(Photo/Instagram @kids.eat.in.color)
(Photo/Instagram @kids.eat.in.color)

Want rave reviews for dinner? Let your kids choose.

“This dinner isn’t good… it’s stupendous!” Harvey, 5, told me at the table this week.

“It’s not great… it’s amazing!” Nate, 9, chimed in.

What magical meal had I placed in front of them to cut through the oh-so-typical kid dinnertime complaints? No, it wasn’t macaroni and cheese, though that’s definitely in our rotation. That night I’d put out a bunch of things. From the refrigerator, I’d pulled out plain cooked farro and lentils that I’d prepared a few days before (pro tip: farro and lentils have the same cooking time; just throw them into a pot with water and boil). I also grabbed a tub of plain yogurt and a parsley-garlic-lime paste that I had improvised in the food processor earlier in the week so that the parsley wouldn’t go bad. Then I had cooked a week-old eggplant with a can of tomatoes and spices in an approximation of baingan bharta, and I’d simmered chicken in a jar of butter masala sauce from the grocery store. I also dumped a can of garbanzo beans onto a baking sheet, tossed them with olive oil and salt and roasted them until crunchy.

It was a hodge-podge meal that was mostly aimed at using up things in the refrigerator, and that I hadn’t expected to go over particularly well with the kids. That’s why I’d roasted the chickpeas, in fact; I knew they liked those.

It felt great to be appreciated as a cook, especially since the accolades were so unexpected. I do most of the family cooking, and I know too well how crummy it feels to work hard to get dinner on the table at the end of the day only to have the kids groan and complain the second it’s set down before them. In fact, when Harvey wanders into the kitchen when I’m cooking to ask what’s for dinner, I usually won’t tell him because I don’t want his feedback.

But when I thought about this “stupendous” dinner, which Harvey maintained was “better than pasta,” I realized the key to its success: There were a lot of choices.

I’ve started to notice that meals made up of lots of little things tend to go over pretty well in my household. Think taco night with a choice of toppings…. or rice bowls with a choice of toppings. Everyone can find something they like on the table, and they seem excited to select from so many options in front of them. For instance, on the night in question, Nate, who can usually be counted on to eat grain-and-bean combos, devoured two giant helpings of farro and lentils that he’d topped with scoops of yogurt and roasted chickpeas. He ignored the small serving of eggplant I’d put on his plate for decorative purposes. Harvey, meanwhile, ate a little bit of the farro and lentils and plenty of the chickpeas and chicken. Aaron ate everything except the chicken and parsley paste, and I ate everything except the chickpeas, which I was saving for everyone else.

I’ve come to think of a good family dinner as one that has “entry points” for every person, something that will appeal to them and that they can use as a base while exploring other foods. I subscribe to the “division of responsibility” approach to feeding kids, developed by nutritionist Ellyn Satter, which is a widely accepted method meant to develop good eaters while minimizing conflict around food. In a nutshell, the idea is that the parents are responsible for determining the timing and content of meals, and kids are responsible for choosing what and how much they eat at each meal. (The Instagram account “Kids Eat in Color” is a great guide to this philosophy.) So I don’t insist that my kids taste everything, and depending on the meal, I either let them serve themselves, or I serve them but put only bite-size portions on their plates of foods that I know they aren’t comfortable with. They can always ask for more. Sometimes they’ll reject something early in a meal but take a taste midway through.

Creating a kid-friendly entry point to a meal can be as simple as adding carrot sticks, apple slices, or crackers and hummus to whatever I’m already cooking. About once a week I cook fish or chicken, and for those meals I add a vegetarian protein like hard-boiled eggs or roasted chickpeas because the kids don’t eat fish and Nate and Aaron don’t eat chicken. (Everyone in my family has a different practice around meat-eating, ranging from Nate, full vegetarian, to Harvey, happy carnivore. It’s complicated.)

In many ways, this is not hard to do if you’re already cooking dinner. But it is a lot to think about, night after night after night. And brain space is at a premium for parents, especially moms, who are already drowning under a crushing mental load of jobs and shopping lists and doctor’s appointments and school schedules. But I know what to do on those nights when I just can’t figure out how to assemble a balanced meal that has something for everyone. I open up the pantry and take out a box of mac and cheese.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.