Reader Interactions


  1. Absolutely brilliant. We often do things like this with dinners too build on what there is starting with the “What the kids will eat” first.

  2. In our family we’re each ‘allowed’ the luxury of having one thing that we don’t like to eat. For me, it’s capsicum. My daughter also doesn’t like capsicum. One boy doesn’t like mushroom while the other loves it, and the other won’t eat eggs but the other boy would live off them. My husband won’t look at celery.

    Outside of the one thing we’re permitted to avoid, it’s a case of simply…

    “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” :-)

    Of course, there are other things we don’t like eating, but we are only allowed to enforce that one thing (which can’t change). Everything else must be eaten, no fuss.

    • Hi Trisha, I like that– allowing for some level of preference for foods that are really hard for you to “get down” — I’m sure we all have the one food that pops quickly to mind :)

  3. I think yours is a great approach to family dinner, Lisa. The only problem for me is that it still takes a lot of time to prepare each family member’s “extra’s”. For some it will be meat, for others extra vegetables etc. The condiment caddy however is a great idea that requires little or no effort. Something I will keep in mind!

    • Hi Alison,
      I can completely understand your concern…but I do make sure that the “embellishments” aren’t labor intensive. Baked chicken takes very little time for me to prepare — and the other bowls are often simple things– like feta, or sprouts, nuts, or veggies that I have leftover from another meal…that kind of a thing! I agree– it wouldn’t make much sense if this approach added more things to make!

  4. Wow.. Love this idea of choosing a base.. I found that menu planning really worked for our family. However, I can try this flexitarian approach and make things even easier. .
    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Brilliant! We do something similar, but this expands on it beautifully!

    In our house it’s “you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit” !!

  6. This approach shows that you are a caring mother (and wife) Lisa! What a creative and well-executed idea for keeping everyone happy — and healthy.
    Thanks for sharing. I’ll be giving this recipe a go soon!

    • Oh, thanks Aimee. I guess as a mom I’ve thought through how I hope my children will relate to food — that it is truly delicious and enjoyable and to be used in order to best keep us healthy- so I wanted to find ways to have them part of the food discovery process but also not allow food to become a tool for negotiations…if you know what I mean 😉
      I’m still navigating it all!
      And I’d love to hear what you think about the recipe :)

  7. “Sit down to the table and have a look, the first complainer is the next meal’s cook!”

    That was the cross stitch over the kitchen table at my parents’ house. I saw it every morning over my breakfast. :-) To this day, the last thing I say at the dinner table is, “Thanks for dinner, that was good.”

  8. Our family is just emerging into this world with an 11 month old who is starting to eat “people food.” I’ve been working on a similar idea for us–such as making plain chicken for him but adding some breading and/or sauce for the adults. It’s been an exciting challenge to figure out how to make 1 meal that serves all of our different needs and isn’t too labor intensive…now I have a name for it, which I love! As he gets older the condiment caddy will certainly come into play!

  9. I love to cook. Until this year I would experiment and cook all sorts of different foods. The meals started getting rejected… often.

    So I’ve gone back to cooking the basics and maybe something new once a week.

    We have some rules at the dinner table.
    * You have to taste what is on the plate, you don’t have to like it and you don’t have to finish it.
    * If you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it.
    * This is the meal that I have prepared, if you don’t want to eat it, you can still sit at the table while we eat, meal time is family time. After dinner you can make yourself some cereal or have some fruit.

    • I love those rules. We have a general ‘life’ rule that ‘You don’t say you don’t like something unless you’ve actually tried it.’

    • This sounds like our family!

      You have to try it, but you don’t have to like it or eat it. Later, the vegetable drawer is open for business, as is fruit. Occasionally, a yogurt or block of cheese and a couple of crackers are available….

    • We also say that you’re not allowed to say you don’t like it until you’ve tried it. If you do choose to say this, then you have to give it a try with three bites, not just one.

      I’m a mean mom. :)

      • Well I must be a mean mom too then, LOL. We have the same exact rules at our house. Although I don’t always enforce the more than one bite part but trying at least one bit is a absolute must.

  10. We have something similar also. You have to at least try it. I really like the idea of a caddy. This recipe sounds delicious too.

  11. I understand this frustration. I have a husband who is a cross country coach vs. me (5.5 months postpartum and needing to lose 20 pounds while working as a secretary=sedentary)… so my husband needs protein, carbs, and can handle a decent amount of fat. I need to limit myself to whole grains, less fat, and lean proteins, heavy on the veggies, but we both want flavor. Oh, and we have a 4.5, 2.5 and 5 1/2 month old at the table with us. Two of my go-to healthy meals are spaghetti & tacos/taco salad. It only takes a little bit of extra time to cook myself whole wheat spaghetti (it is the one white carb that I can’t convert my husband on) after making him some white spaghetti. I like to add as many veggies as I can (carrots go GREAT in spaghetti sauce), lots of tomatoes and onions, occasionally bell peppers (not my fave, but my husband loves them)…

    Tacos are great b/c my husband can eat as many of them as he wants, meanwhile I make myself a taco salad, heavy w/the greens, and maybe just a sprinkling of crushed baked tortilla chips on top for some crunch.

  12. We do the same thing. I make whatever they want for breakfast or lunch but dinner is a family meal (at the table with no tv or iphones). They don’t get to choose the base, but they can customize it however they like. My kids are BIG parmesan fans too :) I have one daughter that pulls ALL the noodles out and eats just the veggies. With Parmesan. Thanks for the recipe! I’m going to try that one!!

    • heather – that is funny, parm is like gold around here too! we can get so many things down with a little sprinkle of the white stuff :) :)

  13. I was wearing myself out accommodating food allergies/sensitivities until I hit on a very similar method. It works great for us! One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome was my own “foody”-ness. I had to realize that it’s OK to feed my family (and even guests) simple meals as long as they’re balanced. So breakfast is usually homemade oatmeal with cranberries and walnuts or homemade breakfast bread with yogurt; lunch is usually LOs for me and DH, with one of a few simple options for DD (e.g., PB&J w/ broccoli or scrambled eggs, toast, and fruit). Dinner is where we have the greatest variation, but we still have 1 or 2 main dishes that we eat almost every week. If dinner is something we can all eat, everyone gets the same thing; if allergies/sensitivities are an issue, I go flexitarian.

    • hey kathryn,
      i totally resonate with the foodie thing coming through– it has really taken me a while to embrace more minimalist meal choices– but now that I do, not sure if I’ll go back– something really fantastic about making simple food shine!

    • My husband is totally the foodie at our house. He will make the most complicated dishes (which, I admit, are delicious), but I’m perfectly happy with tofubq or beans and rice for days on end.

      (Tofubq: saute some onions and garlic, add some tofu you’ve already cubed and drained, cook for a bit, add bbq sauce, cook for a bit. Top with mozz cheese on a toasted hamburger bun.)

  14. This post could not have better timing. Just last night my husband and I were discussing this very topic. I am a longtime vegetarian – he loves meat. Recently I went gluten-free – he loves pizza, white-flour pasta, etc. Plus we have two little boys with their own preferences. Our different needs and tastes have been an ongoing source of tension between us since I am largely in charge of shopping and cooking and I find it hard to accomodate everyone all the time. Thanks for all the suggestions. It is comforting to know we are not the only ones in this situation!

  15. If it’s not a allergy or a complete distaste (as in they’d throw up if they ate it) my children are expected to eat whatever we put in front of them. What is served is what’s for the meal. Call me old fashioned… (I’m 28)

    • I’m 29 and as old-fashioned as you.

      I can’t stand fussiness. If I see my kids starting to get picky I remind them of how there are many children starving to death who would be eternally grateful for anything edible. Puts things in perspective.

      I know one teenage boy who was spoiled rotten regarding food as a child and now he will only eat a few foods like instant noodles. Other mothers hate having him over for meals.

      I won’t let that happen to my kids!!!

      Plus, if they don’t eat their dinner, they don’t get dessert. :-)

    • I have to agree. I never gave in to pickiness to begin with, but when my last child was diagnosed with multiple severe food allergies, my tolerance level went to zero. Admittedly, this is my own problem, but I can’t help but bristle when I hear a kid whine that he’ll only eat peanut butter or mac & cheese and then is catered to by his parents…my kid will likely never eat either of those and makes do with what he has available to him. He doesn’t have the luxury of being picky. Plus, cooking for allergies takes a lot of time and expense, so frankly, I never got in the habit of catering to anyone for reasons other than safety. Since processed foods are pretty much off limits, I will say we eat much healthier than we did pre-food allergies.

      I apologize for the bitter tone, but as I said, this issue is my particular bugaboo. On the plus side, neither of my older children is at all picky (though one is going through a ketchup-on-everything phase) and both are often favorite guests at friends’ dinner tables!

    • I’m ALMOST as old-fashioned as you. I have heard that forcing children into the “clean-plate club” can lead to overweight/obesity (because they no longer stop when they’re full), and I remember being forced to stay at the table until I ate everything on my plate when I hated what was for dinner. So… dinner in our house tends to be a “take it or leave it” affair. Try at least a few bites, and if you tell me you don’t like it – well, you don’t get other options. If you say “I’m full” (or “all done” if you’re my toddler), that’s fine. Just don’t expect snacks later.

  16. I appreciate the ideas you shared. We’re trying to teach our children to eat what is put in front of them, whether it is at our home or someone else’s. This morning we were served breakfast at my sister-in-law’s. Two out of three children ate politely. One of my daughter’s we are still working with on trying new things and not blurting out protests–today was another lesson for her. It’s important that we teach our children how to be gracious guests; sometimes I think I flex too much for them at home.

    • Hi Joseph and Julia,

      I think you are both hitting on the same sentiment– and one that I actually agree with also. Preparing meals that can be tailored to individual tastes easily is just one strategy I use in my home — it is a way I’ve tried (and had wonderful results with) that holds the family dinner meal in unity while also giving my children the opportunity to explore what tastes they like and prefer.
      I’ve found in many areas, as they grow, allowing them small opportunities to express their preferences and choice has been really helpful in opening them up to responsible independence.
      That being said, we also don’t allow the “catering” element to go too far during dinner– and, Julia, I think you bring up a great point, that children who learn to graciously eat the meal they are given are a joy to bring out to other’s homes too.

      I certainly don’t do flexitarian EVERY meal, but it is one type of meal I bring into our week’s meal planning that everyone enjoys.

  17. Lisa,

    Totally brilliant! What a great idea – like you, I don’t want to be a short order cook but I like to give my children and husband a meal they love.

    I have one child with food allergies (peanuts, tree nuts and tuna), another who is adventurous, one who keeps it simple and a meat-loving husband – and I’m working my way towards vegetarianism.

    Your “flexitarian” approach is the perfect solution for families like mine! Thank you!


  18. Love this idea Lisa! I’ll have to start to use the “condiment” approach a bit more. My daughter likes bland foods, my son puts hot sauce and MORE hot sauce on everything and me and my husband are somewhere in the middle. Thanks for the great idea!!

  19. Lisa, I really love this approach. I agree with you that kids, well mine especially, often like to hold onto a bit of control in this arena and this is where “I don’t want it” often pops up–so give them a few healthy choices!

    I am certainly hoping to do something like this with my children. As for now, I suspect my son actually has an eating disorder that needs to be addressed. I may ruffle some feathers when I write here that I am cautious to believe that his picky-ness is more than just a “phase.” Tantrums, gagging, and throwing up when required, or simply politely requested, to taste something novel is not something I’ve seen other picky eaters do. He will refuse new foods, going on hunger strikes, for 48 hours at a time. My daughter is a picky eater. She whines, and gets over it. There is no dramatic scene at the dinner table. Our pediatrician referred us to a child development specialist for my son and we will probably be in touch with a nutritionist as well because his 4 year check up revealed his growth has stopped.

    I don’t mention this to alarm others, nor to detract from your super helpful article, but to encourage others out there who are at their whits end about how to deal with their picky eater that sometimes there is another issue. And to consult with their doctor if they suspect that there might be a psychological issue other than their child simply trying to flex their ability to choose.

    As always Lisa, I always learn something new and helpful. Thanks!

  20. I have one vegan in the house, and to deal with her I just make perhaps one more side-dish than I usually would. For example, steak, mushrooms, spinach, eggs and as an extra thing, maybe some potatos or carrots or another vegetable, maybe some nice pasta. All I have to do is put on one extra pot of vegetables so everyone in my house gets something awesome. It’s not particularly difficult to accommodate her needs as well as the rest of us carnivores. I also have one person trying to lose weight, so I cook meals low in refined carbs – I think the others would like their regular unhealthy fare but NOT IN MY KITCHEN! :)

    I have another rule which I think every mum/dad/cook should have: If I cook it, SOMEONE ELSE has to wash up and wipe down. That way everyone contributes to the meal as well, me in the cooking, them in the clean up. It only takes a few days of “Whats for dinner Em?” “Nothing because the kitchen is a mess and I have no clean tools to work with.” before I don’t have to nag them to do it. I’m not a nagger. Plus I am the only one who can cook which is very sad (I’m trying to teach them), but I can sort of hold them for ransom in that regard. It works out well, I’m in a house with no very young kids though, so the hardline approach isn’t so great if you have ankle-biters.

  21. I love this, Lisa! So thoughtful and a great way to bring the family together. So practical, too. Thanks for the yummy recipe!

  22. This was such a great post. I gave this a try last night and everyone loved it. The condiment caddy was a hit! My husband and I especially enjoyed having a spicy meal without having to cook two separate meals.

  23. I love this idea (and also Molly’s quote). This may also encourage some “kid’s creativity” in mixing some new flavors together. I’m SO tired and bored of cooking either bland things that the kids will eat, or something a little more exotic that I am interested in, and the kids won’t touch. Can you share any other “base meals” that you use? Lots of great ideas from your readers too!

  24. Your post was so timely – as I just posted a meal idea on my own blog that seems in keeping with your suggestions . We too have dietary restrictions (daughter with a dairy allergy, a vegetarian mom, a picky toddler and a dad who can’t do soy). Thanks for your insights.

  25. Thanks for writing this piece. It pairs quite nicely with my own post last night. Taco Salad is a favorite in our house. It keeps the dairy allergic daughter, vegetarian mother, finicky toddler and soy intolerant father all happy and nourished.

  26. I absolutely loved this. I’m a mother of two very picky little boys and dinner time is full of “I don’t like this” or “Can I have pancakes?” I have to admit, eating what the children want seems more daunting on the scale than anything else.

  27. This is awesome! I believe this will work well for us too. I love the condiment caddy idea. Hubby and I love spicy foods which our young kids obviously do not like. And since I do not have time to create 2 versions of the same food (spicy and not spicy), I end up cooking the non-spicy version. It’s all good but as can be expected, it’s something that hubby and I miss.

  28. Great info. I cook very similarly as a mother of 6 with the full range of vegans to meat-eaters to provide for. Basically I cook vegan and then provide additions in the form of shredded cheese, cubed chicken, sour cream etc. Works great. One of my absolute best tips to get kids to eat veggies/salad is having a salad buffet. Every day at dinner I put out all the fixings for salad in individual containers much like a restaurant: lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, various beans (from cans and kept in glass jars in fridge), pine apple chunks, various seeds and nuts (a bunch of jars kept in the pantry), cottage cheese, bottle of dressing etc. We start dinner by making ourselves a salad and eat that first. The rule is that if you take it, you eat it. Often the kids will eat lots and sometimes even fill up on beans, nuts and veggies and eat just a little when the actual meal is served. Works for me. I know they ate well because a hearty salad is a meal in itself.
    I am always looking for more recipes for my flexitarian cooking. Some of our favorites are minestrone soup, make your own burrito, stir fries with rice, and baked potatoes. Do you have anymore to share?
    thanks, Helen

  29. Great article! I have been pondering this for the past few days because I have almost the same food issues that you do. 2 out of 4 children have dairy sensetivities, my husband is trying to lose weight and likes lots of spicy vegetarian meals, I am trying to go more vegetarian/vegan. I have done some meals like this but never thought to basically cook vegan and have people add in meat or dairy with they want it. LOVE the condiment caddy idea! I’m gonna try that one…

    Helen, I love the idea of the salad bar every night. My kids would like that too. We always have a green salad every night and everyone eats it but some don’t like tomatoes, some don’t like cucumbers, etc. They work around them but having it all separate that you can add yourself is brilliant! I could add beans and stuff to mine too if I don’t want the meat later. We put on salad dressings separately anyway (half the family doesn’t use them at all).
    I would love more “flexetarian” meals that you have Lisa and also any great vegan resources that you like? Cookbooks or websites? There are so many that it can be overwhelming, knowing where to start.
    Taco salad is on the menu plan for the next week :)

  30. Amy,
    “We always have a green salad every night and everyone eats it but some don’t like tomatoes, some don’t like cucumbers, etc. ” That’s exactly what was driving me batty trying to serve a salad with dinner every night, everyone’s individual likes and dislikes. The salad buffet solved the problem.

  31. Hi Ladies,

    For those of you who asked if I could provide some more flexitarian options, I’m planning to expand on this strategy more in the future…so if you’d like, hop over to my website and get on my mailing list or subscribe to my blog, so you’ll be alerted.

    I think of the flexitarian approach as just one of a number of strategies I use that is helpful in thinking through ways to make healthy cooking for the whole family streamlined, realistic and flexible so that it actually happens!

    I know some other “meal planning/preparing” systems out there seemed fancy but they just didn’t work realistically for me, so it’s been one of the ways I’ve developed something that does get healthy foods that everyone can enjoy on the table during the week.

    And thank you for the suggestions you all wrote in– they are fantastic– I really love the salad bar idea– I think it would work great for me and something I haven’t really tried yet, so I’ll be giving it a go this week!

    Great discussion– I think Simple Mom readers are such thoughtful, supportive and responsive women!

  32. I just made this tonight – delicious! We had pasta, the artichoke sauce, spinach, grape tomatoes, sugar snap peas, feta and basil. Thanks for the recipe! I just love artichokes and they were yummy and different in this way.

  33. Rebecca, I’m so glad you liked the recipe– it’s a favorite at my house!

    And, I know some women asked if I’d expand on more flexitarian bases– I’ll work on posting some more on my website sometime soon.

  34. I have been struggling with this exact issue for four years now. My husband is a vegetarian, my son has severe food allergies to wheat, dairy, egg, barley, flax, sesame, nuts, and other things, and my one-year-old is just learning what she likes. I have tried the ‘base meal’ approach, but sometimes run out of ideas on how to make all of these important food needs fit into a single family meal!

    On top of this, my four year old (the one with the allergies) is also a very picky eater – cautious to try new things – and given some of his history, who can blame him? We have the ‘this is supper. eat it or don’t.’ rule. We don’t force, but we also don’t offer alternatives later if a child chooses not to eat their dinner.

    I like the idea of starting with a vegan meal and just adding in the rest of the pieces that suit everyone’s needs. It might even be a way to get my picky/allergic son to try some new things; He could still start with a ‘known’ food, and could add things to it as he wished. If he were to watch the rest of us doing so, he might be more tempted…

    We’ll be giving this strategy a try! Thanks.

  35. My husband’s family has a history of excessive pickiness (sensory issues, I think), so we do put up with more pickiness than some of the writers here, I think. I do draw the line at making new foods for them, though If we are having stew, the kids can choose cold carrots instead of the cooked, for example, and sometimes I let them rinse off the sauces…

    My favorite flexitarian recipe is deconstructed rice/mango/chicken salad with lemon mint dressing (originally from Cooking Light). I put all the ingredients in bowls on the table, and the kids choose what they want—they all need some meat, and a good deal of fruit, but they can choose which kinds and how much rice they get. I _love_ the idea of the nightly salad bar: I’m going to have to see if I can do something like that. My mouth is watering just thinking about it =)

    The kids in my husband’s family who were so picky all grew up to be adventurous eaters, so I haven’t lost hope!

  36. What great tips! It’s so hard when everyone has different tastes. I found the toddler ages tough because sometimes it was so hard to get the kids to eat anything. Thanks for the great recipe!

  37. I must say you have to be committed to stay in the mind set, not give up and just do what most folks do, which is run to the nearest fast food. Your recipe sounds delicious. I’m going to try it soon. I commend you for your commitment to your family.

  38. I actually share the same history… I simply ate whatever my mom cooked, no questions asked because if my dad heard even the slightest complaint, I’d be in trouble.

    I wish I could impose the same rule for my family. I certainly expect my kids to eat without complaining but it’s a different story when members of the family have specific food prohibitions. My daughter has skin asthma and is allergic to lots of food items. My husband is hypertensive and can’t eat too much pork. Everyday is a struggle in the kitchen…

  39. Great idea. You know I’ve wondered how to handle this situation myself. My mom was very much a “you eat what I cooked or you don’t eat at all” kind of person.

    My husband likes his food hot, and I don’t mean temperature hot! I prefer mine spicy, and I’ve long thought it unrealistic to cook for us and my three year old at the same time.

    Thanks for the advice…I know it will surely help me to please us all around the table.

  40. I have found that as the kids get older I like to let them pick a dinner a week. We sit down and they each select a dinner. I show them how to create a shopping list. They love having some ownership at dinner time! They also eat up when we are eating the dinner “they selected” :)