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Bon Appétit? Cooking for the Picky Eater

The doctor said to feed the baby salsa. My eyes popped out, and my husband’s ears perked up. What?! Her reasoning was that babies adopt the tastes of their families. Since their tastes develop most in the first 18 months of life, she continued, that was the time to expose them to as many tastes – our tastes – as possible, salsa included. I was a little skeptical, but as my husband was a spicy food fan, we gave it a shot. Our firstborn ate what we ate. I have a distinct memory of my six-month-old eating peach salsa by the spoonful at Grampa’s house. And he has become a gourmand, as the French say, a lover of good food, even requesting grilled shark with, you guessed it, peach salsa, for his birthday dinner. Today, at eight, he loves his food. He takes it seriously, quizzing me on the menu selections of the day.

That said, he can still be picky. Despite our ‘Baby eats what we eat’ philosophy, not all of our children like what I like to cook. One child will rarely touch meat; another gags at the sight of any casserole containing cream of chicken soup; a third acts as if sour cream is food from heaven and if he sees it on the table, that is all he will eat. My gourmand once loved guacamole, but shuns it today. The list goes on. You know the story – you probably have similar profiles living under your roof, too.

So, what’s a parent to do? Only prepare the kids’ favorite seven nights a week? Invest in peanut butter stock? I have been surprised at how simply I can get my children to devour nutritious foods if I’m willing to be a little stealthy in adding healthy ingredients, to remove offensive flavorings, or just to simplify my meal-planning.

Each of the following menus makes use of one of those tactics, resulting in three favorite dinners for the picky eaters that lurk in my home, and probably in yours, too.

Peanut Butter Chicken Pasta
Serves 6.

This recipe used to have a fancy Asian-flavored name. But, Peanut Butter Chicken is the vernacular at our house. By some creative tweaking, including increasing the amount of carrots (stealthily hidden vegetable) and reducing the amount of green onion (removing the offensive), it has become a surefire hit.

1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. peanut butter
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. peeled, grated ginger
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
1 pound linguini
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 medium carrots, shredded
1/4 cup chopped green onions
3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and chopped
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro

Whisk together vinegar, 1/3 cup oil, peanut butter, soy sauce, honey, sesame oil, ginger and red pepper. Set aside. Prepare pasta according to package directions. While pasta is cooking, heat 2 Tbsp. oil in a large frying pan until hot. Cook carrots for 1 minute. Add green onion to pan and cook, stirring constantly for another minute or two, until onions are slightly wilted. Set aside. Drain pasta and toss with sauce, chicken and cilantro. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Taco Bake
Serves 6 to 8.

This standard casserole received the “I don’t care for that” comment until I eliminated the green chiles and onions. I added black olives, instead, basically trading kid-offensive flavors for a favorite one. Use the larger amount of cheese, if your family really likes cheese.

An added bonus to this meal is that it freezes well. Do not bake it. Wrap the dish in aluminum foil prior to the baking step and freeze. If you don’t have time to thaw it before cooking, just increase the baking time by 15 to 20 minutes.

1 pound ground turkey
2 Tbsp. taco seasoning
1/4 cup flour
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup sour cream
1 bag (11 to 16oz.) tortilla chips
2 to 3 cups jack or cheddar cheese
Small can sliced black olives

Preheat oven to 375°. In large frying pan over medium heat, brown meat until cooked through, pressing with the back of a spoon to break it into small chunks. Drain accumulated juices. Sprinkle taco seasoning and flour over meat. Stir to combine well. Pour chicken broth over meat and stir well. Increase heat until mixture bubbles. Simmer until slightly thickened. Remove from heat. Stir in sour cream until well combined.

Spray a 9x13-inch baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Pour half the bag of chips into the pan and crush with the flat of your hand. Spoon half the meat mixture evenly over the chips. Layer 1 to 1½ cups cheese over meat mixture. Crush remaining chips and distribute over cheese. Repeat layers with remaining ingredients. Sprinkle black olives over the top. Bake for 20 minutes. Allow dish to rest for a few minutes before slicing.

Baked Chicken, Roasted Potatoes and Mrs. Stark’s Broccoli
Serves 4 to 6.

It’s amazing how the simplest dinner can please the masses. Most kids are ‘meat and potatoes’ kind of people. Adding this broccoli recipe sends it over the top. A friend served it to my kids one night and they raved about it for days. They wouldn’t eat broccoli unless I made it “the way Mrs. Stark does.” I’ve since heard that other families have had the same experience with her miracle way with vegetables.

Put the potatoes in the oven first. Let them begin roasting while you prepare the chicken, then slide in the pan of chicken. You can pull together the broccoli dish on the stove-top in about 15 to 20 minutes.

For the baked chicken:

4 chicken breasts, bone-in, with the skin on

Preheat oven to 375°. Spray 9x13-inch baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Rinse chicken breasts and arrange in pan, evenly spacing them. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes until skin is crispy and juices run clear.

For the roasted potatoes:

6 large potatoes, scrubbed, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup melted butter or olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 Tbsp. parsley flakes

Preheat oven to 375°. In 2-quart baking dish, combine potatoes, butter, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley flakes. Bake for at least an hour, stirring every 15 minutes, until potatoes are tender.

For Mrs. Stark’s broccoli:

2 bunches broccoli, stalks removed, cut into florets
4 Tbsp. butter
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. minced onion flakes
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 1/2 tsp. lemon juice

Steam broccoli on the stove-top or in the microwave. Drain. In large skillet, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add garlic powder and onion flakes. Stir well. Stir in broccoli and continue cooking until seasonings are well distributed and broccoli is very hot. Remove from heat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and lemon juice. Stir gently and serve.

Jessica is a busy mom of six children. Read more about how she handles the challenges of parenting at

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