Studies show that kids who cook with their parents, who actively help create the meal, are more likely to eat it and eat healthier. This is especially beneficial if you have a picky eater.
Before we go any further, let’s just acknowledge that ALL kids are some sort of picky eater. And it’s not actually that they’re picky, it’s that they have taste buds and favorites unique to their own little body, much in the same way a grown adult does. They have the benefit of “learning” to like some things that they may not necessarily appreciate on the first try. As adults, we get into this mindset that we don’t like something – a food, a spice, a cooking style – and therefore, we’re not ever going to try it again (side-eye to you, Brussel’s Sprouts).
Some of that reticence is legitimate. But did you know that our taste buds change as you age? If you took that into consideration, then perhaps some of the foods that you didn’t like last year, or even last week, might be something that you appreciate today.
We have the benefit of having a chef in our house and as such, my husband and I are experimental with food. Before you ask, yes, it’s glorious that my husband is a chef, but think about it: when you go out to eat or grab some take out…it’s usually dinner time, right? Who’s cooking for you when you pop into your favorite restaurant for a date night or for a girl’s night out? Often, it’s someone’s husband or wife or partner. And that means that person is certainly not at home creating a gourmet meal for his or her sweet little family. We eat well in our house because we’re both passionate about food and creating in the kitchen. We try new things often (and yes, we fall into old habits easily), but we’re both responsible for the menu planning (necessary) and cooking. And our kids certainly benefit from having parents who love food.
And guess what? It doesn’t have to be difficult. Pinterest, while I love that it’s God’s Gift to Tired Mamas, can be a dinner time nightmare because: so many options! How do we choose between the Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps and the Roasted Cuban Pork for Cubanos? Or Tuscan Sausage and Potato Soup versus Butternut Squash Bisque? Should I make lasagna roll-ups with a gorgeous Caesars Salad (dressing homemade, of course) or Crock Pot Beef and Broccoli with Jasmine Rice? And then we factor in these dinnertime dilemmas:
- Do I have the time and ingredients to make it?
- Will my small humans eat it?
And that’s when I pull out some chicken nuggets and slice some potatoes for oven fries and call it gourmet. But both factors are easily overcome.
Time & Ingredients
First, it’s absolutely acceptable to have things on your favorites list that rotate into your menu planning often. We cannot get enough of a slightly sweet, slightly spicy sausage hotdish that’s utilizes soft, hearty egg noodles and crispy croutons. We found in a random church lady cookbook that we bought for a quarter from a yard sale. We tweaked the recipe a little bit, and sometimes we use Italian turkey sausage instead of pork sausage, but it makes frequent appearances on our dining table. It’s easy, my kids like it, and more often than not, I have the ingredients on hand and it literally takes 30 minutes to make and bake. Pick something you know that your family likes, that takes a relatively small amount of prep/cook time and make sure you always those ingredients in your pantry or freezer. For the nights that you’re just done with life, knowing you don’t have to make a stop at the store or waste 15 minutes scouring Pinterest is a blessing.
In regards to Pinterest, when you try something, create a separate board that is a “Tried it and Liked it” board. I don’t know about you, but I really dislike finding a great recipe on Pinterest and then having to dive through my entire Good Eats board to find it again. Tried it and Liked it is a quick and easy move for something we liked. If I’m never going to make it again (the Quinoa Stuffed Acorn Squash incident of 2015, I can assure you, is filed under NEVER AGAIN!) I try to delete it off of my Pinterest board.
Having a solid menu is tantamount to having a smooth dinner time. When both my husband and I worked, it was necessary to have a plan for meals; even now that I stay home, I need to have a plan for dinner. Nobody’s got time to cobble together a meal in that short period between bus drop off, piano practicing, homework and some mental down time after a full day of people. I see you mamas running around after work, picking small people up and dropping them off, practicing all the things and helping with all of the homework. Having a menu gives you the opportunity to do one big grocery store run a week so that you have all the ingredients on hand for your meals, and if you’re feeling particularly ahead of the game, you’ve maybe even prepped some of the steps for your meals (prebaked chicken or chopped up all the veggies for a soup). Suddenly you can get home, throw your ingredients into the oven and help with homework and you don’t have to waste time stressing about what in the actual heck you’re going to feed your people. You’ve already taken care of that thought.
I keep a running list of the things that I know are fan favorites in our house, but I also ask for the kids’ input when I’m working on a menu. Oftentimes there is something that they love that they’ll request. My son Finn loves cheeseburgers and we’ve basically achieved the perfect patty mix that works for the grill outside or for a patty melt on the stove if it’s too cold to use the grill. We probably have hamburgers twice a month. My daughter Eleanor always asks for chicken pot pie. I think it’s probably because she likes to help roll out the crust, but when asked, that’s immediately what she’ll ask for.
I also find it important to leave a blank day on our menu that’s reserved either for leftovers, for something random because I’ve changed my mind about what I’m hungry for, or because my husband had a shorter work day and wants to make something fancy. We rarely eat out; we’re more likely order pizza for Friday Night Movie Night when I’m feeling lazy, but that free day could be where you know that you’re going to be busy and your people are going to be going several different directions and that one day is the day that you know you’ll be eating out because it’s easy and someone else does the clean up. I get it. Our time is precious and some days there is not a whole lot to go around, so dishes and clean up and the cushion of not having to plan a meal is a blessing.
The most important part of a menu plan, however, is the time savings it offers me. I’m not scrambling to thaw something out fast or running to the store for the 2 or 3 (or 7) random ingredients that I didn’t have in my pantry. That 20 minutes of time sucked up in the grocery store, even if you’re only stopping on your way home, is enough to push an already precarious evening over the edge. It pushes dinner time back I don’t know about you, but when my Second grader gets home he is basically in the grave with hunger. It matters little that he’s had a full breakfast, eaten his entire lunch and had a snack at school. He can hardly move his bones because he’s wasting away. There is zero chill when my humans are hungry and in this instance time is happiness.
Will My Kids Eat It?
Now that my kids are getting older and are a little more involved (and willing to help) I’m refining my meal planning to be a little more streamlined. I look equally at the calendar of activities and what we have on hand vs. what is going on our menu. If it’s piano night, you can be certain we’ll have something in the crockpot or a hotdish I can toss into the oven before I leave to do all of the running. If it’s a Thursday night, which tends to be quieter at our house because we have a 4-day school week, and my husband is usually off, we can choose something that requires a little more hands on help: ravioli that can be rolled out and stuffed by small hands or chicken and dumplings that a 2 year old can help cut.
Our kids have been counter-sitters since they were born. We’d literally put them in their little seat or bumbo on the counter as we cooked and chopped and prepared. We were literally always within arms distance of our kids and we never even had a near miss, probably because there was so much for them to look at and we kept up a steady stream of conversation about what we were doing. As they got older, they’d sit on the counter and stir or push the buttons on the mixer or pour the liquids. Sometimes they sat and cut up a banana with a dull knife to snack on. They learn a few important knife skills and get a snack to appease the hunger monster.
There are always going to be things that kids won’t eat – mine included. And there are always going to be meals that go over like a lead balloon. My husband and I agreed early on in our parenting that we were not a short order restaurant; everyone eats the same thing. If they’re not a fan of the soup we’re having, chances are good there’s going to be something along side of it that they will eat – maybe that means it’s bread or a small sandwich or a salad or fruit. Either way, there’s always going to be something on the table that our kids will eat. They have learned the hard way, however, that we try everything (you cannot tell me you don’t like something if you’ve never eaten it), and if you don’t eat your meal, you cannot complain about being hungry later. This is the face of a mama who does not care that you’re starving when 20 minutes ago there was a full and filling meal in front of your face. Not every meal is everyone’s favorite, but most of the time, everyone likes something that we’re eating.
Most importantly, though, we’ve found that there is a certain amount of pride that comes with saying: “I helped make that.” Whether it’s learning how to whisk eggs for French toast or chop tomatoes and cucumbers for a salad, if they help with the meal, they’re more likely to eat it. What that means in our house is that everyone helps. Everyone gets to chop something or stir something or carry something to the table. Everyone is invested.
Here’s the caveat to allowing our kids to get up on the counter and crack the eggs and fluff the rice: it’s messy. Oh my gosh – cooking with kids can be a big fat mess, with flour everywhere and maybe more spoons dirtied than if I was the only one to make the meal. But – at least in our house – the kitchen is where we spend most of our time. The evening meal is when we can be together after a long day of work and school and generally not being all together since breakfast. So if the balance to having in a few more crumbs to sweep up or a few more bowls to wash is that we can laugh and dance and share space? I will do it. I will do it every single day of the week.