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New Step-Mom & picky eaters: What's for dinner?

I'm recently wed to a wonderful man and his two sons. I can't say that the boys are the picky eaters when my dear husband is loathe to eat a vegetable. (So much for the "eat your veggies or no dessert" routine.) Years of bachelor foraging have taken their toll on this lot. I'm committed to cooking two healthy and complete meals per week for the four of us. What would you recommend for the menu?

My successes have included:
Pasta with basic marinara and meatballs (with optional cheese sauce for one)
Grilled steak, hamburger and hot dogs
Build your own soft taco night
Fruit salad -- my go to "they like it and it's good for 'em" option
Garlic toast
Sour cream ranch dip -- consumed like candy, but it's a dairy, right? I fool them with low-fat sour cream
Potato chips (haning head in shame)
Corn
Corn bread

Things that have been too weird for at least one out of three men at my dining room table:
Chicken: roasted, fried, baked, grilled, souped, BBQ'd, etc. (This makes me very sad.)
Fish
Celery and carrot sticks with aforementioned ranch dip
Baked pasta/sauce/cheese combo
Roast beef
Soup in most forms
Green beans, carrots, broccoli, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, etc.

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  1. Try to work in some pork there, so they aren't getting all of their protein from red meat. Pork chops would work (I really like Marcella Hazan's pork chops braised in tomatoes with sage) or a pork tenderloin.

    Will they eat turkey? You could try roasting a turkey breast or make a turkey meatloaf (I really like the Barefoot Contessa's turkey meatloaf).

    4 Replies
      1. re: andreas

        I don't think that's true, but regardless of semantics, pork has more of its fat on the outside and therefore the fat can be trimmed off more readily than with beef, so well-trimmed pork can be lower in fat than other types of non-poultry meat. But if OP is trying to broaden her step-kids' horizons, anything that's not on her original list of things they eat should contribute to that goal.

        1. re: andreas

          THere used to be commercials with the slogan "Pork, the other WHITE meat"

          1. re: jes

            Possibly the industry's marketing is not the best source of accurate information? ;) I have read both white and red.

            What about smoked turkey?

      2. Bit of a lost cause if the guys basically do not and will not eat vegetables. My only suggestion would be pasta sauces that combine ground meat and lots of vegetables.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

          Right on. I'm not a fan of disguised food in theory, but if I suddenly became responsible for a bunch of picky eaters, I'd be sneaking in lots of vegetables into the sauce and pureeing it in the blender.

        2. Wow. That sounds pretty challenging.

          What about "build your own pizza" with homemade or store-bought dough or pitas?

          How about rice? Maybe breakfast foods for dinner? Eggs, etc?

          (as a side note: do you make separate meals for yourself? I can't imagine not eating chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, etc!!!)

          1 Reply
          1. re: marthadumptruck

            It depends. Twice a week we have a home-cooked, sit-down meal together. Some nights they eat at their mom's house after school (although that's mostly fast-food snacks, and they always want more to eat later). Some nights my husband does the short-order chef routine. Of late that's boxed mac and cheese for one and a frozen pizza for the other. I remind myself that even two sit-down meals a week is a big change for these guys. I'm hopeful. As for me, I eat as much ethnic food as I can find during the week for lunch at work.

          2. I think that first you must realize, and make them realize, that you are not a short- order cook, and that everyone will be served the same meal. You dont mention ages, but if they are young you may be able to get them to eat right; if older, they will survive. Serve a regular, well balanced meal. If someone says"I dont like chicken", tell them he doesn't have to eat it. As for veggies, it is sometimes necessary to resort to dip;blend in cottage cheese to lessen the fat, up the protein. Steam broc florets a minute or 2 and chill. Also, cuke spears and caulflower often do well. For cooked vegs, a little cheese sauce (even better, grated cheese sprinkled on), might help.
            I'm a big believer in herbs. One of my picky eaters found she couldn't get enough steamed green beans when they were tossed with butter with savory.
            Have a private talk w'ith Hubby and ask him to Please not make a big thing about food dislikes. Most everyone has 1 or 2 but Gee! One rule at my house was, you must take a taste, you can't veto something because of color,reputation or because "I just Know I won't like that!" Good luck, keep at it, remember your future daughters- in- law will thank you!

            2 Replies
            1. re: genie

              To my husband's credit, he has been a great ally in the cause. He even choked down SIX GREEN BEANS Sunday night when I announced that it would make me happy if every man at the table would eat at least one. This has been another lesson. I still serve green, but I have greatly reduced the amount I prepare. There will be great rejoicing in Kansas if I ever have to forego my veggies because someone else at the table beat me to them.

              1. re: genie

                AMEN! from this mother of five/grandmother of 17. Wiser words than Genie's were never written.

                But do remember, Larkspur, that children have far more taste buds PSI than grownups, and something that tastes just right to you can be intolerably spicy for them. This is why, back in the days when most every household had at least three generations of family members at meals, there was always an asst. of condiments on the table. As Marion Cunningham writes in the "Fringe Dishes" chapter of her wonderful little "Supper Book",

                "The old-fashioned way of rounding out flavors at table was to serve relishes and pickles with simple dishes, rather than adding many tastes and textures to a dish."

                There are so many good ready-made condiments on the market these days--Chipotle Tabasco, salsas, jerk sauces, seasoning blends/salts, etc.--that it's easy to add zest or heat to a simple basic casserole/stew/veggie dish right at the table.

                (I'm always recommending Penzey's Fox Point seasoning salt: shallots/chives/sea salt/garlic/onion/green peppercorn. Delicate, versatile, lovely on veggies/chicken/fish, most anything.)

              2. Fussy eaters can be very difficult but I think at this point not making a big deal of it is important. We have had some very fussy eaters and one thing that sometimes helps is to get them in the kitchen with you. Maybe making potato chips in the oven would be fun for them and they might eat them if they made them. I wouldn't begin with anything too far away from what they already like.

                I sometimes include shredded carrot in spaghetti sauce but with this crowd you'll want to be sure it's completely lost in the sauce.

                I usually tried to make sure there was something on the table that everyone would like but would not stop making chicken, for instance, if one or two didn't like it. Everyone knew they could make a sandwich for supper and that it was just fine. I was careful to make sure they knew no one was upset about it. This approach kept things much less stressful for all of us, really, and took the weight out of food as an issue, if you know what I mean.

                We have a friend whose son ate little more than spaghetti and cheeseburgers for years. YEARS! He's surviving and in retrospect, I think his parents were wise to remain calm about it all.
                The funny thing is that as they get older and eat at friends homes they'll try new things and then come home and say " Tommy's mom made these great spicy sweet potato fries. You ought to get her recipe." Then you bite your tongue, count to 10 and say, "Great idea! I will!"

                Good luck, and as has been said, don't give up what you like, just try to be sure everyone gets something they like most of the time. If they choose to make a pb&j 5 nights a week, so be it.

                21 Replies
                1. re: xena

                  I have to say that Xena's outlook and suggestions are smart. There's partly a "you eat what you get" message mixed with "let's get along"! :) To build off of trying to make sure there was something on the table that everyone likes... how about a "make your own sandwich" night? I'm thinking along the lines of the meats/cheese/fixings you know they like and adding in vegetables you know they like. Couple that with a few new ingredients at a time, and there could be some new-found food they would all like. You also wouldn't suffer because you could add what you enjoy to the mix. Couple that with a fruit salad, and you have a meal.

                  1. re: xena

                    as the stepmom of a chronically picky eater, i have to chortle and snort at this whole subject. why is it that the "picky" eater is never partial to anything but crappy factory food and chemical flavors? where is the "picky" kid who will only eat organic, range-fed and home-cooked? seems like a euphemistic way to say "gastronomically retarded." i have to disagree with the argument that their taste buds are OVER developed; if that were the case they would gag on the junk they eat.

                    1. re: bodacious

                      They do exist but the term for these children and adults is food snob I think. My son doesn't eat "flat cheese" or McDonaalds and he hates Man N Cheese.
                      Picky yes but in a good way.

                      1. re: bolivianita

                        I was sooo that picky kid. I hated Fish sticks I wanted "grown up" fish. Hated Kraft Dinner, and wouldn't eat soup that came from a can. It was tough because my Mum wasn't a foodie and my sibs ate all that crap. I took over the kitchen when I was 11 and introd the fam to things like *gasp* stir-fries and spinach salad. My Mum was pretty happy that she didn't have to make dinner when she got home from work but I always asked for such "odd" ingredients to be bought. LOL looking back it's soo funny. :)

                        1. re: bolivianita

                          Wow...Man & Cheese? I'm not a big fan of that, either, not being a cannibal and all...

                          ;->

                        2. re: bodacious

                          Woohoo, Bodacious! Feel better? As the mom of 5 and grandmom of 17 (ages 7-22) I can chuckle in agreement with at least one thing you say: that when kids are accustomed to "crappy factory food", real food tastes strange to them.

                          When I was visiting a daughter in FL, I one afternoon stirred up a batch of delicious homemade chocolate pudding--his favorite thing in the world-- for my 12 year-old grandson. Fine chocolate, fresh eggs, pure vanilla, whole milk, butter. He came home from school and I proudly gave him a cup of it for his snack. He ate a bite and his face fell. I said, "Don't you like it???", and he replied apologetically, "It just doesn't taste like real pudding--Jello".

                          I just laughed and said, "No; THAT is real pudding. Jello is imitation pudding. But never mind; that means more real pudding for us grownups".

                          But that he wasn't sound on pudding doesn't mean he's been raised on crap. His mother, like all my children and their spouses--and me and my mother and grandmother--were/are excellent cooks and careful and knowledgable about nutrition . His mother--maybe the most conscientious and innovative cook in the family-- has obviously not considered homemade chocolate pudding a priority. He's tasted the Jello kind at friends' houses and liked it, the little cups are convenient and probably as nutritious as homemade, so big deal.

                          Of course most kids are "gastronomically retarded". They're kids. They are also sartorially retarded, literarily retarded, musically retarded, attention span-retarded, tidiness-retarded. And no one said their taste buds are "overdeveloped"; they are underdeveloped: tender, highly sensitive and unfamiliar with many textures/flavors.

                          That's why babies can gobble up that execrable "baby cereal" that's nothing but flour/water paste, apparently find something tasty about it. That's why young children--and I've seen this many times--will literally gag at a bite of some foods. (I'll never forget the resulting explosion when I fed a 4 year old a tiny soft oyster from my delicious milky oyster stew). And that was not psychosomatic or learned or punitive, it was a physical reflex to something shockingly alien in the taste or feel of that food.

                          And to try to force it on them prematurely is the surest way I know to make them dislike it--and probably you--forever after.

                          I'm a Depression Baby; it was "Eat what's put before you and be grateful for it" at my house growing up and I reared my kids pretty much the same way. (With a little more flexibility--more on the table to choose from--because I could afford it whereas my mother could not.) But my mother certainly tried to please the people she was cooking for; any normal mother does.

                          I feel for Larkspur as she tries to figure out how to make an existing three-person family into a functional, happy four-person one. And I don't think she could pick a better instrument for trying to bring that about than family meals. Food is about as crucial to the individual and collective life of a family as anything in the world. If family meals are pleasant experiences, chances are everything else at home is working.

                          Maybe her stepsons--and husband--are accustomed to chemical crap. That's not her fault and she's not going to change them overnight or without a lot of careful planning and diplomacy. But maybe bad food habits are not the whole problem; maybe the picky eating is the kids' way of venting about this big change in their lives--a new stepmom.

                          My youngest child, then and now the sweetest, most amiable, sensible, reasonable, healthy, active, competent, beloved-by-everyone child who ever lived, was the most incredibly picky eater of my five until she was in her mid-teens, at which time it changed almost overnight. I've thought about this a lot in the years since, and I've concluded that food-pickiness just might be the way a good, compliant child can assert his individualism and independence without rocking the family boat too much--a small subconscious statement that, "I'm me and not everyone else". Does this make sense?

                          (In which case the solution is to teach them how to make themselves a peanut butter sandwich :o)

                          Anyway, I applaud Larkspur for her courage in undertaking a job that must be fraught with uncertainty and anxiety, her consideration for her new family, her initiative in asking for help.

                          1. re: PhoebeB

                            Right on, Phoebe. What a great post!

                            1. re: PhoebeB

                              I really enjoyed that too! And in response to the earlier post, not all picky eaters are conditioned to like processed food. In my case, my I hated most processed food, and in fact my childhood vegetable phobia was brought on by being served vegetable soup out of a can in pre-school. As a kid growing up in the '70s and '80s my mother was the only parent I know of who shopped almost exclusively in health food stores and delis that made their cold cuts and breads in house. And she wasn't a hippy in the least bit! I used to dread my friends' birthday parties that were held at McDonald's because I absolutely couldn't stand McDonald's...I did however like Popeye's chicken, go figure.

                              1. re: ballulah

                                I've hated most fast food for a long time, especially McDonald's, but I also enjoy Popeye's. I still think Popeye's is way better than most fast food... especially the spicy chicken :)

                                1. re: ballulah

                                  Have you ever tasted Popeye's red beans & rice? I've tried for years to make that dish as well as they do and I haven't. Smoky, creamy, perfect, my ideal.

                                  Their dirty rice (Cajun rice, do they call it?) is a great disappointment to anyone who's tasted real dirty rice, but O those red beans!

                                  1. re: PhoebeB

                                    It's easy to replicate Popeye's beans...it just takes some lard (bacon grease will do). To achieve that degree of creaminess, you need to add an astonishing amount of fat. 19 grams per serving, to be exact (340 calories per individ. portion).

                                    1. re: Hungry Celeste

                                      Celeste, aha! I have beautiful rendered leaf lard in the freezer, but I think I'll try the bacon drippings first. My biggest hurdle has been Popeye's great smoky flavor, but maybe enough smoked bacon drippings would kill both birds with one stone. I'll try it and THANKS!!!

                                      Help me with how much of the drippings to add to a cooked pound of the beans. Half-cup?

                                      1. re: PhoebeB

                                        The amount depends on the smokiness of the bacon...some brands are smokier than others. Start by sauteeing onions, celery, and green pepper in 1/4 bacon grease, along with some diced pickled pork AKA "pickled tips" (or salted pork if you can't find pickled), then add your beans & liquid & bay leaf. Simmer until the beans are tender, then mash lightly, taste, and add more melted bacon grease until the beans reach the desired state of creaminess.

                                        Some people use butter, but I like pork fat better.

                                        1. re: Hungry Celeste

                                          If this works, I'm putting you in my will--for what that's worth :o(

                                      2. re: Hungry Celeste

                                        I make red beans and rice every other Monday (I'm a New Orleans girl) and the secret to getting creamy beans is easy (and doesn't waste all of those calories!). About a half an hour before serving, just take some of the beans (maybe about a 1/2 cup, depending on how much you're cooking) out of the pot and smush(sp) them in a bowl and then add them back to the beans. It makes the beans very thick and creamy. I've never had to put lard or bacon grease in my beans. Also, the longer you cook them the creamier they get. I start my beans at around 10 a.m. to have them ready for dinner. That's why I only cook them every other week! I just cook enough to last for 2 weeks. They freeze really well!

                                        1. re: gginnola

                                          I've tried the long cooking and smash-part-of-the-beans technique and while very good, still not Popeye's. There's a smooth creaminess I simply can't replicate. Maybe I should cook them down still longer.

                                          But as I said, that's the lesser of two problems: it's that wonderful smoky flavor that eludes me. I suspect it's just some kind of smoke seasoning rather than honest smoke flavor from really excellent smoked meat, but whatever it is it sure is good.

                                          Celeste's advice makes sense to me because I know that good Tex-Mex restaurants' divine refritos get that way by "refrito-ing" them in lard--one big reason I render leaf lard I'm lucky enough to get from a local slaughterhouse/butcher.

                                          1. re: PhoebeB

                                            The smokiness probably comes from the sausage and the ham seasoning that is used. I use both in my beans. I use any Louisiana brand smoked sausage, but I'm sure that any smoked sausage from your area would work. I lived in Virginia for a few months after Katrina and I was able to use the smoked sausage that I found up there. I saute the ham and sausage with my onions and other seasonings before adding to the beans. We do like Popeye's beans though. It's quick and I don't have to cook all day!

                                            1. re: PhoebeB

                                              Order some tasso from the Best Stop supermarket....http://www.thebeststopsupermarket.com/
                                              Your beans will be better than Popeyes!

                                              1. re: Hungry Celeste

                                                I've heard Tasso might be the key. I'll try it.

                                    2. re: PhoebeB

                                      PhoebeB, I loved your post, too, and couldn't agree more with what you said about a compliant child needing to find a safe means of expression. We experienced that here, too, and food was the outlet.

                                      Larkspur is wise and kind to care about opening up the food lives of her new family (and not giving up good foods herself!) while proceeding cautiously. There are no winners in a power struggle centered around food, particularly in a step-family, and she must also deal with the fact that an attempt to change their eating habits can be seen by them as criticism of their mother.
                                      I think Larkspur's sensitivity and desire for the best for all will win the day but it can be a bumpy ride.

                                      Larkspur, I *loved* your idea to take them to the farmers market and let them choose something to eat. How did that go?
                                      It's also not a bad idea to enlist your husband's help in ways like having him prepare a new dish for supper one night so that it's not all "New Step-Mom, New Rules". Also, he could make a meal request in front of the kids so that it's his idea once in a while, not just yours. No matter how much they love you resentments can creep in and it's nice if you can minimize that from the get go. From one step-mom to another I wish you all the best!

                                      1. re: xena

                                        Larkspur, I urge you to needlepoint on pillows two things Xena says:

                                        (1) "There are no winners in a power struggle centered around food, particularly in a step-family, and she must also deal with the fact that an attempt to change their eating habits can be seen by them as criticism of their mother."

                                        (2) ".....enlist your husband's help..."

                                        Boys the ages of yours are not impressed with anything they see as "a girl thing". They will at least try almost ANYTHING they see their fathers obviously enjoy.