I am a cookbook writer and recipe developer, as well as the mother of two teenage boys, both with voracious appetites. To some this might sound like a match made in heaven: a mom who loves food and feeding others, coupled with kids who like eating as much (okay, almost as much) as playing Fortnite. Oh, but how wrong they’d be. Instead, I like to think of it as the perfect storm, for although I am indeed a mom who digs cooking and sharing, my sons, though prodigious eaters, are anything but flexible when it comes to accepting and consuming what is put in front of them. And this, despite the years I spent when they were little carefully introducing them to a variety of different kinds of food, in an effort to prevent what is now the cruel reality around my dining table.
Both boys ate chunks of tofu and avocado on the regular, as well as bits of flaky white fish and salmon. Kidney beans with olive oil and salt were Jack’s candy and Oliver discovered grilled octopus on vacation one summer and never looked back—and all this when they were still toddlers.
Related Reading: How to Get Toddlers to Eat
Now, however, not only are they “pickier,” but as luck would have it, they are picky in very different ways: Jack hates spicy food, Oliver loves it; Jack adores steak, Oliver finds it texturally suspect. Oliver likes egg sandwiches, Jack prefers them deconstructed (ie: eggs, bacon, and English muffin all on the plate, but not stacked so as to be portable, and, might I add, extra delicious). And the list goes on.
Related Reading: Why Are Some People Picky Eaters?
Now, you would not be wrong if you imagined me contemplating (regularly) giving up, going on strike, and exclusively feeding the boys mac and cheese from a box and frozen ravioli from Fairway (the grocery store at the end of our street) topped with Rao’s Tomato Sauce—and in fact, Jack does eat Annie’s mac-n-cheese a tad more frequently than I’d care to admit…
Rao's Homemade All Natural Marinara Sauce, $6.24 at Walmart
A sauce everyone can agree on.
Annie's Mac and Cheese Shells, 3 for $3.54 at Walmart
Still better than Kraft.
But: I am nothing if not resourceful—and, lucky for you, a good sharer.
What follows is a list of some of the snacks and meals that I feed my kids on a typical day—and how I zhuzh them up—so that I feel good about the making of the food (i.e., it doesn’t take me forever, is relatively healthy, etc.) and they feel good about the eating (i.e., very little is surreptitiously placed in the compost bucket when they leave the table).
I make my own with lots of nuts and seeds and so I can control the amount of sugar (though truth be told, my recipe is pretty sweet…). Jack has his with milk, but Oliver hates milk. Sometimes he’ll have his with yogurt, and sometimes he eats it dry. If I can, I put berries on top, but they don’t always agree to that, and so I let it slide.
Egg Sandwiches (Deconstructed or Not)
As mentioned above, Jack recently announced that he hates egg sandwiches. Not from the corner deli, mind you, just mine. But I’m cool with that. I still toast two whole-wheat English muffins, though only Oliver’s gets melted cheese. I place my three-inch biscuit/cookie cutter, sprayed with a bit of cooking spray, onto my cast iron skillet and crack my egg into that, in order to get my perfectly egg-sandwich-shaped egg (I do this for Jack’s sandwich-less egg, too, cause why not). I make bacon in the microwave—sorry haters, but it is so fast and requires so little clean up (for four slices, eight minutes on high, on a plate covered in a sheet of paper towel)—and voila: sandwich and deconstructed-sandwich: done and done.
Round Biscuit Cutter Set, $14.95 at Sur la Table
Five sizes of round cutters for all your baking needs.
I love my Instant Pot and use it regularly to cook dinner for my kids (see below). But I also use it in the morning to make steel cut oats for my boys in half the time it would take me on the stovetop. Now, I won’t lie, I would not describe oatmeal as a favorite of either of my children, but with a generous dribble of heavy cream and an equally generous sprinkling of brown sugar, they’ll eat it without (too much) complaining. That’s something I’ve learned over the years: the power of the condiment or culinary add-on—if sugar and cream results in the consumption of the oats, well, then I’m down with that.
Lunch (or “How I Learned to Embrace White Bread”)
Truth be told, the boys get lunch at school, so the days of packed lunches are long gone. But over the past two summers, when Oliver has had a job and Jack is at camp, I make turkey sandwiches on Martin’s Potato Bread (aka white bread) for their lunchboxes. There was a time (like basically their whole lives) where I could not bear the thought of either boy consuming white bread. It was whole wheat or nothing. But I am a tad more lax now—I mean, come on: their morning English muffins are whole wheat. Moreover, when Jack asks for toast, he wants it on whole-wheat bread, so I must have done something right. And, truthfully, is there anything better than a turkey sandwich on spongy, soft potato bread? I think not.
I just feel the need to give a quick shout-out to frozen (seedless) grapes. They are especially tasty in summer, but enjoyed all year round in our house (provided the grocery store has organic ones). I take them off their stems, wash and dry them, and put them in a zippered bag in the freezer. Once frozen, a bowl of them is like a million tiny little Popsicles and the kids adore them.
Related Reading: These Snacks Are Eco-Friendly & Delicious
Every night, regardless of what I have made, the kids each eat a salad of baby spinach dressed in olive oil and salt. I have been making this for them for forever, and to say I feel virtuous routinely getting raw spinach in their bodies, is an understatement.
As mentioned above I am big into my Instant Pot. I make ribs and spaghetti Bolognese and meatballs on the regular and my kids happily eat all of it. Now, do I really just want to make Melissa Clark’s Instant Pot take on David Chang’s Bo Saam on a weekly basis? Yes, yes, I do. And is my family on board? Not really. Jack will eat it covered in ketchup (see above for how I embrace condiments and the like in order to get food into my kids’ bellies) and Oliver eats a tiny amount before composting the rest, but I make it anyway, as I really am crazy about it.
When I am not Instant Pot-ing, I am breading chicken cutlets (substituting whole-wheat pastry flour for the all-purpose, for what it’s worth, and so I feel less guilty about the white bread they ate at lunchtime) and baking them on a tin foil lined cookie sheet to avoid the mess of frying. Dribbled with enough olive oil pre-bake, they are juicy and crispy and almost as tasty as fried.
I also make fried tofu, cubing it and tossing it in whole-wheat pastry flour pre-fry—but I fry in a high-sided Dutch oven, rather than a cast iron skillet, so that there is less splattering of my stovetop.
Smash burgers are another go-to. I won’t lie: I hate the mess, but they cook quickly and are super tasty and the boys think I am some kind of Shake Shack goddess, so there’s that, too.
Related Reading: Tips & Tricks for Juicy Burgers Every Time
So dessert just might be the trickiest of all meals for me when it comes to feeding my kids, as I am a professional maker of sweets (literally).
I wish I could tell you that this is the meal where I get everyone eating everything I put in front of them, but that’d be a lie. Despite the frosted snacking cakes and jumbo chocolate chip cookies with flaky sea salt available 24/7, they prefer Ben and Jerry’s strawberry ice cream or Talenti’s Mango Sorbet or Paul Newman’s Chocolate Mint Sandwich Cookies. But that’s okay. If I’ve learned anything feeding them both for almost a decade and a half now, it’s that avoiding conflict is key. Compromise is paramount. And, though a cliché, everything in moderation…
Related Reading: Jessie’s One-Bowl Apple Snacking Cake
It’s perfect for any occasion (after-school baking, homey dessert, breakfast…) and kids will love it.
Apple Snacking Cake
- 1/2 cup mild olive oil or vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 large egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 3 tablespoons buttermilk
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 medium apples (I like Granny Smith)
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- turbinado sugar for sprinkling
- confectioners’ sugar for dusting
- whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for serving (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8x8x2-inch pan with cooking spray and line with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, sugars, and vanilla.
- Add the egg, and then the yolk, whisking after each.
- Add the buttermilk and whisk until incorporated.
- Sift the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda onto a sheet of parchment, and using a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients in three additions, until just incorporated. Do not over mix.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan, scraping the bowl well.
- Peel, core, and cut the apples into 1/2-inch chunks. Place them in the now-empty bowl, wiping it with a paper towel first, if you so desire.
- Sprinkle with the cinnamon and sugar and toss with your hands to coat.
- Top the cake batter with the apples in a single layer—you may have some leftover apple pieces. Sprinkle the cake with the turbinado sugar.
- Transfer the cake to the oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, rotating the pan after 20 minutes (the cake is done when a tester inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs).
- Bring to room temperature before dusting with confectioners’ sugar and serving along with a dollop of freshly whipped cream, or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
- The cake will keep wrapped in plastic wrap for three days on the counter—and some claim it gets better with age.
Header image courtesy of Esthermm/Getty Images