If I think of the early parenting topics that people wonder about the most, two bubble up: sleep and food. Today’s post is about the second. Food is a question that spans all of childhood. First there’s the question of breast milk versus formula. Then it’s baby-led weaning versus purees.
As children age into and through toddlerhood, food questions surround both what our kids should eat and how we can get them to eat. To some extent, nearly all toddlers are picky eaters. Most kids get more picky around the age of 1 to 2 and start getting a little more adventurous around 6 or 7. This phase can be very hard to work through. It’s frustrating to serve food to a picky eater, and if you’re trying to have a “family meal,” it can be even more so. You took some of your (very limited) time to make something delicious, and your kid touches it with their tongue and tells you they hate it. This is a low point for many of us.
There is no magic bullet for making picky eaters less picky, or family mealtime easier. This earlier post talks about the data behind encouraging kids to try food (basically, be supportive but not bossy). In The Family Firm, I also write about evidence that having children try vegetables with dip can improve their taste for vegetables. Both of these are small interventions, and they do not solve the overarching meal-prep-for-families problem.
In the absence of any really hard “fix this with data” approach, I often find myself looking for help that is flexible. Which is part of the reason I’m a fan of Caroline Chambers, who is today’s interviewee. Caroline will introduce herself below, but you can find her on Instagram and Substack, among other places. She’s an author, a chef, and a parent, and her work is great. We are going to solve your family meal problems. Or at least provide you with one tasty recipe to try. Enjoy!
Emily: Hello! Thanks for doing this email discussion with me. I’m extremely excited for it. I am hoping you’ll help us all solve one of the frustrating parts of parenting, which is trying to make meals that are healthy and varied and that everyone likes. I expect a solution by the end of this newsletter (JK, sort of)! But first things first: Can you introduce yourself — who you are, what you do, and how people can find you?
Caroline: No pressure! But truthfully, I have lots of ideas and have helped hundreds (maybe thousands?) of families overcome dinnertime drudgery, so I’m excited to share some ideas.
I’m Caroline Chambers, a professional recipe developer and cookbook author who, after becoming a parent, got a lot better at my job. Suddenly I realized how many opportunities there are in recipe writing to make things more efficient, quicker, and easier to clean up. I’ve hacked together techniques that fancy chefs would turn up their noses at but that absolutely save the day for busy parents. One example: In my asparagus risotto recipe, we cook the risotto in the oven (instead of stirring it ceaselessly for an hour) and we roast the asparagus by flipping the lid of the risotto pot over and roasting it right on top of the overturned lid, thus eliminating an extra dirty dish.
I share a lot of simple recipes and cooking hacks on Instagram at @carochambers, and I have a weekly newsletter where I share a complete family-friendly meal that takes under an hour to make, uses fewer than 15 ingredients, and requires minimal cleanup, called What To Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking. Subscribers get a new recipe every Sunday morning, and I challenge them to make it that week to introduce their families to new flavors and shake up dinnertime a bit.
Emily: One of my spouse’s primary complaints about me is that I’m a messy cook, so this is useful information. The main thing we’re going to do here is have you give us a recipe to try — to give us a taste of what you do — but I wanted to start with a couple of broader questions.
My first is, really: Why is this challenging? I think many of us would say that cooking for our families is hard. But I find it more difficult to articulate whether the challenge is time, pickiness, creativity, or something else. Do you have a sense from the people you work with of what the biggest challenges are?
Caroline: Oh my gosh, where to start?
First of all: It’s challenging because it’s so much more than just cooking. It’s picking the recipes. It’s filtering through the hundreds of recipes that might come across your social media pages every day to choose one to actually cook.
For parents, we’re also then putting each of these recipes through the filter of: Will my kids actually eat this? How can I trick them into eating it? Many home cooks also deal with picky spouses, which adds a whole other challenging layer to things. Thinking through multiple different people’s food aversions takes a lot of time and energy!
Also, cooking is a skill that many were not taught and now, as parents, are suddenly expected to just possess. Just like any skill, it takes a lot of time and practice, but that learning process can be so frustrating that many people just quit and resort to frozen food or takeout. This is why I write all of my recipes in really simple language. No non-professional cook should be expected to know what the words “temper” or “braise” mean!
Finally, rejection stings, even if it’s from a 2-year-old, and working hard to cook dinner only to have it rejected over and over again is pretty defeating. It’s hard to get psyched up to cook when every single night is a battle, and I know that’s the case in many homes.
So to sum that up: cooking for our families is hard because it’s so much more than just the cooking part!
By the way, I don’t know if there’s any Oster data you can put behind this, but I will say I do find that my 3-year-old is highly more likely to eat new things if the entire family is all sitting down together at the dinner table eating the same thing. He looks around, sees everyone else eating it, and … something clicks and he’s willing to give it a shot. Just throwing that out there in case anyone else needs a new trick to try out!
Emily: The last point is interesting. I think at 3, that worked well with my kids. At 6, it works less well. Although what I will say is that discussing it is usually a big failure. Sometimes we can get kids to try things and eat them just by not making a big deal about it. Sometimes. (There is data showing that forcing kids to finish a particular food doesn’t help their enjoyment of it. So we do not do that.)
The rejection point I think is hugely important and useful for people to hear. It’s so defeating when people do not like what you cook. One of my family’s favorite stories about me is when I threw a tray of sausage rolls in the sink in stomping anger when no one liked them. This wasn’t very mature, I suppose. But you can see the instinct. They were a huge amount of work!
Is there something to make this easier? One thing I have noticed about at least some of your recipes is they have a bit of an assemble-your-own strategy. I have sometimes used this also — a way to all eat the same thing, with people being able to be a little picky but included. Is this intentional?
Caroline: The point about it working at age 3 but not at 6 made me laugh. Whenever parents of babies (like, under 18 months) tell me, “We’re so lucky, he eats absolutely everything,” I am so tempted to tell them that my picky eater also used to eat everything. But they change! But I bite my tongue, because is there anything worse than the “You just wait” parenting advice/doom? No, there is not.
Your story about the sausage rolls is all of us! I can “gentle parent” my way through a beast of a temper tantrum, but when my toddler “politely” rejects the dinner I was so sure he’d love? Throwing the food in the sink sounds tame! Hell hath no fury like a mother whose dinner has been rejected for the millionth time. It is unbelievably frustrating.
Sausage rolls are actually a great example of something I tend to avoid when crafting “kid-friendly” meals. Something where the entire meal is all wrapped up into one package that the child has no say over can often lead to rejection. But a sausage with a side of cooked cabbage, some mustard (OK, and ketchup), and a roll? That gives the kid some freedom, some say in the situation. And it’s still totally delicious for the adults and kids.
I also think a lot of the “parenting wisdom” out there today tells us to never, ever cook separate meals for our children and to always just serve them what we eat. And honestly, I don’t buy into that. Some nights I want a spicy panang curry for dinner, and my little beasts are simply not going to eat that. So they get a peanut-butter-and-jelly, and I get my spicy curry, and we are all happy. I’m not cooking two separate meals and feeling like an overworked short-order cook, I’m quickly slapping together a peanut-butter-and-jelly, so I by no means feel taxed by this. I feel very happy about this, in fact.
By the way, I jokingly (but not really jokingly) always say there’s no such thing as a kid-friendly meal, because kids are not friendly about meals. Something that is kid-friendly to your best friend’s kids might be 100% unfriendly to your kids! And that doesn’t make either one of you a better parent, it just makes feeding kids really annoying.
Emily: We’ve experimented with this last piece, on whether to have separate meals. I talk about it a bit in The Family Firm. I think there are multiple good ways to do it, but I try to encourage people to make whatever choices they have deliberately. Meaning it isn’t that if you whine enough about not liking the food, you get PB&J or nuggets, but that there is a plan up-front for when that’s an OK option. Our family has Google docs with written policies, which sometimes seems like overkill, but at least then we are on the same page.
We have a standard backup meal (hummus and raw veggies) that is always available if you do not like the food. We picked this because it’s easy and they like it, but not so much that they’d pick it every day. And then if there is an “experiment” meal that we haven’t had before, you have to try it, but if you do not like it, you can have something else. For me, one thing that has been hard to get used to is sometimes they just do not eat very much. Which is OK! They’ll make it up at another meal. But it’s hard not to overreact to.
I love all this, and I suspect that we could go back and forth for pages and pages. But I also hoped we’d have a little space here for you to give us a recipe. How about it?
Caroline: I love the idea of a permanent “backup meal.” I’m going to introduce that in my house! Hummus and raw veggies sounds like a perfect one for this house too. PB&J would be too enticing, plus it means that we have to stand up and make another meal before we can eat, which feels counterproductive.
OK! I polled my subscribers on what their #1 tried-and-true most kid-friendly What To Cook meal is, and hands-down my Healthy-ish Turkey Bolognese won. Both of my kids ate a freakish amount (nothing feels better than when they eat a freakish amount), so I had high hopes that everyone else’s kids would too. And sure enough ... over the course of the week that I published this recipe, I got hundreds of emails and DMs with photos of adorable, red-sauce-covered children. Everyone’s second-favorite part of this recipe is that it actually makes a double batch — so I encourage you to freeze half of the sauce for a rainy day. Same amount of work, twice the amount of meals.
Here it is!
Be sure to join What To Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking for more easy weeknight meals that even the most novice cook can accomplish stress-free.