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New Family with Kids - Help Me Devise Menus

Here's the skinny... I am a woman in my late 40s who never had children. I went to cooking school and am very adept in the kitchen, but have only cooked fairly adventurously for me and my relationships for the past 25 years. Never cooked for kids.

I've started dating a man with three children and the relationship is getting serious, but I know nothing about what kids like. For example, I will make myself Moroccan preserved lemon with chicken or a lamb tagine, Thai green curry, or Provencal fish en papillote. These have gone over well with my men as well.

The kids are 10, 13, and 14 and they have a nanny who cooks them frozen fish sticks, basic spaghetti from a jar, hot dogs, boxed macaroni and cheese, and frozen pizza. They won't eat chicken because they raise them. The extent of the vegetables they will eat includes frozen corn and frozen peas. Serving frozen vegetables just seems alien to me...

So far, I have made them REAL spaghetti and meatballs as well as teriyaki chicken (which I learned they wouldn't eat), and Swedish meatballs - all from scratch. Except for the chicken, they loved what I made but I need to start coming up with some new ideas.

I was a kid who would eat anything but these kids are a bit more sheltered so it may take a while before I can be really daring with them, but would love ideas from other families...

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  1. Awesome! Mazel tov on the new family! How about involving the kids in the cooking process. They're old enough to learn basic safe knife skills, saute skills, etc. Ask them what they'd like to cook (apple pie? a trifle? a lasagna? paella?) and do it together.

    1. Wouldn't this be a wonderful opportunity to spend time with the children and just ask them outright what they like? As the conversation continues, you could perhaps throw in a suggestion here and there. And don't be dissapointed if they don't like as great a variety as you do. That's pretty normal.
      However, most kids like brocolli salad, the one with the bacon and cheese and mayo dressing. Nothing wrong with more spaghetti. Breakfast for supper: pancakes, sausage, bacon or ham, eggs, any style, and juice.

      Grilled cheese and tomato soup. Chili with corn chips, diced green onion, shredded cheese and sour cream. Hamburgers with oven fries or baked potatoes. The old fashioned chef salads with meats and cheeses. Taco salad (tons of recipes on line for this).

      Hope this helps a little.

      1. Start with homemade versions if things they like. Roasting vegetables like carrots brings out sweetness and is a good start. Fried eggplant rounds dipped in tomato sauce is also a kid pleaser. Veggies on pizza gets people trying them in small doses. Letting them be invoked gets them trying food. Mexican is usually a hit with kids. Ask them whatever want to try. Make homemade dish sticks with various types of fish.

        1. If you start with homemade versions of what they like and establish yourself as a good cook, it is likely they start trying most things you make. Pizza is a good place to start -- you can have a variety of toppings from simple to gourmet and let them each make their own. They may be entrigued by the exotic way you top your own if they have "safe" fallbacks available. Then you can have a good salad to start introducing more veggies. If they are involved in prep, they are more likely to try stuff. It is not difficult to turn kids who are mostly get the frozen stuff.

          1 Reply
          1. re: maxie

            This is some of the best advice here, actually. This has worked on my step sons, who sound a bit like what you described- sheltered but not horribly picky. Once they trust what you can do with food, they'll be open to trying things in small steps. But if they know every time they come to the table there is gonna be something "weird and gross" then they will turn off to even the good stuff and may even reject your spaghetti.
            My kids tell me all the time that they hated tomatoes until I 'made' them. All I do is throw them in salad, or sprinkle them with basil and parm, but I'll take it ;)

          2. My sons always ate the same things I did, allowing for personal preferences. My opinion is to just treat them as you would any adult whom you want to feed. See what they like, involve them in choosing and cooking the meal, if your relationship is close enough and casual enough for all of you to feel comfortable in the kitchen together.

            When he was 13, my younger son already loved to cook, and made us the most delicious gourmet meals. His older brother was the baker and dessert maker. The boys don't like all the same things that I do, but we keep one another's preferences in mind when we cook for the whole family. As the other posters said, just ask them - maybe asking them what they don't like would narrow it down for you and still allow you to come up with interesting dishes that you would like to eat, yourself. If you ask what they DO like, that limits you to the answers they come up with from their unadventurous background.

            I concur on the other suggestions on this thread, and please, please add your own favorites to the list. These kids aren't youngsters anymore - they can handle some sophistication in their food.

            1. You've already gotten good advice: try homemade versions of food they like, and get them involved both by asking them what they'd like and, if feasible, helping in the cooking. If you can get them to cook it, you can get them to try it.

              In addition to others' suggestions, certainly try home-made versions of mac & cheese, fish & chips, tacos, enchiladas. Also, what about soups or stews? That's a good way to get more vegetables into their diets.

              Otherwise, as to vegetables, I would not sweat too much trying to get them to eat a wide variety. Many kids don't. And, you may want to focus on raw, rather than cooked, vegetables, as many kids just don't like the texture of cooked veggies. Have them help you peel and cut up carrot sticks, red pepper slices, cucumber rounds, etc. and I bet they'll eat them. Or try crunchy, barely cooked vegetables, like peapods.

              1. What about casserole-type dishes? Enchiladas (you can make veggie or cheese). If they like frozen peas and corn, would they try something like a shepard's pie or chicken pot pie with those vegetables and maybe a few others?

                Do they eat beans? A taco bar or fajita bar. I love the idea of getting them involved. Is it warm enough to start grilling where you are? Maybe grilled kebobs or roasted vegetables would help introduce them to more non-frozen items.

                You mentioned that you'd make Thai food for yourself. What if you start them out with something like Pad Thai and include a curry and other items in the meal and eat that meal family-style. That would allow them to have tastes of the more adventurous options, but could stick mainly to Pad Thai and rice.

                Also agree with home-made versions of what you already know they enjoy. You could do a creamy stove-top mac and cheese that is similar to the boxed variety, but with better ingredients.

                1. because they're accustomed to pretty bland, middle-of-the-road dishes, I agree to start with homemade versions of their current favorites.

                  Then slowly drift toward the more-exotic -- I'm guessing it's a slam-dunk that they'd enjoy fresh peas and corn more than the frozen-bullet versions. (we all keep a bag of frozen peas around to put into something else -- but to sit down to a serving of peas? Gimme fresh!)

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: sunshine842

                    As you probably know, the nutritional value of frozen vegetables is better than anything other than just-picked farmers' market product. "Fresh" supermarket/greengrocer produce has been stored/in transit for days and has lost much of its vitamin content, whereas prompt blanching/freezing yields "frozen bullet versions" that are nutritionally superior. Jacques Pepin is with me on the quality and flavor of frozen peas, especially the baby ones.

                    The kids should like meat loaf, mac&cheese, pot roast, sausage&peppers, cream of tomato soup,
                    roast pork with apples.

                    1. re: greygarious

                      Yes, the nutritional value is higher. They still taste frozen.

                      (I fully exploit my unfair advantage of walking out and picking them out of my garden, or buying them in season from local producers. I don't eat fresh peas when they're not in season, and I don't buy them from the supermarket -- same with corn.)

                  2. This is all really helpful - thanks, everyone!

                    I know they like Japanese food so I am going to suggest we make some homemade tempura tomorrow. I tried to get them to help make the Swedish meatballs and that didn't happen, but I won't give up yet. The lure of the deep-fryer might be a different story... maybe including homemade doughnuts!

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: CarrieWas218

                      absolutely - even something as simple as fresh-cut fries and homemade breaded chicken fingers....it's not gourmet, but it'll taste far better than the stuff they're used to...

                      (mine now turn up their nose at chicken nuggets anywhere but at home...sometimes I'm proud of that!)

                      1. re: CarrieWas218

                        Do they like sushi? Helping make the rolls could be a fun project.

                        1. re: CarrieWas218

                          Tempura veggies they don't usually try. Opens up a would of possibilities.

                        2. You've gotten great advice so far. Two things to add -- maybe get some cookbooks with awesome photos of the food to inspire them (and you). I love the Mediterranean: The Beautiful Cookbook. Also, maybe theme what you cook to what they are doing in school. Don't forget Pi Day on March 14!!

                          I am a stepmom who started out with no kid experience and then moved in with a man and his toddler -- so I know that the changes you are experiencing are pretty dramatic. Good luck, have fun and let us know what works!

                          1. You want these children to see you as a source of Comfort and not a source of Weird or of Force-feeding, so find out what they like and make it for them, or make it with them. I have never forgotten a relation who, when I was five, determined that I should eat kumquats because she thought they were a mark of sophistication. Well, what I thought was that they were pretty sour, and when I failed to eat them I understood very well that I had not come up to this woman's expectation or standard. What is afoot here is relationship---food becomes a vehicle for relationship.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Querencia

                              I'm several decades past five, and I still don't eat kumquats because I think they're pretty sour. Not much you can do for someone whose idea of sophistication is an affinity for kumquats.

                            2. Everyone has made great suggestions. Get the kids involved in the cooking process! Ask them what their father likes and then get one of them online looking up recipes. That way they have control over the meals.

                              Cooking can be a great way for you to bond with the kids! Enjoy it!

                              1. Well, their father really dropped the ball. If they eat junk all the time it will take them some time to eat real food. My two year old would fling most of that junk right back at him. "I SAID I WANTED FISH."

                                I think you are doing well to start with improved basics like white carbs in new forms or modified carbs (cous cous can lead to whole wheat elbows can lead to rice can lead to soba can lead to etc.).

                                No. More. Crap. If the nanny needs a quick meal it is whole wheat elbows with Rao's because at least the ingredients are real. Pizza is homeade too or from a good pizzeria. Just get of the bad stuff with slight upgrades and go to there.

                                And try again with Japanese. My kids adore almost any veg with soy sauce and/or butter, ponzu, or sesame dressing. The key is to prepare the vegetables iwht care, i.e. butter glazed carrots.

                                1. you have your parameters laid out so don't dumb it down, nanny night is fish sticks and your night is fun adventure food (so maybe no chicken - are they pets? OK.)

                                  9 Replies
                                  1. re: hill food

                                    I'm starting today with homemade pizzas. I'm bringing over my pizza stone and peel and all the makings for do-it-yourself pizzas.

                                    I made the dough last night and it will be a low-key day at their house. My favorite pizza is sauceless with lots of veggies and their Dad likes anchovies so we will be able to show them how different pizzas can be other than what comes out of the freezer.

                                    Wish me luck!

                                    1. re: CarrieWas218

                                      Great idea for pizzas today! Looking forward to hearing how creative they are!

                                      1. re: Barbara76137

                                        Pizza night was an unqualified success!

                                        One of the boys is disabled and autistic who mainly lives on Tostitos frozen pizzas (they don't even try to get him to eat anything else because it is easier than having an episode). He was thrilled to compose his own pizza and labeled it better than Tostitos.

                                        The girl hates cheese and didn't want to be involved, but getting into playing with the dough and when her Dad shared his non-cheesed pizza, she dived in and loved playing with the dough. We are going to try some breadmaking with her in the future. She ate her entire pizza.

                                        And the littlest, who also didn't want any cheese, was surprised at how good it tasted - especially when he initially kept saying he hated pizza...

                                        Next we will be trying a taco bar!

                                        1. re: CarrieWas218

                                          I didn't comment earlier but pizza night sounded like a great idea, all interactive and stuff - a project and a meal!

                                          1. re: CarrieWas218

                                            Congratulations on your success with dinner!
                                            You are a very special woman to take the time to show the kids some good food.
                                            I think you've nailed it with the taco bar, too. Giving them choices seems to be working for you, and there are plenty of meals that will work the same way. Panini, pho, chili, kebabs, for example.

                                            1. re: jmcarthur8

                                              kebabs? yeah pull out the grill - kids LOVE fire! (well I did and no I didn't have nighttime bladder issues, then anyway)

                                              and to append my previous remarks (and add to jmc's) it's odd enough to have the parent's date over no matter how kickass she or he is, meaning it's doubleplusgood you're including them in the fun.

                                              so yeah start that little baker-to-be on the road to the boulangerie/patisserie (sp?)

                                            2. re: CarrieWas218

                                              Yay!!! Taco bar sounds like a great idea as a next step. Get the kids to help with all the chopping and teach them safe knife skills.

                                              You will be a wonderful "mom".!!!

                                          2. re: CarrieWas218

                                            sauceless? w/lots of veggies
                                            pizza w/anchovies?

                                            these are not typical examples. just sayin'

                                            I think you need to move more their way.

                                            Just me, I raised two teens.

                                            1. re: laliz

                                              Did you see her report on the success of the pizzas in the chain above?

                                        2. Porcupine meatballs was a huge favorite with my brother and me and we were picky picky but had contests to see who could eat the most meatballs. My kids also loved these, husband not so much- don't be put off by the tomato soup. http://southernfood.about.com/od/meat...

                                          1. I love this advice -

                                            My sons always ate the same things I did, allowing for personal preferences. My opinion is to just treat them as you would any adult whom you want to feed. See what they like, involve them in choosing and cooking the meal, if your relationship is close enough and casual enough for all of you to feel comfortable in the kitchen together.

                                            ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

                                            But I recognize that an autistic/disabled child brings a set of challenges for which there is no quick fix.

                                            Take this with a grain of salt as I only have one child (but have watched friends and families dealing with their own kids' eating issues) - Many kids seem to use food as a control issue, it is the only thing they can control in their little universes. Which is why I think the "start with homemade versions of what they like" is GREAT advice. Get them involved in making homemade mac and cheese but whatever you do, do not make a big deal out it of the fact that they might actually like it. Just smile and say "so this is something we might like to make again?"

                                            5 Replies
                                            1. re: cleobeach

                                              Great comment -- for these kids, it's already a lot of "new" in their lives - Mom and Dad split up, now Dad's got a new girlfriend....ease new foods into their lives as they are ready and willing to try new things.

                                              1. re: sunshine842

                                                Mom and Dad split up six years ago - the girlfriend is the only thing that is really new and I am only the second woman that Dad has dated in that time.

                                                But I appreciate the sentiment and not having had any children in my life whatsoever, I am appreciating the comments and suggestions!

                                                1. re: CarrieWas218

                                                  getting OT but it sounds like his kids come first - and that's good.

                                                  for some reason kids like me and I can't figure it out. I just talk to them like we're contemporaries (editing my speech a bit) and make whatever sounds good w/o wondering "will there be a freak out" although this has back-fired with some mildly fixated ones (ehh there's usu. a back up in the freezer or pantry but "whaddaya mean you don't like shrimp?")

                                                  allowing the one with autism a level of control was probably a major MAJOR thing to the kiddo.

                                                  1. re: hill food

                                                    The hilarity of this situation for me is that I never, ever wanted children and most of my friends know I have a long-standing joke of having a large enough cookbook collection to be able to cook one!

                                                    I always assumed they would see right through me and the fact that I am fairly uncomfortable with them, but connecting through food has been the only thing I've been able to do.

                                                    I had thought of kebabs and will wait until it is warmer to break out the barbecue. I've also been considering making homemade doughnuts since that is a specialty of mine. They have liked my French Toast and other breakfast items.

                                                    Summer will probably be easier as we can get into hamburgers and other barbecue items...

                                                    1. re: CarrieWas218

                                                      If breakfast is your thing, don't forget about brinner -- breakfast for dinner!

                                                      Good luck.

                                            2. I'm a mom of 3 kids. There was a time that I polled my kids and took notes on what they told me they liked to eat. I used that list as a starting point and then branched out from the basics. Here are some examples.

                                              Tacos - start with basic ground beef in store bought taco shells, move to flour tortillas, then soft corn, then make pork shoulder tacos etc. It is a progression and you slowly expand their pallates.

                                              Spaghetti - again ground beef, jarred sauce, white pasta. Next you make your own marinara or add sausage to the jarred sauce instead of beef.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: suburban_mom

                                                Suburban Mom, I already made huge points with my homemade spaghetti sauce. The nanny makes them jarred sauce, but I only make fresh...

                                              2. I thought I would report back that last weekend's Taco Bar went over extremely well. Besides the classic ground beef, I did a long, slow Cuban roast pork in a Crockpot and made my own refried beans.

                                                While Dad and I were more into the pork and fresh tortillas, the kids like the pre-formed, crunchy tortillas with the beef.

                                                Not sure what I'm going to do next, but am anxious for the weather to change; grilled hot dogs and hamburgers will work perfectly with my vintage Hamilton Beach ice cream shake maker...

                                                1. These are great ideas I will have to use. I am in a similar situation with a man with kids 18 and 13 and the pickiest eaters ever! DBF is picky as well but mostly just from past experience--he's been very open to trying new foods and surprised by how much he's enjoying it. The kids, however, are still very picky. The 13 yo girl has a changing dislike every day. Somedays she likes tomato sauce, other days not.

                                                  For someone who gets rave reviews for entertaining, it's quite humbling to a) resort to simple foods and b) have them still not enjoy. So the first thing I did was not take it to heart. And then with the 13 year old, getting her in the kitchen and the grocery store really was a game-changer. If she's just eating the food passively, she has less invested in trying and liking it. It is also a good bonding experience to cook with her regardless of whether she likes the food or not. Also I've taken her to the grocery store and that was fun! I think looking at the foods with her and teaching and then letting her try new "weird" foods (like kiwi to her!) is all very good. And added benefit--I get brownie points with DBF!

                                                  The son is a little better, though not often there. If I want to make him happy, just make any dessert ;D

                                                  I've found that sticking with twists on traditional foods is easiest. Like special macaroni and cheese, or instead of chicken nuggets I made chicken parmigiana.

                                                  Good luck! And thanks for the ideas! Enjoy the teaching/learning. It's often more difficult cooking with a teen but they love the independence learning to cook gives them.

                                                  1. The "bars" are a good idea, pizza, taco, potato, omelettes.... maybe do a pasta bar, or think of other things that are plain, with a variety of toppings. Include "normal" stuff, and a few "exotic" things, then take note of what they reach for. It sounds like they are pretty normal kids, and you've done a good job thus far with things. Many parents that wanted kids all along also find themselves with dining dilemmas. Kids with foodie parents that will only eat nuggets, or bland eating parents that have kids with adventurous palates.

                                                    1. I second the mashed potato bar, baked potato bar, chili (add beans, cheese, spaghetti, onions, etc) ~~ gives the kids choices, they can be involved in the ideas for options.

                                                      I would also mention that this is an area of control as someone said. Choose your battles wisely. My ex teens tastes have changed wildly now that they are in their 20s. One has become a fitness freak (marathons even!) and has lost 140 lbs since college frat days (read lotso beer) and the other is a vegetarian.

                                                      I'm just saying,

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: laliz

                                                        I'm learning this... Two of the kids are happiest eating various sweet cereals all day long and then not wanting anything when dinner is served. I remember being the same when I was 8 or 10 so I'm not too upset if they don't want to try my food - but if at least one each time enjoys themselves, then slowly the others might come along.

                                                        Tomorrow night is just Dad and the autistic son and I'm sticking to what I know the kid will eat: steak and french fries (with lots of veggies for Dad and I).

                                                        1. re: CarrieWas218

                                                          well it certainly sounds like your approach is a darn good one.

                                                      2. I've found that kids love noodles & rice of all kinds. Still remember when my now 16 yr old dd first discovered pasta! Chow mein is always a hit. Just made Singapore rice noodles for the first time the other day & she loved it. Great with shrimp but due to allergy, I use bbq pork or chicken with a medley of veggies.

                                                        As a room mom putting together an end of year party one year for a 5th grade class, I decided to put South Indian lemon rice on the menu. Everybody loved it and one child even asked me for the recipe! My kids also love rice dishes from various cuisines.

                                                        If I cooked like you, my kids probably wouldn't say things like "oh no, not fish night"; "when are we going back to Perbacco?" BTW, they love sushi/sashimi just not cooked fish.