Family Meal Solutions


If your kids complain and pick at their chili because of the “yucky” vegetables, this chili is for you!  My sons used to love my chili.  They ate big chunks of red bell pepper and onion with smiles on their faces.  Then the picky “threes” started, and suddenly my good eaters wouldn’t eat anything.  My solution–puree, puree, puree!

Super Picky Eaters' Chili BEFORE . . .

This mild, yet satisfying, chili is very versatile.  It can be made low carbohydrate or Paleo-style without beans or corn.  You may also add other vegetables, such as pumpkin or butternut squash to sweeten the chili and give it more vegetable nutrition.  The key with my picky eaters right now is to puree the vegetables they don’t like (such as onions and red peppers) and to leave the vegetables they do like whole (such as corn and butternut squash), so they recognize the yummy chunks in their food and are more likely to eat it.

. . . and AFTER! (okay, I did help him get the last bite)

I made this chili last night and my boys chowed it down.  I used a can of corn and added the beans to the boys’ bowls right before serving, skipping my own bowl.  This way my boys got the kidney beans they love and I was able to eat a double portion without worrying about my various health concerns.

Yum!  Aren’t you glad it’s soup weather again?

Super Picky Eaters’ Chili

2 1/2 pounds ground beef (or ground turkey)
2 cups water
1 cup onion, roughly chopped
1 cup red bell pepper, roughly chopped
6-8 cloves garlic
4 cups tomato juice
1  can kidney beans (about 1.5 cups) (optional)
1 can corn (or veggies of your choice – see variations)
1 tablespoon chili powder (add more if your kids like spicy foods)

Brown the beef in a dutch oven or stew pot over medium heat.  Pour off the grease and return the beef to the stove. Meanwhile, put the water, onion, red pepper and garlic in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Boil until the peppers and onions are soft.  Use a soup wand (stick blender) to puree the vegetables or put them into a blender or food processor and blend until the onions and red peppers are well pureed.  Add the pureed vegetables and tomato juice to the beef and simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour.  Add the beans, corn and spices (no need to drain the beans and corn unless you want to) and continue to simmer until the flavors have melded and the chili has cooked down to your desired thickness (drain the corn before adding for a thicker chili). Serve with shredded cheese or a dollop of yogurt if desired.

Makes about 12 cups of soup depending on how much you let it cook down

Variations: Add 1/2 – 1 cup pumpkin, butternut squash or carrots to the puree for a sweeter chili.

You may also add any other vegetable your kids like to eat, such as green beans or broccoli.  I once made a “chili vegetable soup,” using ground turkey, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, and green beans along with the onion, red pepper and tomato juice.  My kids ate it, so I consider it a success even though I thought it was only so-so tasting. Just remember, you want to puree anything they might “get picky” about and leave whole anything that will temp them to eat it.

Meal Planner:  I keep things simple by serving this chili with sliced apples and crackers or cornbread.

With the beginning of a new school year, I am crazy busy again.  It’s getting harder to carve out time to make and eat family meals with my boys.  Often it is easier, more convenient or necessary to eat on the go or to eat separate meals.  Yet, as I get busier and more distracted with outside concerns, I believe the need for family meals grows.  Family meals are one of the ways my family stays connected.  They are a constant, reliable part of my children’s lives.  My boys know that even if mommy is busy, I still will sit down with them to eat most of our meals together.  I will give them my undivided and hopefully positive attention as they talk about concrete mixers again (and again and again . . .).  This need for consistency grows even stronger as we are pulled in so many directions.

Aidan enjoys family meals.

As I try to align my busy life with my values, here are some things I am learning.

1.) If we skip a family dinner, it’s extra important to have time to talk about our days and our dreams during our bedtime rituals.  I try to start getting ready for bed earlier so we have plenty of time to talk about the things we saw or did during the day while we have our nightly thanksgiving and good nights.

2.) There’s nothing sacred about dinners when it comes to family meals.  If I know we won’t be eating together in the evening because the boys will be having a picnic dinner out of their lunch boxes at the Cub Hub while I study next door in the computer room, then that is the perfect day to make cottage cheese pancakes together for breakfast.  It might involve getting up a little earlier, but it’s a special time to connect before heading out the door, and that’s a real treat in our house!

3.) I can re-invent what a family meal looks like. Yes, most days I want the more traditional sit-down dinner with meat loaf, green beans and mashed potatoes, but if I can’t put this together because we have gotten home too late, I can still shun take-out and opt for cold cereal and bananas, yogurt, or pineapple and cottage cheese.  As long as we eat together and the food choices are healthy, adding real flexibility to my meal choices reduces stress!

4.)  A snack together is better than nothing.  This summer I always took peanut butter sandwiches to the pool because my boys would be famished when we got out of the water and because it made showering and dressing much easier. When we got home, I pulled out a pre-made salad for myself, plus some cut-up fruit and milk.  The boys would finish their dinner while I ate mine – a satisfying, if not short, compromise to not having a full meal together.

5.) Keep it simple and ask the boys to help.  One of the reasons I like cooking with my kids so much is that we really bond and enjoy each other during this time.  Adding more ways to have fun together in the kitchen and at the dinner table, makes it easier to stay committed to family meals.  Hopefully, as they grow more skilled in cooking, setting the table and washing the dishes, it will also lighten my load and make it easier for me to keep family meals a priority.

Do you have other ways you stay committed to family meals when your schedule heats up?  Please share in the comment section.  I’d love to have more ideas!

Have you ever ordered one half of a pizza with pepperoni and the other half with sausage?  This common family meal solution can be extended to other foods like casseroles, quiches and stromboli, keeping the entire family happy without making  a lot of extra work for busy parents.

Sausage and Cornbread Pie

Sausage and Cornbread Pie before adding the topping (shown here made with sausage links)

I started experimenting with this “separate meals in one dish” idea when my boys started rejecting foods with red peppers.  Cameron will happily pick raisins out of his pineapple carrot salad before wolfing his salad down, but he refuses to even try foods containing peppers or celery.  I can live without celery, but I miss the pepper and adding it to my own portion before eating isn’t always satisfactory.

This family meal solution works best with casseroles that are layered not mixed, such as lasagna or quiche.  One of my boys’ favorites, sausage and cornbread pie, can easily be modified using the separate meals in one dish technique.

Sausage and Cornbread Pie

1 pound ground sausage (Or 2 pounds sausage and omit the ground beef)
1 pound ground beef
2 red or green bell peppers
1 onion
1 ½ cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half (or one 15-ounce can petite diced tomatoes, drained)
1 ½ cups frozen corn (or one 15-ounce can, drained)
½ teaspoon sage
1 package cornbread mix (8 ounces)
½ cup milk
1 egg
6 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1 1/2 cup)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Brown the sausage and ground beef over medium heat.  Meanwhile, chop the red pepper into thin strips and finely chop the onion.  Drain the fat from the meat mixture then spread the meat evenly in the bottom of a 13” x 9” casserole dish.  Saute the red pepper, onion and cherry tomatoes (if using) in the hot skillet with a little cooking oil until the onion is translucent (about 3-4 minutes).  Transfer the pepper mixture to the casserole. Sprinkle the top of the casserole with corn, canned tomatoes (if using) and sage.

Mix the cornbread, milk, egg and cheese in a separate bowl until the batter is just moist.  Drop the cornbread batter on top of the casserole by spoonfuls, making sure you leave an opening in the middle and maybe in the corners (this allows steam to escape while cooking which keeps your cornbread topping from getting too soggy). Bake the casserole for about 20 minutes until the cornbread topping is lightly browned.

Yeild: Serves 8 adults  (You may halve this recipe, by halving all ingredients except use a whole egg.  I keep the extra cornbread mix in a zip-lock bag and just add it to the batter the next time I make muffins.)

Separate Meals in One Dish:   If you are trying to please picky eaters by making separate meals in the same dish, then sauté the vegetables separately as needed. (You may also want to reduce the amount of an unpopular vegetable).  Layer the vegetables on one half of the casserole or the other as desired.  The tastes will mix a little, but you can keep at least part of the meal pepper or onion-free.  When I make this casserole for my family I put a lot of peppers, onions, and tomatoes on my side with just a little corn.  The boys’ side gets lots of corn, a little tomato, a little onion, and no peppers.  I also put more cornbread topping on their side, since they enjoy it so much.  Aidan still picks at the tomatoes a little, but it doesn’t keep him from eating a healthy portion (and last time he actually ate a few tomatoes.)

Get the Kids to Help: I like to assemble this casserole myself then call the boys into the kitchen to make the cornbread topping.  Kids can measure, pour and mix the topping ingredients.  My boys also love to “plop” the topping into the casserole dish, although sometimes I have to perform damage control and remove some topping from the center so we have a good steam vent.

Meal Planner: This makes a great brunch dish for lazy weekend mornings.  Or serve it for dinner with a garden salad and fresh strawberries or cantaloupe on the side.

Salsa chicken helps me avoid the take-out trap.  It’s easy and ready the moment you walk in the door—perfect for families on the go.

I discovered this recipe last year when my boys were going through a high-maintenance phase.  For six months, they melted the minute we got home from daycare. They cried and clung to me and needed lots of hugs and books while they waited for dinner (which of course kept me from making dinner.)  By the time I got everyone to the table I could barely think, let alone be patient, nurturing and kind.

salsa chicken quesadilla

Aidan enjoys salsa chicken in a quesadilla.

This is why every parent needs a recipe like salsa chicken. Whether your kids are toddlers or teens, whether you work at home or away, you need a go-to meal for the days you know are going to be hectic.  Salsa chicken is my go-to meal.  With a little forethought and some preparation in the morning (or night before), I can have a hot, nutritious dinner on the table within ten minutes of walking through the door.  Beautiful!

Salsa Chicken

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs (2 large chicken breasts)

1 cup salsa (1/2 of a 16 ounce jar)

In the morning (or at lunch), put the chicken in a crock pot. Pour the salsa over the chicken and cook on high for 5 – 6 hours or on low for 8 – 11 hours*.  Use salsa chicken as a filling for burritos or soft tacos, serve it with cooked rice, or use it as a substitute for beef in taco salads.

Yield:  4 adult servings (this recipe doubles easily!)

*Note: Cooking times vary depending on the size of your crock pot, how hot it gets, and how tightly your lid fits.

Ten Minutes from Door to Table:

Step 1: The night before, I place the chicken and salsa on the second shelf of my refrigerator along with a glass dish full of corn and all the fixings for a Mexican burrito bar (whole wheat tortillas, shredded cheese, low-fat sour cream or plain yogurt, chopped lettuce, tomatoes, beans, guacamole etc.).

Step 2: In the morning, I put the salsa and chicken in the crock pot and turn it on.

Step 3: When we walk through the door at night, my boys put away their jackets and shoes while I stick the corn in the microwave.  We wash hands, then the boys put the burrito fixings on the table (with occasional help from mommy), while I put the chicken in a serving dish and finish the corn.  We set the table together, and “Ta-dah” dinner is served!

Variation 1:  My friend Misty adds half a jar of apricot preserves (I use the all fruit variety) and calls this recipe Dump Chicken. She prevents it from getting too juicy by cooking the chicken in the crock pot alone (yes, just set the chicken in there and turn the crock pot on low).  When she is ready to serve dinner, she mixes the salsa and preserves and pours the mixture over the cooked chicken. You may also cook the chicken, preserves and salsa in the crock pot together—my preferred way.  Dump Chicken makes a fabulous nacho topper or a dip for crackers.

Variation 2: Add a 15 ounce can of pineapple tidbits, drained, to the chicken and salsa before cooking.  Serve this over brown rice instead of in tortillas as it tends to be very juicy.

Picky Eater Pleaser:  Serving salsa chicken as part of a burrito bar should give most picky eaters something nutritious to eat.  Aidan likes to make his salsa chicken into a burrito with the works, but Cameron prefers to eat the chicken, cheese and tortilla separate with plain yogurt for dipping. You may also reduce the salsa content of this dish or cook the chicken without the salsa (see Variation 1).  My friend Maria drains the salsa “juice” into the crock pot with the chicken, reserving the chunky parts to add later at the table.  This gives the chicken the yummy flavor of the salsa, but keeps the offending peppers and onions out—a good family compromise.

One of the hardest lessons I’m learning as a parent is when to be flexible and when to stand firm.  This is especially true regarding my commitment not to cook separate meals for my picky eaters. Take last Friday. My sons picked at their burritos, cried about wanting “oatmeal, mommy,” threw grapes, left the table after barely eating and completely melted down an hour later because they wanted a snack.  All this after refusing oatmeal for breakfast, wolfing down two burritos a piece the week before and picking out the grapes at the store.

Picky eater eats same meal as family.

Cameron eats most of the same foods as the rest of the family . . . without a fork!

This is when I want to pull out my hair.

This is when I make myself sit on my hands and ignore the “mommy instinct” to fix something else just so they   a.) get a little protein and nutrients or b.) stop all that crying.

This is also when I question how well I balance the need to be flexible and firm.

Why I don’t make separate meals:

1.) Eating the same meal reinforces eating and working together as a family.

2.) Eating the same meal reinforces (eventually . . .) learning to try new foods, developing new tastes and learning to tolerate things that are not exactly to our liking.

3.) Eating the same meal (without forcing kids to actually eat), sets the dinner table for peace, relaxation and fellowship instead of negotiation, manipulation and whining (at least most of the time!).

4.) Eating the same meal gives parents a chance to model healthy eating habits.

5.) Eating the same meal gives tired and busy parents more time to enjoy other activities or to just sit down and rest.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I am fully committed to this idea.  The problem I have is deciding what exactly is a separate meal?  It’s easy to see that making chicken nuggets and tater-tots for your three-year-old while the rest of the family eats roast beef with mashed potatoes is making a separate meal.  But what about grilling rib-eyes for the adults and chopped steaks for the kids?  What about putting so much food on the table that everyone has at least four things they like to eat (although not necessarily the same things)?  What about fixing one meal but allowing endless snacks later on?

Where do you draw the line?

Luckily I had a good role model when I was growing up.  Soon after my fourteenth birthday I announced that I would no longer be eating meat. After realizing I was serious, my mother laid some ground rules.  I still had to eat dinner with the family.  If I wanted to eat something that was not on the menu, I would have to make it myself and add it as an offering for the whole family to enjoy.  If I wanted ingredients not in the cupboard, I would have to help with the grocery shopping.  With these few rules, my mother stood firm.  But she also showed remarkable flexibility.  She learned to make vegetarian spaghetti sauce with meatballs on the side.  She agreed to try new foods and menus for family meals.  She started serving rice and beans or cheesy vegetarian casseroles as side dishes to ham and roasts so I would have something filling to eat.  In essence, she learned to change her cooking style just a little in order to accommodate a well-meaning and earnest teen.

My mother’s example has helped me adopt a style of cooking that allows me to be both firm and flexible with my own children.  I do not make separate meals, but I also don’t rigidly make meals that my children won’t eat and say “This is dinner.  Eat it or go hungry.”  Actually, I have said that . . . but only after following a few simple guidelines.

Picky eater happily eats same meal as family.

Aidan happily eats his meal after choosing not to have sauce on his spaghetti.

How to avoid making separate meals:

1.) I plan nutritious, kid-friendly meals that other children seem to like, even if my children won’t eat them (yet!).

2.) I try lots of new foods, but I make sure most meals are ones I’ve had success with in the past.

3.)  If it’s easy to do (think spaghetti), I keep sauces separate from meats and grains.  For example, I might steam some veggies and rice, bake some chicken, and make a fabulous Tai peanut sauce, serving each separately at the table.  The adults and more adventurous kids get a spicy treat, while the picky eaters get some nutritious, plain foods that can be served (without touching each other!) on a separator plate.

4.) If it’s not easy to keep the main dish separate (think lasagna), I try to make sure there is at least two other (simple!) foods on the table that my kids will usually eat (think bread, celery sticks with peanut butter, carrot coins, or milk.) For example, I like to serve chili with grated cheese, whole wheat crackers and apple slices on the side.  Aidan and I enjoy it all, while Cameron happily fills up on crackers, apples and cheese, avoiding the “yucky” chili.

5.) If things get ugly, I remind myself that it’s not my job to make my kids eat, but to set the foundation for good eating habits now and later on.

So far, these guidelines have worked well for my family, although the boys occasionally test my limits.  Take last Friday. Although the meal was a disaster, I stood firm and did not make them oatmeal or anything else.  I patiently (and later impatiently) allowed the fussing and picking to go on until the grapes started flying; then I ended the meal.  I did not give them a snack (which is just a separate meal removed in time), but I didn’t stop Cameron when he helped himself to his left-over milk.  In fact, I went ahead and poured a cup for Aidan.  After all, they are learning too.

I tried to be flexible while imposing limits that I believe are important, and I think it worked.

Since then we have had a week of mostly peaceful meals and fun dinner conversations.  No, we haven’t achieved a balanced diet (yet!).  But we are starting to enjoy relaxing meals together.

For this busy mother that is what’s most important.