Feeding picky eaters? Deconstructed dinners could be your solution
If you've hit your chicken finger limit, we've got an idea for you
For many parents, the week dinner routine can involve scrounging together supper for the kids, before putting them to bed and heading back to the kitchen to make a meal for ourselves — one that's not the pasta or chicken fingers we fed to them. Because even if those chicken fingers are marinated in buttermilk and deliciously tender, many of us do have a chicken finger limit.
This year, I'm aiming to avoid that two-meal routine by serving more dinners deconstructed. It means I'll be doing do one of two things; I'll either disassemble parts of the meal after it's cooked, such as taking the lentil soup I'll enjoy, pureeing and mixing it with a handful of cooked pasta to make it an easier sell for my kids, or I'll start with a meal that's served in parts to begin with, like DIY pizza night.
These dinners seem to go down best at our house, and I hope they'll help you too. Both methods are practically fool-proof, and can be applied to so much more than pizza and soup. And while you may accuse me of being a pushover for customizing my meals in such a way, I take comfort in the fact that this picky-eating phase will not last forever, and when my kids eventually leave my house, they'll have memories of us sitting down together, trying new flavours and foods.
Here's a list of recipe ideas to get you started with making your own deconstructed meals so you can simplify supper and eat together again.
Make these chicken fajitas or riff off of this recipe. You could simply use rotisserie chicken, or saute some in a little olive oil. While that's happening, slice up an onion into ½-inch rings and quarter a red and a green pepper, brush the vegetables with olive oil and salt, and broil them in the oven with the skin side of the peppers facing up; cook until the onions are soft and browning and the peppers are really charred and peel that skin off after it's cooled. Slice these and mix with a bit a dressing of a grated garlic clove stirred into the juice of two limes, a ¼ cup of olive oil, 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce, and a heaping teaspoon of brown sugar. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve it all with soft tortilla wraps, whole grain if you can find them, and condiments like salsa and sour cream or yogurt and grated cheese. Adults might appreciate hot sauce and diced jalapeno and you can encourage the pickier eaters to include at least a few slices of roasted red pepper in their wrap. If they refuse, diced cherry tomatoes sometimes fly instead.
Cook a grain, whichever one you like — short grain brown rice is most popular at ours.
Next, whip up any protein you'd like, like toasted chickpeas, seared tofu that you've pressed the liquid out of first, or thinly sliced cooked meat or fish. Keep their seasoning simple because the whole bowl is going to get dressed — or maybe not if you're a kid.
The dressing can be as simple as a vinaigrette or creamy, like a tahini dressing. Serve all these parts in little bowls at the table along with an assortment of steamed or roasted vegetables. I'm liking a combination of butternut squash, broccoli, and shelled edamame right now. Toasted nuts or seeds are also nice. Let everyone assemble their own bowl.
Pizza night, revised
Keeping balls of store bought or homemade pizza dough in the freezer will always give you options, but at my house someone's usually sworn off carbs or we're hosting a guest who can't eat gluten. So I've started offering different crusts, by making or buying a cauliflower crust (look it up!) and serving that along with the regular crust rolled out, plus alllll the toppings so everyone can assemble their own pie.
Pasta night, revised
You'll find it much easier to keep this popular meal in rotation if you make one sauce and get creative with what you put it on. I'm into spiralized vegetables so I'll steam or saute a batch of those and put them on the table along with the sauce in a separate bowl and a plate of whatever noodles the kids request — most usually dinosaurs.
If you want to skip adult noodles altogether, just turn the tomato sauce into the base for Shakshuka and cook the eggs in it for the adults while you're boiling dinosaur noodles.
Make Lentil Shepherd's Pie, or any other favourite casserole recipe. Once cooked, remove a portion of the topping for the kids and serve as a simple side if it makes sense, like potatoes. Then puree their serving of the middle until smooth and mix that with a bit of pasta for an easier sell. Or if the casserole recipe you're using has a filling with large chunks of meat, pull those out for the picky eaters and serve them simply with raw veggies.
Try this recipe for Chicken and Lentil Soup, making sure to keep the chicken in larger chunks so it's easy to pull out and served separately if your picky eater club pipes up. If you have to do this, puree a portion of the soup until smooth and use it as a sauce for pasta with lots of Parmesan cheese to serve beside the meat. I bet you're seeing a trend by now, but I'm telling you, this works.
You can do something similar with tinola, a Filipino chicken soup, or with Vietnamese pho, from which you can dig out the noodles and serve them alongside the meat or tofu. I like to add extra vegetables like carrots and spinach to the hot broth and fish them out to serve separately as well. Try pouring the broth into a mug and handing it to the kids with a straw. I find this sometimes gets approved.
Similar to soups, you can dig out parts of a stew and serve them in a way that conforms to picky eaters' demands. If that happens to involve a side of mayonnaise, that can sometimes be a worthwhile trade off for a drama-free meal.
This dig-out-the-meat technique works especially well with Beef Bourguignon, where the pieces are already already in large cubes and easy to grab. Neither of my kids have yet said yes to boiled potatoes, but I suggest adding mini red potatoes to this stew and pulling them out along with the meat. There's a good chance they'll try them one day, especially beside a squeeze of ketchup along with that mayo.
Now that you've got a little inspo for serving deconstructed meals, you can probably think of plenty of ways to do something similar with recipes you're already using. If you still need ideas, here are a few more you can easily deconstruct.
Jessica Brooks is a digital producer and pro-trained cook and baker. Follow her food stories on Instagram @brooks_cooks.