Ask Chef Emily: How Do I Deal With My Picky Kids at Dinnertime?

Chef Emily’s son, making his mama proud.

Dear Chef Emily, How do I deal with my picky kids at dinnertime? – Every parent that hears I’m a chef and a parent to a kid who prefers his bell pepper with hummus.

In our house, 5 p.m. is known as The Witching Hour. Everyone is rolling in from school and work, a commute, a swim lesson, any number of enriching activities that leave us hungry and spent. With a little foresight and planning, we can make each day a little easier on ourselves. Here’s 5 tips to get you started. Its okay if you fall off the rails. What’s important is that you try and get back on them, over and over again.

  1. Make a Plan

Courtesy of Tastes Lovely

Maybe you’ve heard of meal planning, maybe not. If you’ve ever thought, “Yeah, I should start doing that…” and then didn’t, that’s okay! Every Sunday is the start of a new week and time to give yourself a break. Making a plan is Sunday You investing in Future You so that the rest of the week is less crazed. We painted one small wall in our kitchen with chalkboard paint and every Sunday, write up the menu. The hardest part is choosing what to make. There are subscription services like The Fresh 20 that can do all the planning for you—for a price. Food Network’s magazine prides itself on 150+ recipes per issue, and a simple google search for “kid-friendly nutritious dinners” can turn up millions of results. Pick what you like, aim for lots of color and keep it simple. Then, make a shopping list and congratulate yourself for getting the lion’s share of the work done (and enjoy the rest of the weekend)!

  1. Your Enthusiasm is What Matters

Have you noticed that your kiddos pick up your tics? Maybe they pretend to do your job or mimic something you say or how you say it. The same goes with food. These perceptive little beings know when you don’t want to eat veggies either. No amount of “little trees” talk is going to sell them on broccoli if they don’t see it on your plate too. They want to be just like us, for better and for worse. So employ a fake-it-til-you-make it strategy and cook what you like. Skip the broccoli in favor of roasted beets, that’s okay! But don’t expect your kid to be a veggie lover if you aren’t.

  1. Lie.

I lie to my kid all the time about food. Ice cream for breakfast? It’s yogurt. Candy? I’ve convinced him that lollypops are gross, and he has eaten lollypops! So that mac & cheese we know they’d eat eight days a week? Half of that ooey gooey cheesy goodness in my house is actually canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix which is a different thing). Canned pumpkin is fully cooked and it is DELICIOUS and healthful, full of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Add half a can to your cheese mix (even the one out of a box) and you’ll pack a ton of nutrition into an otherwise not-so-healthy meal. The other half of the can? Mix into oatmeal, pancake batter, tomato sauce, even a tablespoon whirled into some warmed up apple cider is delicious. Or save it for mac & cheese tomorrow night because who are we kidding?

  1. Offer Again, and Again… and Again

Your kid likes avocado?! HOORAY!! Until she doesn’t… what gives? Kids are finicky little creatures and they will go through phases with likes and dislikes, starting with food. One week avocado on everything, the next “I don’t like that green stuff.” Our job as parents is to keep our cool, double check with “are you sure?” and move on. Offer up the offending food again tomorrow or next week, but don’t leap to believe that now avocado is off the menu forever. Don’t let them hear you say, “Yeah, she doesn’t like that,” to anyone because to them you are reinforcing their desire to please you. We don’t want to inadvertently communicate an expectation when really they are just going through a phase. Keep modeling how much you love avocado toast and they will come back around.

  1. It’s Not a Diner

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The chicken whisperer!

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It is not cruel to let your kiddo feel the pangs of hunger that are the result of rejecting what’s on offer for dinner. What is cruel is subjecting yourself to building three, four, five different dinners every night of the week to satisfy everyone’s individual desires. Why do we do this? Because we love our kids. And if we don’t feed them, they turn into hideous monsters screaming and banging plates and cutlery around. Here’s the thing: you’ve gotta let them feel that consequence. If you’ve already been trained to make 4 meals every night, stop. Just stop. I hear you say, “BUT…” as the panicked feeling rises. Trust me. Your child will not starve on your watch, but let it settle in with them that you are not their personal chef and your house is not a diner. You don’t let them blow dry their hair in the bathtub, or drive to themselves to school. Now give yourself some kitchen boundaries too and everyone will be better for it.