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Fast Food for Picky Preschoolers

Easy Baked Penne with Ricotta and Basil

Easy Baked Penne

I write about food for a living. I’ve vacationed in cities simply to indulge in the food. I may or may not have married my husband for his pancake recipe. So why is it so difficult to feed my preschooler nutritious meals without a suppertime standoff?

In the beginning I made the rookie mistake of preparing two separate meals – one for her and one for us. Then I insisted she ate what we eat but the leap from peanut butter and jelly to Thai curry was a big one. After a couple years of practice, my husband and I have embraced a few (nearly) surefire ways to feed our picky daughter without too much toil and ensure she gets the wholesome foods she needs. Here’s how:

Time-Saving Tips
We do our best to eat meals together, and time-saving strategies like these below help that happen.

  • Make a meal planner. By choosing and shopping for our weekly meals in advance, we cut down on the 6pm scramble and can plan on leftovers for lunches.
  • Make some. Buy some. Ready-made to the rescue! Frozen fruits and veggies, pasta sauce, hummus, pre-made soups and fish fingers are my superheroes when time is tight. We’re not above frozen pizzas with a side of veggies either.
  • Batch cooking. When we have time, we prepare big batches of staple ingredients our daughter likes (roast carrots and rice) to incorporate into various meals through the week.
  • Loco for pollo. A roast chicken is a wonderful thing. Shredded, chopped or diced, it pleases many palates for many meals.  
  • Cool it. We freeze baked pasta in individual portions.
  • Cut it. We cut up fruit and veggies in advance, so that we have snacks and sides at the ready.

Roasted Kale Chips with Parmigiano-Reggiano

Roasted Kale Chips

Family Favorites

Some day I hope our daughter will eat all the same dishes my husband and I do, but until then we’re working hard to introduce her to new foods, finding new ways to serve her favorites and discovering dishes that we all like. Here are a few examples.

  • Crazy for Quesadillas. Easy to make with endless filling possibilities, these are great vehicles for introducing new foods or masking foods my daughter claims she doesn’t like. (That’s right, you ate butternut squash and liked it!)
  • Pancake Party. Everyone loves pancakes! We make dinner pancakes with sweet potatoes or spinach.
  • Kale is the new potato. Two words. Kale. Chips. Although she passes on raw leafy greens, she devours crunchy kale as a side or snack and so do I.
  • Chick peas for lil’ peas. Packed with protein, fiber and flavor and renamed “crunchies,” oven-roasted chickpeas are one of her favorite sides. We tweak the amount of spice. Tip: there are endless variations of spice mixes that please young palates.
  • Nuggets. Crunchy Homemade Chicken Nuggets and panko-crusted fish are winners. We cut her portion into strips before cooking and leave our fish fillet or chicken breast whole. Tip: leftovers are great for salads and sandwiches.

Crunchy Homemade Chicken Nuggets

Crunchy Homemade Chicken Nuggets

  • Basta Pasta. We mastered pasta night when we discovered she’ll eat nearly any red sauce and pasta shape. We experiment with different veggies and protein additions.
  • Mac n’ cheese please. I know it’s pasta, but our mac n’ cheese deserves a separate call out. We experiment with cheeses and stud our mac n’ cheese with corn, peas and shredded carrots.
  • Maximize ingredients. There are some meals that my husband and I enjoy like stir-fries that our daughter won’t eat. She will, however, eat many of the components of the meal. We serve her the rice, veggies and protein (just not mixed together).

Kids’ Choice
Children are often more willing to eat foods they have help to prepare. During the week, kids can still get involved without holding up the dash to the dinner table. We have our daughter pick the pasta shapes, frozen or cooked veggies or type of cheese.

I’d appreciate hearing from other parents of preschoolers on your mealtime tips and favorite family meals. Together we can survive mealtime madness!

Updated June 2015.

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Tina Roberts says …

It's funny to read that you write about food for a living and found yourself in the food rut with your daughter. My husband and I have owned and operated a farm to table restaurant for 17 years and I find it a huge weight to make healthy lunches for my kids! I have a grueling schedule so I just kind of gave up and started getting my husband to make them wraps for lunch so they were at least eating meat butchered at the restaurant instead of the processed crap I was grabbing at the store. Edamame beans are a huge hit in our house as well as "carrot chips" discovered on accident! After reading your post, I am now vowing to make the weekly schedule! Thanks for the tips!

TGH says …

My five yr old is the best eater around. There are few meals he doesn't pick himself and eats more variety than most adults (and from all food groups). If I tell him we're having fish tonight, he'll say, can I have the Marlin or Grouper cuz that's my favorite! He was voted in preschool to have the best packed gourmet lunches!

Wendy says …

Oh man do I feel your pain. My son, now 5, is one of the Picky Eater Pack! I read a book, What's Eating Your Child, The Hidden Connection Between Food and Childhood Ailments by Kelly Dorfman. It was incredibly helpful in teaching your child how to eat. She calls it "learning to eat". For example, my son wouldn't eat salad. I started by going and buying several choices of salad dressing. We had a fun taste test contest. He found one he liked. Then the next step was to eat salad everyday for 2 weeks. At first he had to eat one small fork-full and was allowed to spit it out if he didn't like it. Then over the course of 2-3 days he had to eat it and swallow. He got an award from our treasure box for "learning to eat salad" after eating it everyday for 2 weeks. Now he loves it. I've also made a list of all the proteins, veggies, fruits and grains he likes and from there I plan a months worth of menu items with one new food he has to learn to like over the course of the month. It's been a VERY long road but he is starting to enjoy the food. He helps me cook a lot and it's a lot of fun working together.

kris says …

i couldn't agree more. i insist on eating healthy and make it a point to cook unprocessed and organic whenever possible. though i'm not exactly a foodie, i LOVE food. everything about it. and i want my kids to as well! i have twin 3 year olds and it's a major challenge preparing meals that everyone wants to eat (not to mention finding the time with a job as well!). i actually do a lot of the tips you suggest, but now i want to know how to reach that point where i don't have to hide the veggies and fruit. i want to create healthy habits too and for them to want to try new things. maybe i'm asking too much of 3 yr olds! keeping writing, and thank you!

AM says …

Some really great ideas! Our three year old son used to eat anything but once he turned about two and a half he refuses anything green. Except Kale Chips! I actually made my first home made batch yesterday before I read this article! Going to try the chick peas, frozen fish sticks and Quesadillas with butternut squash! Pancake night too! I am definitely going to start having him help with meals. I think that will really get him excited about eating what he helped make! THANKS!

Karen says …

I wish that some of these tips would help at our house! My 8-year old and 3-year old will not eat veggies, meat, hummus, beans, or nuts at all! They both like their food separate as well, so we cannot hide anything anywhere. And sauces are turned down completely! I'm in such a rut and just have no idea what to do. I do like the idea that Wendy presented, though, on teaching them to eat. I may try that and see what comes of it. Good luck to those with picky eaters, it's rough and terribly frustrating!!

Kelly says …

I love reading the comments, they are as helpful as the recipe/cooking ideas above! My 7 year old is very picky, if she eats at all. Even her PB&J comes home with a half not eaten every day! She will eat a few raw veggies and loves fruit. Also she of course loves pasta. So the other day she ate eggplant parm because we told her it was cheese lasagna! She loved it! Still working on getting more protein in to her diet, always a challenge.