The 5 Best Dinners That Let Picky Eaters Choose Their Own Adventure

published Jul 19, 2021
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Credit: Stephanie Ganz

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When it comes to mealtimes, everyone in my family has a different idea of success. For my 3-year-old, Hazel, it’s whatever is the fastest route to dessert. For my 9-year-old, Lily, it’s carbs on carbs and plenty of ketchup. For me, it’s a peaceful shared meal with no tears and a decent amount of calories consumed by all.

In our house, picky eaters are redubbed “discerning palates,” a distinction that lends a bit of grace to the ongoing dialogue between parent and child. I get it! Eating (or not eating) is one of the first ways a young human can assert their preference and use their power. It’s a big deal. But it’s also maddening to make dinner for a kid whose idea of a balanced meal is milk and butter noodles.

So together, we brainstormed some weeknight dinners with broad appeal, and the thread that connects them all is choice. Enter the choose-your-own-adventure dinner — a meal that includes a foundation (like noodles) with a bunch of toppings that the kids can choose to add or not add in any quantity that feels right for them. I usually set it up like a cafeteria line, spread across the kitchen counter, so we can each take turns piling on the toppings before sitting down at the table. By getting buy-in before we ever start eating, I can (usually, sometimes) avoid the skirmishes that can so often plague family dinner. 


Credit: Leela Cyd

Not only is there the advantage of letting each family member choose their crêpe fillings, there’s also the indisputable fact that crêpe-making is fun to watch. I set out a few easy options, then the girls go through the line and pick out their filings before arriving at the crêpe-making station (ok, it’s a stove, but we’re going for whimsy here). They love watching me pour and swirl the crêpe batter in the pan and seeing how easily it slides out onto their plates before we add our fillings and head to the crêpe eating station (ok, it’s the kitchen table). 

Topping suggestions:

  • Ham
  • Cheese (cheddar and brie are our favorites)
  • Mushrooms
  • Bacon
  • Spinach
  • Minced red peppers

Mom’s Famous Ombre Nachos

Credit: Stephanie Ganz

We can almost always agree on nachos, but what nacho means to each of us is a little different, so I’ve devised a sheet tray nacho wherein the toppings create a sort of edible ombre effect. One end of the tray is just cheesy chips with a little drizzle of sour cream, perfect for the spice-averse, but the toppings add up from there until you reach the other side of the tray, which is loaded with shredded chicken, refried beans, and more. “But that’s just chips!” you might argue, and you’re not wrong. But it’s chips with choices, plus exposure to all the other fun, more nutrient-dense toppings, thus making them a little less scary for subsequent nacho experiences. And that’s not nothing.

Topping suggestions:

  • Ground meat or meat substitute 
  • Lettuce and tomatoes
  • Pickled jalapenos
  • Shredded cheese
  • Refried beans
  • Black beans
  • Avocado
  • Salsa
  • Sour cream
  • Radishes

Vermicelli Noodle Bowls

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Based on the Vietnamese dish “bún,” these bowls start with a base of rice vermicelli. From there, it’s one big topping party, including bean sprouts, chopped peanuts, grilled meat (usually pork tenderloin or shrimp), and a variety of sauces beyond the fish sauce-based nước chấm, including a simple, homemade peanut sauce and a bottle of hoisin. We all take turns choosing our own toppings. The grownups have a bit of everything. Lily’s is heavy on the pork and big squirts of hoisin. And Hazel adds a handful of chopped peanuts, a mountain of cherry tomatoes, and a few strands of cucumber.

Topping suggestions:

  • Julienned vegetables like cucumber, jicama, and carrots
  • Tomatoes
  • Crispy spring rolls
  • Grilled meat or tofu
  • Sauces like hoisin, nước chấm, and peanut sauce

Snack Board

Credit: Stephanie Ganz

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself at the end of a long day is a snack board dinner. For this reason, I always have an assortment of salami, cheese, and pickled stuff in my fridge. When I’ve had a total day, I arrange them on a cutting board with some crackers or bread, fresh fruit, and, if I’m really lucky, a tin of seafood I’ve stocked away. I plop it in the middle of the table and ring the dinner bell. 

The amazing thing, other than not having turned on a stove, is that everyone finds a bit of what they love — some salami and prosciutto, a thick smear of chevre on a piece of crusty bread, a cornichon (the world’s cutest pickle), and to Hazel’s delight, a lot of fruit. 

Topping suggestions:

  • Fresh bread or crackers
  • Cheeses (goat cheese, brie, chunks of cheddar) 
  • Sliced salami, prosciutto, or rolled up deli meat
  • Tins of seafood
  • Pickles 
  • Fruit (apples, grapes, dried apricot) 
  • Nuts (almonds and cashews) 
  • A few cut up pieces of chocolate for dessert

Personal Pan Pizzas

Credit: Nick Evans

There is no better choose-your-own-adventure food than pizza. Your doughy vessel houses whatever sauce, cheese, and toppings your heart desires, and when you get to pick those variables, suddenly you know the awesome power of being able to create something all your own. At least, that’s what I think my kids must be thinking because they approach the process with approximately that level of zeal. 

We pick up some pre-made sourdough pizza dough from a neighborhood bakery and then follow this method, which reliably yields a pizza that’s both crispy and fluffy, with little browned bits of cheese and a crunchy-bottomed crust. Plus everyone gets their own individual cast iron skillet, which is objectively adorable and lets siblings feel like only children for one brief, shining moment.

Topping suggestions:

  • Shredded cheese
  • Sauces (marinara, a light white sauce, figgy jam) 
  • Pepperoni, ground meat, chopped bacon
  • Vegetables (mushrooms, peppers, onions)
  • Banana peppers
  • Fresh arugula or basil