20 Parents of Preschoolers on the One Meal They Will Always Eat
Feeding a preschooler can be a wild ride. Starting at around age two, lots of kids start to get a bit um… discerning, about what they will and won’t put into their mouths. Testing boundaries and reticence to trying new things is “normal” at this age and can continue for a few years, but it’s hard to feel reassured when one day your your little one wants to eat grilled cheese at every single meal forever and ever and the next day they won’t touch the stuff. Of course, we all know it’s a good idea to expose our kids to variety and to present new foods often so that they get balanced nutrition and don’t grow up to be giant weirdos who only eat grilled cheese.
But here’s the truth: when you have an active preschooler on your hands, and a job, and perhaps even other kids at home, sometimes you just need meal time to be easy. So, when you find a meal that works for you kids, you hang on for dear life!
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Believe me, I’ve been there. My kids are past their pickiest eating years at 7 and 9, but one thing I’ve learned along the way is that meals that allow everyone to customize their own plate with toppings, like tacos, salad bar, and rice bowls, are often a sure bet. An always-a-hit recipe for Butter Chicken has also saved my equanimity on more than one occasion.
To help parents get through this tricky stage, I asked 20 parents feeding preschoolers right now to tell us about their go-to meals, plus tips and tricks for no-complaints meals. From the predictable (we’re looking at you mac and cheese) to the hilarious (calling chicken nuggets “toast”), read on to see what real parents are feeding their little ones.
Pasta, Of Course
Chicago mom Orly H’s daughter Margalit has a very two-year-old attitude. “One day she loves something, the next day she won’t touch it,” says Orly. But, like many kids, she’ll always eat mac and cheese. “We like Annie’s, but we make it a little healthier by throwing some fresh baby spinach or a handful of frozen peas in with the pasta for the last 30 seconds before straining it.”
Berlin-based Luisa Weiss, a.k.a. The Wednesday Chef and author of Classic German Baking, is mom to Hugo, 8, and Bruno, 4, and is no stranger to perplexing kid food quirks. While Bruno is the “pickiest” eater at her table, Luisa says he eats olives “like they’re manna from heaven.” Among his favorite meals are a warm bowl of pastina (check out Luisa’s recipe for this tiny pasta cooked in broth, with an egg whisked in at the end).
Katie H. from suburban Maryland faces the double whammy of having a preschooler with food allergies and a proclivity for “pickiness” but says “…there’s no greater satisfaction than giving him a meal that is safe and one that he loves.” Her kids Jamison, 4, and Hailey, 2, love macaroni and cheese, which Katie makes from scratch when she has time. “We use Barilla gluten free elbow pasta, milk, butter, and Kraft cheese. Kraft just came out with a pre-made Mac and Cheese cheese blend, and I was beyond excited when I found it. The kids love it!”
In Arlington, Virginia, Amber S., mom to Colette, 4, and Juliette, 6, says one of her “go to, never fail” meals is pasta with pesto. “I always make massive batches in the summer and store in half cup servings in the freezer. I throw the frozen pack of pesto in the pasta water as it comes to a boil and it defrosts perfectly.”
Breakfast for Dinner
Philly-based stay-at-home-dad Ed Duffy loves to make banana pancakes for his daughters, Addie, 6, and Nora, 3. “I love that these are naturally sweetened and have added protein with Greek yogurt. We do these pancakes a lot on the weekends, but the girls especially love it when we decide to do breakfast for dinner.”
Minneapolis mom of three, Molly S., has been giving her kids Teddy, 6, and Margaret and Frances, 5, the same food she and her husband eat. When dinner has to be something quick and easy Molly makes fried eggs (which her kids call “flat eggs”) and toast.
Andrea Mathis, the dietician behind @beautifuleatsandthings and @littleeatsandthings lives in Pinson, Alabama with her kids Christopher, 6, and Caden, 4, who like most kids, love pizza. “In addition to pepperoni and cheese, I like to provide a variety of fresh toppings such as spinach, mushrooms, bell peppers, and even pineapple,” she says. She’s also gotten her kids on board with an extra-healthy spin on the kid favorite: Mini Zucchini Pizza Boats. “The kids think they’re pretty cool and it’s a great way to add in a few more green veggies.”
Christine B. is a busy mom from Chester County, Pennsylvania with two adventurous eaters, Jack, 3, and Emma, 2. Their favorite main dish is baked salmon, which she serves with lobster mac and cheese (lucky kids!) and steamed broccoli for special meals. “I make the salmon with lemon juice, lemon zest, dried dill, and lemon pepper seasoning.”
Lauretta L. from Pleasantville, New York is mom to Nicky, 3, and Vinny, 7, and up against a host of food allergies. “My son Nicky is allergic to gluten, tree nuts, eggs, mustard seeds, sesame seeds, and garlic.” As a result, his diet is pretty simple. His favorite dinner is grilled chicken drumsticks, which he calls “chicken bones” and Lauretta’s preparation couldn’t be easier. “Just a little oil, salt, pepper and a hot grill. I typically try to round out the meal with a gluten-free starch and a vegetable. So, his perfect dinner would be “chicken bones,” rice, and broccoli.”
Single dad Mike F. from Spring Lake, NJ can pretty much always count on his homemade meatloaf to nail dinner with his kids Gunnar, 6, and Lars, 4. “I like to use some kind of organic, lean meat to keep things healthy, and I’ll serve it with sauteed broccoli or green beans on the side.” He rounds out the meal with a package of pre-seasoned rice or couscous for a quick and flavorful time- (and sanity-) saving side.
Fast, Healthy Freezer Meals
Working mom Kate A. from Washington, DC finds that her kids Teddy, 4, and Rosie, 6, will usually go for some combination of chicken or ham and cheese, but one of her favorite ways to combat the hangries is with a store-bought favorite that is both kid-friendly and full of vegetables: zucchini pancakes. “We like these from Gabilas!”
Los Angeles-based Dini Klein, mom to Andi, 7, and Jolie, 5,, and owner of Prep + Rally, a family-friendly digital meal prep subscription service, says her kids will always go for meatballs. “It’s just their favorite. I’m actually including a recipe in my upcoming cookbook. The best part about it is that you can prep them in advance, freeze, and serve any time…with spaghetti, in buns like a meatball sub, over zucchini noodles for a lightened up meal or even on rice.”
Liz P. and John C. are “recovered” chefs who met in culinary school and live in Mackinaw, Illinois, with their kids Hannah, 1, and Sofia, 4. Avid gardeners, Liz and John freeze homegrown cherry and grape tomatoes in a flat layer when they’re in season. Come winter, they throw them straight from the freezer into a saute pan with onions and garlic and cook them down into a sauce. “You can blend it if you want a smooth sauce or leave it chunky. Our girls love this with meatballs, and there are a million uses for basic tomato sauce,” John says. “This sauce is super easy because the fruit is ripe and after it quick-thaws in the pan, it breaks down quickly as it’s cooked.”
Slow Cooker to the Rescue
Taijha H. from La Grange, Georgia is a busy mom to three-year-old twins Tori and Tailor. Discovering a slow-cooker meal that her kids will always eat was like hitting the working mom lottery. “Slow-Cooker Salsa Chicken is a super-quick recipe that I have recommended to many friends because it’s so easy.” To make it, she combines seasoned chicken, a jar of salsa, black beans, and frozen corn, and slow cooks it on HIGH for 4 hours or LOW for 8 hours, then shreds it. “I have one picky eater who may pull out the black beans but she eats everything else up. I usually serve this over some rice or even in tacos. The girls love sour cream so I will usually top it with cheddar cheese and sour cream and they absolutely love it!”
Remember, Rebranding Works!
Rachel and Brandon F. from Penn Valley, Pennsylvania can always get their kids Liv, 6, and Mika, 2, to eat steak. “It’s such a hit that we’ve taken to referring to all red meat as ‘steak’ just to get our kids to eat it!” Hamburgers? Yep, that’s “steak.” Beef stew? “Steak!” Meatballs? You guessed it… “steak.”
Stephanie T. from Melrose, Massachusetts decided that when her kids, Eloise, 5, and Sloane, 2, were less than enthusiastic about eating fish, she needed to find a work-around. “We now call fish “chicken.” Always.” Her go-to meal? “Trader Joe’s breaded cod filets—“chicken” in my house—with some combination of sliced cucumbers, roasted carrots (with honey) and rice for my oldest, or broccoli and beans for my youngest. And edamame— no one here knows it’s a vegetable.”
Bryan P. of Richmond, California makes soup (organic chicken broth from Costco with corn, carrots, peas, bits of chicken or beef, and noodles) for his daughter Ava, 3. “She’s not a huge vegetable fan, but she’ll eat them in soup,” he says; in part because he encourages her to “hunt” for treasures in the bottom of her bowl and slurp up long noodles “Lady and the Tramp-style.”