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.

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.

Last summer I thought it would be a good idea to introduce my boys to raw vegetables.  They thought otherwise.  Bits of broccoli, cabbage and zucchini ended up on the floor, on the cupboards, in my hair, in my sons’ ears—everywhere but in their mouths.  I kept offering and they kept refusing.  Then I read a newspaper column by celebrity chef and father of four, Wolfgang Puck.  He claimed a great way to get kids to try new foods was to introduce the new food gradually to something the child already likes.  He was specifically referring to herbs and spices, such as adding tiny amounts of cumin or turmeric to steamed cauliflower to introduce the taste of curry, but to me this seemed like a sensible approach for introducing any new food.

Aidan eats his carrots mixed with pineapple and other yummy fruits.

Soon I was on the couch, flipping through cookbooks for inspiration.  By the end of the evening I had developed this tasty fruit and veggie salad—one that quickly became a staple in our house.  I especially like that it introduces kids to fresh salads— something very important to me as an avid gardener and salad lover.  It’s also toddler-friendly as the whole salad is shredded or cut into tiny pieces.

It’s been almost a year since I introduced this salad and my boys still won’t eat most raw vegetables.  But they love this salad—including the raw carrot!

Pineapple Carrot Salad

1 can pineapple tidbits, packed in juice (15 ounces)
2 apples
1 carrot
1/3 cup raisins*

Drain the pineapple, reserving the juice.  Peel and core the apples.  Remove the ends from the carrot and peel if desired. Shred the apples and the carrot and place in a large serving bowl.  Add the pineapple and 1/3 cup of reserved juice.  Add the raisins and mix well.  You may eat the salad immediately or chill and serve it later (the pineapple juice keeps the apples from turning brown too quickly, so this salad can be made a few hours early or enjoyed the next day as a left-over).

Servings: 4 adult servings

*Raisins may pose a choking hazard for kids under three.  Try boiling the raisins in pineapple juice until they plump (3-5 minutes in the microwave) to make them soft enough for a young child to chew.

Variation: Add 1-2 tablespoons of yogurt, mayonnaise or salad dressing to make the salad creamy or to introduce the taste of mayonnaise salads.  You may also try adding bits of shredded zucchini or finely chopped broccoli.

Get the Kids to Help:  Kids can add all of the ingredients to the bowl and mix the salad.  Letting your picky eater help may also increase the odds that she will at least try the salad.

Cameron picks out the raisins . . .

. . . then eats two helpings!

Picky Eater Pleaser:  If your child will not usually eat “mixed foods,” try letting her sample a bite of each ingredient first.  Then let her add the ones she likes to her own bowl to “mix.”  If your child is willing to eat mixed fruit salads, but you think she might balk at the carrots, try adding a small amount of carrot the first time you make the salad.  You can gradually increase the amount each time you make the salad or as your child shows a willingness to eat it.

Menu Planner:  This is a great fall and winter salad when apples are in season and fresh produce is hard to find.  Keep things simple by pairing it with grilled or baked chicken and baked potato.  I also like to serve this salad in the summer when I’m having a “summer salad meal”—a family tradition where the entire meal consists of fresh salads from the garden.  My boys might pick at the rest of their meal, but I know they’ll fill up if this salad is on the menu.