I know so many of us struggle coming up with kid friendly meals for picky eaters. In fact, time and again, I find the biggest obstacle standing in the way of most meal planning woes is the impossible challenge of serving meals that everyone will like. Did you notice I called it impossible? Just making sure. 🙂 It’s actually what caused me to hit rock bottom with meal planning for my own family. Because, at some point, it becomes very hard to muster up the energy to meal plan when you feel like whatever you serve is not going to be eaten by the folks you love.
One great option to help ‘cater’ to the different preferences and opinions of your family without working yourself into a short order cook is to offer dinner bar options. The basic gist is that you provide the same theme of a meal to everyone but let each family member choose his or her toppings. There are several meals that warrant this kind of variety of toppings and, if approached thoughtfully, can really simplify the weekly planning and prep of dinners. And, bonus, you might actually enjoy eating a meal when no one is complaining. Score.
How to make this painless
- If you’re planning to give this a shot, I recommend you plan to do two of these in the same week. Why? Simple. Most of the ‘toppings’ can be used for multiple dinner bars so there’s really no sense in prepping a variety of toppings for just one meal. We’re looking to simplify here and the best way to do that is to let the food work double duty. You can easily use the Salad Bar night as a catch-all for any of the other nights, so be sure to plan that as the second of the two bars if you include it in your week.
- Add in ‘FUN’ toppings so the kiddos look forward to this meal. Good luck ‘selling’ a pasta bar to your 7-year old as something new and fun if the toppings are red sauce, meatballs, and steamed veggies. Add in some black olives, different cheeses, and nuts and my kids will call it a winner!
- Relinquish some control. When you first introduce this to your family, I recommend not being strict on the types of foods the kids need to include in their meals. This is especially true if dinnertime has been the source of a power struggle between you and your kiddos before. Over time, as the kids look more and more forward to these nights, you can group like items together and encourage them to pick at least one topping from each category.
- Get the right tools! Use glass (aka: CLEAR!) pyrex storage dishes to make storing and serving simple. If I had a nickel for every time I had stored leftover black olives from taco night in one of my white CorningWare dishes in the fridge, only to forget it on potato bar night, I’d be rich. And, let’s not talk about the number of ‘science experiments’ that have come out of those cute, white dishes. So, peace out, Corningware and hello clear Pyrex!
Family Friendly Dinner Bars
Here are some of the types of meals that most warrant a dinner bar approach and topping suggestions for each.
Baked Potato Bar
Base: White or Sweet potatoes, you can use small red or Yukon gold potatoes to mix it up if it becomes a staple in your meal plan
Toppings options: Shredded cheese, goat cheese, steamed broccoli, shredded carrots, butter, green onions, black olives, sour cream, ranch dressing, salsa, avocado, chili, taco meat
Base: Crunchy shells, soft flour or corn tortillas, tortilla chips
Toppings options: Shredded chicken, seasoned ground meat, chili, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, black olives, avocado or guacamole, black beans, rice
Base: Rice noodles, quinoa, white or brown rice
Toppings options: Pork, shrimp, tofu, water chestnuts, nuts, shredded carrots, cilantro, broth, egg, basil
Base: Rice noodles, spaghetti squash, old-school pasta 🙂
Toppings options: Meatballs, grilled veggies, steamed broccoli, shredded cheddar, parmesan, tomato sauce, olive oil and garlic, pine nuts, bacon, black olives (again!)
Base: Pizza dough, Naan, English muffins
Toppings options: You can do this one without me, I’m sure.
Base: Lettuce, Spinach, or skip the base altogether (my daughter made a salad last week and used shredded carrots as the base)
Toppings options: Traditional veggies, chicken, leftover pork, deli meat, chicken nuggets (why not?!), nuts, cheese, avocado, croutons
That doesn’t seem SIMPLE.
Ummm….that’s a LOT of toppings! Does this mean that you’re making a ton of options and variations for each meal? Nope. The toppings listed are just options. At some point, if you provide too much variety, it would actually be easier to be that short order cook who is actually NOT welcome in our home. So, pick and choose and experiment with a number that works for you and your family. If you decide on the toppings when you meal plan (because HELLO!! you should be meal planning), you can actually prep them ahead of time and be ready to roll during the week. So, yes. Dinner bars WILL simplify dinnertime.
Don’t forget the big picture.
So, secret confession time, here. The beauty of serving these types of meals, at first glance, lies solely in that it simplifies our evenings because everyone is happy, right? The other, more important benefit is that it opens kids up to the idea of eating a wider variety of foods. Remember, we’re doing all of this because we’re at our wits end finding kid friendly meals for picky eaters.
When they see toppings that they’d never imagine putting on pasta as an option, they slowly become more open-minded about other food combinations, as well. And, if they’ve never eaten a salad before and choose to make one out of carrots and nuts, they are one step closer to eating a traditional salad because they’ve experienced eating a raw vegetable, cut up in a bowl, with a dressing (maybe).
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