you have something you can make from the cupboard and freezer, ideally in a single pot, then you can get way more relaxed about groceries and dishes because you know you have a no-shopping-dirty-kitchen backup plan.

And yeah, like everyone else is saying, it's okay to go way low-prestige. Scrambled eggs and toast is dinner. Veggie sausage heated up with whatever frozen vegetable goes over well is dinner. If Chef Boyardee is what they'll eat, Chef Boyardee for them and your favorite quick lunch food for you is dinner.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:29 AM on June 5, 2019 [9 favorites]

I menu plan. It's the only way I can go to the grocery store without picking up random things that end up going bad because I don't know what to do with it, which is a waste of money. In conjunction with that, I have a recipe binder. Every time I use a recipe, I photocopy it or print it out, and I put it in the binder and write notes: "Child #1 gobbled this up; Child #2 picked out the mushrooms" I also note the date that I used a recipe so I try not to re-use it so often that family gets bored with it. The notes help me modify a recipe to be more appetizing. I make notes about any ingredient substitutions, how easy or hard the recipe is to make, etc. This binder has gotten larger as time goes on and and is the thing I refer to when I am menu-planning, because it is my own personal collection of recipes that have worked for my family. It doesn't solve the problem of the kids doing the "I gobbled this two weeks ago but now it's gross and I won't touch it" thing but it makes me feel like I can attempt to predict the outcome.

The other strategy I used to do when the kids were little was to always cook at least one sure bet. So if I am serving a dubious meat which I am not sure the kids will eat, I made sure to cook buttered noodle with it, since they nearly always ate buttered noodles. Between the main dish, the starch, and the vegetable, I just made sure one of them was a "sure bet" so they didn't walk away from the table empty.
posted by molasses at 6:03 AM on June 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

I have a very picky son, too (and he doesn't eat much). One of our most reliable meals for him is french toast. Yeah it's a breakfast thing but- it's quick and easy to make and something I can make in addition to what everyone else is eating. I can soak 3 eggs into 2 pieces of whole wheat and he'll eat the whole thing (you have to let it soak for a minute). That's 18 grams of protein and with some butter and some real maple syrup about 600-650 calories.
Even when he's not in the mood to eat -french toast is just an easy comfort food so I always have success.
posted by beccaj at 6:16 AM on June 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

We menu plan, but having categories for each evening makes it easier to figure out (ie Pasta Monday could be pesto, red sauce, ravioli, etc, Taco Tuesday could be fish tacos, black bean and sweet potato or lentil and cauliflower).
That said, with two smallish kids, we are very repetitive in our meal selections and everything has to be done in 20 minutes.
I'm not opposed to random sides like tacos with brussels sprouts, it's just about getting an extra veg on the table.
Sandwiches, fritatas and quesadillas are always options as well. Sheet pan meals are super nice because the cleanup is fast. If you want me to share our super boring, mostly vegetarian meal plan, send me a message.
posted by avocado_of_merriment at 6:23 AM on June 5, 2019

Some tips and tricks for making cooking for family easier.

Definitely meal plan. It makes shopping so much easier if you know what you're there for.

Stock up a pantry with essentials and easy stuff. Really sometimes it's just too much of a bother and you want to be able to open a jar of tomato sauce or make tuna sandwiches and it's helpful to have that stuff at the ready.

Stock up pantry with some essential flavorings and spices. I always have some soy sauce, sesame oil, mirin, and rice vinegar on hand so I can whip up a quick stir fry. Make sure you have some good spices - paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, poultry seasoning, a spice rub or two.

KISS - Keep-It-Simple-Silly(Stupid). You don't have to be Julia Child to put a perfectly nice dinner on the table. Toss some chicken pieces in spices (or no spices for the picky eater), throw them in the oven and roast. Add some potatoes, carrots, other root veggies. Steam a little broccoli or saute some greens and dinner is done. Do the same with fish or sausages.

Stock up your freezer with some easy protein - fish fillets, fish sticks, chicken thighs, chicken nuggets and sausages.

I also like to cook something that can be eaten for a few days so I'm not cooking every single night - a stew, a curry, a pot of chili, many roasted chicken pieces. The small, picky, person doesn't like leftovers and he has hot dogs or chicken nuggets with veggies in those instances, but the grown-ups get to eat something more interesting.

A slow cooker is great. I know people who love their Instant Pot. Sheet pans for roasting veggies and meet. Parchment paper, so you can line the sheet pans and they require less cleaning. Digital meat thermometer. One good saute pan. A couple of good non-stick pans.
posted by brookeb at 6:24 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've given up doing any sort of variety, upon recalling (during a discussion here in fact) that my beloved grandmother had 4-5 staple meals she offered and we loved them and enjoyed the familiarity.

This makes shopping very easy. I don't need to write up lists (I go by rote memory now); and I can be flexible about situations that come up. It also largely eliminates the unpleasantness of dealing with my picky eater: she does better with familiar offerings overall. The meal staples are all simple foods made with ingredients that can stay in the fridge a few days so I don't have to have my precise schedule followed. Shopping's pretty automatic. I always have more or less the same stuff in the fridge.

In addition to meal offerings I also make a couple of staple things that I keep in the fridge for light meal/heavy snacks all week. (Spinach+feta frittata; meatballs.) Plus plenty of fruit and veg that can be served raw. So if a day gets away from me, even if the plan had been to do something else, I can always throw down a plate of, like, meatballs and cherry tomatoes and cut up watermelon, and everyone is still happy.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:44 AM on June 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

First thing I would do is try to figure out why the picky one is picky. There are a gamut of possibilites including texture sensitivity and digestive issues, and even sensory overload, so that sometimes they are too overwhelmed to eat no matter what you serve. And some of it may be habit, of course. If you can come up with three or four other meals that Child 1 will eat you will have a good start on the problem and more variety for the rest of you.

Dunno how old Child 1 is, but if they are verbal and self aware enough try to get the silly, special snowflake information out of them that they may be reluctant to disclose because they fear being disparaged. She doesn't eat peppers because peppers are: Bitter, slimy, crunchy, bright, etc. Look for patterns like the only carbs she eats are either slathered in grease or sugar, or perhaps are crisp and dry.

Also check for habits like dinner occurring just when she has gone into an energy crash, or the usual drink of pop after school has sufficiently filled the child's stomach so that she really does not need any more calories just at dinner time soon after and can't do it. Figure out of she has slow digestion. If it takes days for food to get through her system it needs to be looked at closely as it could be an early manifestation of Crohn's. Also check the possibility that anxiety is shutting down the child's digestive system and appetite. See if you can get the kid more active if they are sedentary as that can increase the appetite and reduce anxiety.

Another possibility can be that your kids hate meals because it means leaving their friends on social media or putting up with you in a tense state and their sibling whining, or not getting to eat until they are so hungry they are cranky. If those are problems telling them it sucks to be you is not going to make the problem go away, but you can tinker with scheduling and rules to change the situation.

See if you can get Child 1 to eat different meals with their friends or cohort from school. If the kids they like are enthusiastic about Thai food or demonstrate that fried eggs on toast are their go to, and the picky eater finds this out, your kid may start going through two dozen eggs a week, or plead that you always have previously frozen stir fry vegetables poured over fish with bottled Thai sauce at least once a week

I would work on figuring out some staples that would increase the nutrition value of what Child 1 is eating. I had a breakfast biscuit recipe that incorporated generous quantities of cheese, egg and zucchini into the biscuit while still retaining the fluffy white biscuit texture. Trying to find recipes like that could get you a few staples and ensure that kiddo is getting as much value from their food as possible. Work on increasing protein using bean flours and eggs in baked carbs if you bake. If you don't bake, good luck checking out your grocery stores for non sweetened carbs that are not over processed - you might find some things like kugels if you live in an ethnic neighbourhood.

I would move to a buffet style dinner as much as possible and increase variety by incorporating more choice. If you use a divided dish you can heat up two different food items at once. Other items such as applesauce do not have to be heated, but can increase the amount of food at the table. If each family member objects to a different ingredient in the spaghetti sauce, serve the ingredients separately. So for example, plain tomato sauce, grated cheese, minced garlic, two different separate cooked vegetables, plain scrambled hamburger, and cold flaked fish can all be placed on the table and whatever is desired mixed together on top of the spaghetti and briefly microwaved to blend the flavours a bit, and still allow the unused ingredients to go straight back into the fridge. They can be stored in the same containers they are served in - the apple sauce in the glass jar, the veggies in the ceramic divided dish, but now covered with cling wrap.

This sounds like way too much work compared to just making a pot of spaghetti but the ingredients get prepared in advance and trotted out for the next few meals, in much the same format. Instead of spaghetti the next day three quarters of the same ingredients come out again for options to go in a taco salad. The next day some of those options are available again to go on baked potatoes, and the day after some of those options are on the table as hot sandwich fillings. You only actually have to cook the hamburger and the fish and the spaghetti, and store them in glass containers (or plastic freezer bags that will be thrown out instead of washed), in the fridge, or in the freezer. The vegetables can be canned or frozen, and so could the fish, and the tomato sauce should be the one with the fewest ingredients dolloped out of a jar.

Standbys are things that you can cook in advance and then use for the next meal, such as leftover cold sliced roast - goes into spaghetti sauce, sandwiches, salad, or gravy, or just gets eaten naked and cold. Cook the pasta in advance, cook rice in advance, cook fish in advance or use tinned. Standbys are also things that come ready to heat, or ready to eat, and only have a few ingredients. Olives, canned fruit in pear juice, frozen green peas, tinned salmon and the like are shelf stable, so can be bought on special and kept, and really only need to have the package opened to be ready to either serve or throw into the food.

Some one ingredient items take cooking but are still absurdly easy, such as baked potatoes and squash. Poke some holes so the steam can escape and they don't explode and toss them in the over for forty-five minutes to an hour while you do other stuff, and when they are ready start yanking additional ingredients out of the fridge.

Go for raw ingredients that can be cooked when they get a wee bit past their prime, such as mini carrots and raw mushrooms. If they do not all get eaten raw on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, on Thursday they can go into a pot of soup, or the steamer or a frying pan and reappear on the table on Thursday and Friday as well.

If you hate washing dishes, figure out why the same way you worked on figuring out why kiddo #1 is such a picky eater. Probably their are multiple factors - the warmth is uncomfortable, the smell is not nice, you feel like a scullery maid who got hired out of the orphanage and is being told they should be grateful for the job, there isn't enough damn room in the kitchen, you are just too tired after dinner... etc. Then look for solutions to the reasons - turning on a table top fan can help with warmth and smells, sitting down with an affectionate family member for some post dinner coffee and quality time before getting up to clean up could recharge you, loading the dishwasher with all the cooking tools or leaving them soaking before you eat could make the post dinner crash easier to deal with.

See if you can get each family member to do one thing to participate in the clean up - one could clear all the glasses, one could fill the sink with hot soapy water, another could put all the leftovers back in the fridge. You are likely to feel better about the task if it is something that you feel is shared and if the attempt to get participation results in chaos and you just wanting them to get the hell out of the kitchen, then that will help you diagnose that being over tired, too small a space, and perhaps bratty ungrateful offspring are why you hate doing dishes... If there is chaos see if you can get each person to do their mini-chore in turn while the others wait, rather than all at the same time.

Buy things in glass jars and save the jars if the cheaper variety is not in glass. You may buy your olives in cans, but if you have a glass jar to store them in it makes clean up and storage easier, that trying to repack them in tupperware or going through endless squishy plastic freezer bags. The jars, of course can be washed in the dishwasher and are bottom rack safe, unlike tupperware, and if something goes nasty in the jar the small and flavour will not transfer and you can scrape hard to clean them without damaging the glass. Mason jars are a super container for storing leftovers in.

You may want to run your dishwasher twice a day, once not really full after breakfast, and once after dinner. One reason you might hate to run the dishwasher is because it is too full and so it is a pain to load and unload and things are not getting washed properly. Offer to allow one of your kids to start the dishwasher for you as a treat. "Do you think you are old enough to add the detergent?" is a challenge that your seven or eight year old can meet and prove to you that they both smart and well coordinated.

If you have a spot to unload and stack things that makes unloading easier than if you have to put each item away as soon as your hands become too full.

For cleaning pots, frying pans and roasting pans, slow cooker crockery and other cooking containers scrape or wipe them out with paper towel if necessary and then heat them up again with water and detergent in them, scraping them as necessary with the same dirty tool that was used to keep the food from sticking while they were cooking. This will make them easier to clean, and if there is a delay and they end up not done until bedtime or Thursday they will wait much better full of water so nothing will harden and the old nasty food smell will be diluted considerably by the soap and water.

See if your kids will help with the executive side of things. If you are doing all the organizing and planning and cleaning and having to be psychic as well to figure out what they will eat you have a monumental task. So ask each kid in turn to do the shopping with you and get them to pick some of what you buy. They may be interested in trying steamed vegetables if they get to explore the produce section, or might be interested in trying out Hawaiian pizza if they put it into the grocery cart themself instead of the everlasting frozen pepperoni variety. Experience in the grocery store could lead to them being more cooperative with meals as they get to be responsible for their own happiness - they can still whine "You didn't make anything I like!" but will get less traction if you get to retort, "That's because you didn't pick anything you like for me to make!"

To keep the kids from simply ignoring the process of choosing food, and spending all their time at the store begging for treats make it clear that they get to suggest one of each category - one vegetable, one meat, one starch, one bread, one fish, one pickle, one bottle of sauce, one frozen pizza, one cookie... you may want to limit them of course, so explaining that the budget this week runs to pork roast, chicken legs or bacon may surprise you as you start having to base meals around bacon when you previously thought that chicken was a obvious preference. Often the specials are clearly marked, so you can steer the kid assisting you with the use of those labels - you can suggest anything with one of the yellow labels, or any flavour of spaghetti sauce of this brand because this is the brand that we can get.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:44 AM on June 5, 2019 [8 favorites]

When I was younger, I was a single mother of two, + for a while I had a roomie with eating disorders and allergies. And I didn't have a dishwasher or any money. So basically I was in your situation. For a while, we tried meal boxes, but neither the kids nor the roomie liked the weird stuff we sometimes got, so it became too expensive. And also, as the sole cook, I felt the recipes were too fussy, or just irritating.
So, over time, I developed some principles.

The first is to give the kids a healthy snack the minute they came in the door. Sit at the kitchen table, have carrot sticks, cucumber sticks, a tub of yogurt or a little cup with light soy sauce for dipping. As soon as they are old enough, let them help with both cooking and cleaning.

The second is to let each main meal feed off the previous day's main meal. If we had a curry with rice one day, the next day we'd have fried rice. Remember to make lots of rice the first day. If we had boiled potatoes one day, they'd reappear as fried the next day, maybe with a fried egg and a nice mixed salad. Or they'd be cold in their own salad -- like a Nicoise.
If we had pasta, it might be the sauce that reappeared next day on a pizza, or vice versa, or a tomato sauce could be incorporated into a stew or lasagna. The main idea is to make one preparation last at least two days. A chicken (or two) should last three or four days, first as a roast, then in a composed salad, then as the base of a soup. In the beginning, I planned a bit for this, but eventually it became a way of thinking, and the lunch boxes were integrated in the "plan".

The third principle is to always put out a choice. I know you hate doing the dishes, but a lot can be achieved with a steamer to put over the pot you cook starch in. If you put out a starch, a main (protein or curry or stew or delicious veg like eggplant parmigiana or a pan of roast vegs) and then a simple veg (a simple salad, a steamed veg like broccoli, slices of courgette fried in olive oil), then everyone can choose what they want and how much they want. This really helps with picky eaters of all ages. Introduce the food, but don't push it.

Another advice, after looking at some of the meal-plans above: you don't need to have old school British food one day, Thai the next and Italian the third. Nobody did this before the 80's or something, and we all survived. And the bad thing about it is you need to have far more condiments and other ingredients than if you stick to a few favorites.
posted by mumimor at 6:59 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

We're down to just one 15 year old still living in the house, but we had three boys. When they were younger, switching to a fully planned meal schedule made things a lot easier. On Grocery day, we'd plan out the menu, and ask the kids if they wanted any changes to their lunch for the week. Then we'd make the grocery list. Like many areas, there's a number of grocery stores, and at this point, we went to two - one was cheaper on average that we'd get most of our groceries at, and another had better produce, and some other products that we liked that the other didn't carry. We'd hit them both one after the other in the same trip, but this added about 20-30 minutes to shopping time, but usually saved $20-40 per week.

We didn't have to deal with any dietary restrictions beyond eventually findind out one kid was allergic to cloves in large quantity, so that I can't really talk much about. For the kids lunches, we'd have list of foods in certain categories, and they had for instance at most 2 junk snacks, must have at least one protein option, and could fill out from some other categories. They could make suggestions of things to add tot he list, but for the most part, being able to choose from known options was enough control for them, but they had to commit to a week at a time for what they wanted. They'd usually go 3-4+ months before wanting to make any changes to their lunches.

Some thing's we had semi-regularly because they were easier and/or kids were more likely to eat, and we had weekly pizza at the corner place for $20 plus tax and tip. If the kids didn't want to eat what we were having, 1) no dessert if we had dessert (and when trying out new meals, we almost always made sure to have dessert), and 2) if they wanted more food, after dinner, they'd have to make PB&J sandwiches for themselves (or we'd help if they were too young, but literally, they'd have the knife in their hands, and we'd be guiding their hands to have them "make" their food. Similarly, the kids packed their own lunches the night before as part of their chores. Even if a 4 year old needs help making some food, they can grab their juice box, cheese string and granola bar on their own.

For the dishwasher, everyone cleared their spot at the table. We had them clear to the sink, and one kid's chore was to load the dishwasher after dinner, and another kid's chore was to unload it in the morning. We adopted older kids, so we never had anyone younger than 4, but even at that age, he was capable of bringing his dishes to the table, and in theory could place things directly into the dishwasher. As an issue of quality control, we quickly gave up attempts to have them handwash anything that couldn't go in the dishwasher.

My spouse and I are both able/willing to cook, and both worked, so we were usually taking turns. We each "owned" certain menu items. The person who's cooking isn't on kid-duty at the time, and the person who cooked doesn't clean up after.

We still do plan our meals for the week, but now we have a grocery picking service, so we just need to drive over and they bring stuff out to our car. Since we're planning ahead of time anyways, this is so much more convenient. It turns a 60-90 minute grocery trip into 15 minutes of internet, and a drive there and back. It's also easier on the budget; you literally can't get anything that's not on the list ;)

Planning the meal for the week in advance is 100% worth it, especially if you can take advantage of delivery! Once you've done it for 4-5 weeks, and you've fully internalized the benefits, it's really hard to consider going back to the stone age of buying semi-random foods and trying to put together a meal when you're brain fogged from getting back to work. I say this as the spouse that really resisted planning meals for the entire week.
posted by nobeagle at 6:59 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ah, this is relevant to my interests. I have two daughters ages 11 (vegetarian) and 7 (picky) and a wife who is dairy sensitive and avoids refined carbs. I do basically all of the cooking.

Here's my meal plan process. We have a white board with the days of the week and meals written up. This means everyone knows in advance what dinner is going to be, so there are no surprises. First thing Saturday morning I do the following:

1) Write down the previous week's meals in a log book, sometimes adding minimal notes.
2) Look at the calendar and then plan the following weeks meals. There are some fixed points, which makes life easier. Wednesdays we eat out or get takeout, chosen in rotation by one member of the family. Fridays are leftover night (which can also mean convenience foods). I ask each daughter to pick one thing they are excited to eat for dinner. This usually leaves three dinners for me to pick. Write the results up on the white board.
3) Look through the fridge and cupboards for items we are low on. Add these to a paper list for the store along with items added during the week to our shared wunderlist.
4) Go through the chosen meals and add needed ingredients to the list.
5) Shop, buying pretty much only exactly what's on the list.

I like meals where people can mix and match, or add a different protein. Having the log is nice because it's easy to look back and find things that you forgot, or notice you've been doing something a lot and maybe it's time to take a break. The whole process only takes about half an hour, and then it's done and I don't have to think about it for the rest of the week.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 6:59 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

My son's picky so I basically keep his favorites on hand and let him eat those things, it means making two dinners most of the time so I'm a big fan of pre-cut salads and roast chickens, tuna, eggs, things that don't take a lot of prep. I make myself soups and stews and re-use them for future dinners and lunches topped up with avocados, cheese, bread, salads. I freeze chili and soups in lunch sizes and thaw them out a couple days in advance. I make big pots of beans and corn for wraps. I cook quinoa and rice and make a meals out of those (bean salads, chicken curries), add quinoa to salads. Dinner for me can be eggs and asparagus, chop leftover asparagus and add to a salad for lunch the next day.

My son likes likes cut veggies, pickles, all dry crunchy carbs, pancakes, we are working on getting him to like french toast as much as pancakes, all bread (he doesn't like mixed tastes and textures). He will sometimes eat chicken nuggets, hot dogs, bacon. Pancakes can be made with almond milk and has the protein from eggs. A week of his dinners looks like: french fries with pickles and carrots (we can do fish for ourselves next to the chips); pancakes with a smoothie (I reheat leftovers for his breakfast or lunch); hotdogs with cut veggies; cereal and a banana; taco night where he just eats the nacho chips and cut veggies or an apple; pizza night; takeout night/free for all. He snacks on nuts, granola bars, apple sauce.
posted by lafemma at 7:06 AM on June 5, 2019

So I work with some dietary restrictions and a lot of pickiness from my kids as well, and this is the system we follow:

1. Make a list of meals to eat next week which are compatible with dietary restrictions.
2. Show plan to kids and allow them to veto one thing they hate. (Since my family eats dinner leftovers for lunch the next day, we cook only 5-6 things per week , so my two kids get one veto each. But if you're eating different things for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then maybe your kids should get more vetoes!)
3. Whoever vetoes a meal must suggest an alternative which is reasonably equivalent in healthfulness and nutrition (i.e. nobody vetoes broccoli stir fry and substitutes chocolate cake for it).
4. Involve the kids in shopping and cooking as much as you can possibly tolerate. My kids will often enthusiastically eat what they have personally prepared even if they generally hate that food... most recent example, cauliflower-and-garbanzo-bean "latkes" made by my kids got eaten with gusto because OMG SEE HERE'S THE FUNNY BUMP MINE GOT WHEN I THREW IT ON THE PAN, but the ones I prepared were just blah, not worth eating.
5. For emergencies, always keep healthy and substantial ready-to-eat snacks in the fridge, e.g. I always have hummus and veggies, greek yogurt, and/or hardboiled eggs on hand when a kid decides not to eat the dinner that's on the table.
posted by MiraK at 7:10 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Is it just you? or you and partner? and is partner doing a fair share? Whew, had to get that off my chest.

Get the kids to help cook and require them to help clean. It helped me to read Rob Cockerham's analysis - Emptying the Dishwasher The Actual Amount of Time it Takes to Remove the clean dishes and put them away is: Three minutes, 15 seconds, but the kids should be doing a lot of this.

For the child who is underweight and fussy, always make rice, pasta or potatoes. Rice freezes well and cooked rice, pasta and potatoes keep well in the fridge. Top with jarred gravy/ tomato sauce soy, etc. Some kids have weird texture and taste issues. Accommodate that, but that kid loses the option for variety. When my kid was growing up, if he didn't like dinner he could have toast (whole grain) instead.

You are tired and pretty pissed off at everybody's demands. Once or twice a week, make kid food for them and a nicer meal for you and partner. Curried prawns and rice for you, chicken tenders, rice and red pepper strips for them. Korean noodles for you hot dogs for them. Kids learn to eat and enjoy a variety of foods because that's what parents eat and enjoy.

Take the time to plan the meals for the week.
posted by theora55 at 7:12 AM on June 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

It’s a literal solution to the problem and as a result maybe not what you’re looking for, but I installed the Recipe Filter extension in Chrome so that I never again need to read a 5 page long food blog intro about the weather and the dog and the kids. It searches the page for the recipe and displays it front and center over the “normal” blog content.
posted by asphericalcow at 8:10 AM on June 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

We have (a lot of) food allergies and my own extreme resistance to engage in the futility of cooking for picky children, so I have a cache of easy meals everyone will pick at if not eat entirely and they rely on two things - the Instant Pot, and a sheet pan in the oven.

There are a few meals I can do entirely in the Instant Pot, like taco meat with spanish rice cooked pot-in-pot. Or "pizza noodles" which is chickpea rigatoni with a spoonful of tomato paste, two cloves garlic, and a sprinkle of basil and oregano served with bratwurst or italian sausage. I usually roast vegetables separately to serve with these.

Other times, I use the Instant Pot to pre-cook meat and potatoes so that it shortens the roasting time when I make a sheet pan supper and I can put everything in the oven at once. Or baking chicken legs on a separate sheet and putting a sheet of vegetables in toward the end of the cooking time.

I keep canned green beans, corn, black beans, and chickpeas on hand at all times to fill in when I am out of fresh stuff or need an extra protein. Rice cooks fast in the Instant Pot and no one is allergic to it and the kids are pretty flexible about how it is spiced, if it's spiced at all.

Basically, if I can prep it in less than 5 minutes and leave it in the Instant Pot or oven for 10-15, then I don't care if they refuse to eat 2/3rds of it and only eat the meat or pick out all the chickpeas for snacking or whatever, because I didn't just spend two hours slaving in the kitchen. And clean up is the dishes we've eaten off of, the pot, and the sheet pan.
posted by annathea at 8:25 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

My four kids (age 11 to 20) are mildly picky with no food allergies, but we still plan a weekly menu, eat a lot of the same things, and eat stuff they will accept. *shrug* We make compromises to keep the peace and keep everyone fed. (E.g., my wife won't eat fish or seafood so I get it a few times per year when we eat out.)

Friday is homemade pizza. Recently, Thursday has been Breakfast For Dinner (pancakes from scratch plus a frittata). Weekends I am home all day so I can make fancier things, like soup from scratch or a porchetta cooked in a Dutch oven. But we also prepare hot sandwiches some weeknights, pasta with jarred sauce (don't tell my mom!), or leftovers.

I always try to cook a scaled-up version of favorites and then put the extra in the freezer for a future night. We eat just over half of a homemade chicken pie, so the leftovers from two of those meals is a "free" third dinner some time in the future -- with bonus of very fast prep time!

(One time I made a stack of cards that would account for a month's meals. Four cards were pizza (for the Fridays), and there were a few others that were dupes. I left two blank for new things, and then copied down individual meals from the previous months' menus to fill out the rest. I figured it would save time to do this 12 times a year instead of 52 weekly menus per year, but my wife just sighed and I threw it all out. Oh, well...)
posted by wenestvedt at 8:55 AM on June 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have discovered my kids will eat anything if it is: (1) served over noodles, or (2) wrapped in a tortilla. I have seriously found that if I make a stir fry and serve it over rice, it may or may not be eaten but if I put that exact same stir fry on Chinese egg noodles (like the kind used for lo mein), it will all get eaten. Every time. Also, anything you can wrap in a tortilla or even lettuce, with my kids, also gets eaten. They love to put stuff on the tortilla, so some kind of protein plus a lot of condiments like salads and sauces and cheese for those who can eat it is perfect.

We also eat leftovers, or eggs for dinner, because I can't cook every night. I try to cook 3 things a week that can be eaten again or frozen to eat later, plus something easy like eggs or even hot dogs.
posted by ceejaytee at 10:41 AM on June 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

ceejaytee is extremely correct re: wraps and noodles. To add to that idea, anything baked into muffins or mini muffins goes down easy. I do a lot of egg+veggie "muffins" with just enough flour to hold it all together.

Another protip for super picky eaters is to put pureed spinach into everything. It has almost no taste or at least, its taste is easily masked by other ingredients. I don't even make brownies without spinach pureed into them.
posted by MiraK at 12:14 PM on June 5, 2019

Reading all of this and thinking about my own experience, I came to realize that historically, working and middle class people have eaten the same every day, with seasonal variations. It's worth thinking about. I'm pretty sure my family wouldn't have minded a bit if we'd done a consistent "meal plan" based on any traditional culture I could think up.
Now I'm just going for an Italian version, because that's what I'm most familiar with.
First, you have antipasti. That's stuff you have in the fridge already (if you are with that): raw vegs, pickled vegs, roasted vegs in oil. Some sliced meat like sausage or ham, but generally whatever. Some fish. Like tuna or sardines or cod roe or whatever. The Tuscan way is some of this on old bread -- like toast. You don't need to have all of this at all. Just a fragment that is in your fridge. You don't have to do one single part of this yourself. Just buy it, and it isn't even expensive. This happens within all cuisines.
Second you have starch. Pasta with whatever you have and can afford. From the almost nothing spaghetti with oil and garlic (and chili), to the elaborate classic bolognese which is a several days project strictly for weekends and holidays. Again, there are choices across the globe.
Third you have "secondi" which can be anything from a fried fish to an elaborate casserole. And for normal people, it doesn't have to happen every day, it can absolutely be a weekend thing. With that you get a "contorni" - a very simple vegetable. If you want to. You don't need meat/fish/eggs every day. They are expensive, and in my view only tasty if they are the best quality. Save them for days when you have the energy.
Finally you can have a plate of cheese and fruit or a desert. Again, just pulled out of the fridge.

As said: there are similar patterns across the globe. You could find a similar pattern in any culture. Don't think you have to think up something every day, have a bunch of staples and do something special when you feel like it.
posted by mumimor at 12:24 PM on June 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Nthing everyone who talks about meal-planning. I have a 10yo and a 14yo who eat like every meal is their last on earth, plus we are dairy free. Here is what we do in our house:

During the weekend, we meal prep. We cut up veggies like carrots, peppers, celery, asparagus, whatever is in season and put it in tupperware in the refrigerator for afterschool easy snacking. I also grocery shop from the list of meals that my family preps for me (see below). I also hard boil eggs for easy protein delivery orbs as well. We also cut up fruit and freeze them in single servings for easy smoothies (we put kale or spinach in our smoothies for an easy boost as well).

Meals for the week: I put all my recipes into two binders: easy to make, and special occasions (otherwise known as things I don't like to make weekly ;) I put my pickiest eater in charge of the meal planning, and he gives me a list of 10 meal ideas for the week from the "easy to make" binder and writes it on the white board, and I generate my grocery list from there. it makes shopping easier so I'm not going back and forth to the store all the time.

I treat my kids like hobbits. During the school week, when they get home, they get First Dinner. Usually it's veggies + hummus, or some other protein like yogurt, an egg, and some sort of starch like pita chips, and a fruit. They also know how to make their own smoothies if they are running low on time between getting home from school and their next activity.

Weekdays - I am a big fan of single pot meals. I only do more than one pot on fridays or week ends, when there is more time and less running around. Do you have a crock pot? We do a crockpot meals at least once a week as well, but it's better for cooking meats. My husband is a big fan of the Standardize Meal Plan, but it means that you eat the Exact Same Thing every single day, so that only gets used when mom is out of town.

Meals We Like:
Chinese Eggplant with Garlic Sauce (can substitute potatoes, parboil potatoes first)
Shakshuka (my kids love this!)
breakfast for dinner - waffles are a big favorite in our house
italian vegetable soup (we use ground turkey)
Chickpea soup
coconut curry with chickpeas
posted by alathia at 12:37 PM on June 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

One thing I’m not sure that has been mentioned yet: cook double portions! Doing that on Saturday and Sunday saves us cooking (and cleaning!) on Monday and Tuesday. Plenty of meals can be cooked in advance and reheated, or at least prepped quite a bit. And yes, I meal plan, it really helps.

Also, not sure how old your kid is, but mine isn’t picky about ingredients, he’s picky about texture - but he doesn’t realize that yet. So he’ll say he doesn’t like pumpkin, but he’ll enjoy pumpkin risotto where the pumpkin has been pureed and dissolved into the risotto, but not risotto with pumpkin cubes; he doesn’t like aubergine, unless it’s baba ghanoush (aubergine cream). Anything with a softish, wobbly, maybe slimy texture has a larger chance of failure. Luckily, he hasn’t yet reached the stage where he’ll reject something based on it’s name. If your kid is still young, you might try disguising an certain ingredient and serving it as dinosaur food, or whatever.
posted by eierschnee at 1:35 PM on June 5, 2019

Also, you asked about websites that don't have 3 pages of supposedly adorable anecdotes about the dog. I am so with you on that. The Kitchn does pretty well. I get their daily email, read it about 1/3 of the time, and get meal ideas and recipes without a ton of blahblah.
posted by theora55 at 11:33 AM on June 7, 2019

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