From the Mailbox: Feeding 4 Very Different Eaters

The Letter:

I get some version of this email all. the. time:

Hi, Jenny.  Here’s my dilemma:  I am a full-time high school English teacher with a major meat-eater for a partner, a twelve year old who is STRICTLY vegetarian, and her twin brother who is a fickle eater who has just lost three pounds and whose doctor wants us to make him eat.  My dream would be to live on an organic  farm, write books, keep a tidy house, cook meals everyone gushes over, and even entertain people once in a while.  But mostly I am leaning over a counter in whatever managed to wear to work that day, minus the work shoes, add the tattered Ugg slippers my puppy loves to chew (while I’m wearing them!) trying to make a meal everyone will eat, because I refuse to make three meals and scrounge the leftovers for myself.  I’m tired and frazzled.  How can I work around everyone’s dietary needs and still create a gracious space for all of us to break bread and just love each other? —Dana

The DALS Prescription:

Burrito Bowls with or without Chicken (Shown above: the veggie version) I think I’ve gone at least two hours without mentioning the magic word, so I feel OK using it again today: DECONSTRUCT. Instead of mixing everything together, separate out all the possible toppings for burrito bowls and have each diner assemble his or her own.
Soba Noodles with or without Meat Scroll down to the bottom for the ponzu noodle recipe. Tip: throw in some spinach to the pot right before the noodles are done.
Split Personality Pizzas Sometimes the most obvious answer is sitting right in front of you. Keeping your “tired and frazzled” brain in mind,  I recommend using store-bought pizza dough.
Freezer Quiche If you have time, make one on the weekend (topping one side with sausage crumbles and leaving the other side vegetarian) then freeze. To reheat straight from the freezer, place the quiche in a cold oven (covered) and bring temp to 350°F. Once the temperature reaches 350°F, bake for 60 minutes or until the tip of a knife inserted in the center feels warm to the touch.)
Grilled Thai Steak Salad, page 182 in Dinner: The Playbook

Hope this helps and if you have any recommendations, please feel free to share. Thanks for writing, Dana!

As always, send dinner dilemmas (and triumphs!) to

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I absolutely relate to this. I am mostly (not strictly) pescatarian, as is my 6-year-old. My husband and 8-year-old are meat-lovers. And of course they are little boys so they whine about dinner and veggies sometimes. I mostly try to ignore the whining – you get what you get and you don’t get upset and all that. I don’t make them eat, but I do ask them to at least try. I try to include something I know they like, and I stay flexible. Most of the time they do just fine.

I usually end up making two versions of the same thing. Turkey burgers/veggie burgers. Or sometimes I make my meat-lovers eat black bean burgers because it’s good for them and the environment to reduce the meat. They whine, but whatever. I’m the cook!

Mexican meals are the absolute best. It’s super easy to make burritos, keeping the filling flexible based on each eater’s taste. Beans and rice for me and Nathan, Chicken and cheese for my meat-eaters. Same with quesadillas. Taco salads (like Jenny’s burrito bowl). etc.

Sometimes I cook a couple chicken breasts with a couple sides for a traditional meat/starch/veggie meal. Then I replace the chicken with a handful of walnuts for Nathan and a salad (with walnuts) for me.

Chicken (and often steak) can be added to anything to satisfy the meat-eater but left out for the vegetarian. Especially salads in the summer.

Pastas are also fabulous – you can keep the meat separate but add if desired, and if the sauce/ingredients are offending to the picky eater, keep some plain pasta aside to make to his tastes.

Good luck!

Bet @ Bet On Dinner

A baked potato (white or sweet!) bar is another customizable dinner we like! I like to get my husband to throw on a few extra chicken thighs or turkey burgers when he grills so we can have an easy leftovers meal – we add them to salads, pasta, and burritos, or he adds chicken to a meatless meal!


Great suggestions!

I would also add that your husband and two 12 year olds are all old enough to be contributing to the meal planning and prep. They each get a night, and they get to choose the meal, of course taking into account the rest of the family’s preferences.

You get a break, they get some life skills, and it hopefully cuts down on the whining.

Lest I sound too off my rocker, we had to institute this system in my house last fall, after my husband complained one too many times about the dinner I put on the table after a long day’s work. He gets Tuesdays and Tbursdays. And none of this “you choose the recipe and make sure we have the ingredients and FINE I’ll cook it business” that he initially tried.


I was the oldest of three kids and at age 12, each kid a night per week to cook and then my parents split the other four days. They each worked outside the home.
We chose the recipe and ingredients. My youngest brother was 6 when this started, so we had a lot of macaroni and hot dogs but all three of us are good cooks as adults and not picky. By 15 I was throwing dinner parties for my friends!


Right? Why is having the other adult in the house a) get over the meat thing when your child is having health issues and b) pick up a freakin’ pan not an option?


Love, Love, Love!!
We did deconstructed Cobb Salad in my house this week. The 5 year old doesn’t like the salad part!


Thanks, Jenny, and all those who commented. Some great ideas! School is out in a week and a half, and we will be instituting the process in your book. Each kid will choose one meal, make the grocery list, help shop for the ingredients (Sunday at the Farmer’s Market!) and prep the meal. I have a cushy deal with the partner. He does pretty much all the cleaning in the house, and cleans up after I cook, so it is the odd night he has to cook, too! But he is more than willing. I think I’m the most spoiled gal on the planet in this situation!

Tonight is chicken and tofu fingers. Tomorrow I am digging in to that burrito bowl!

Thanks, again. I’m devoted!



I suggest you stop trying to please everyone at every meal and have a dinner-making rota instead. At 12, your kids can definitely take a turn making dinner and then everyone gets at least one meal a week that’s something they really want. If a meal doesn’t work for someone’s preferences, have sandwich makings always on hand and allow them to make themselves a sandwich if they opt out of the main meal.

The Prestigious School

Split personality pizza is great, but I have to agree with those who pointed out that 12 is old enough to cook – especially a 12 year old with convictions about how she eats.

Catherine Beaudet

I guess I am the strict one out of the commenters. My Neice, who lives with us, is notoriously picky about everything she eats. When I lived with my parents and I cooked, inevitably she would turn her nose at the meal. One night, no doubt tired and cranky, I took her to task. Flat out I told her to dump out her plate in the composter and go to her room and not even DARE to ask for a snack to eat later that night, or she could eat every last scrap of homemade burgers and homemade chips in her plate. I explained this was the reason she could never hang out for the day at her friends houses since if she was this rude to family about her meals, imagine how her friends’ parents would feel. She ate, begrudgingly, but now makes a point to actually eat and not complain. Tough love, but sometimes its the only way to go.


And I’ll add another few options that work for us (suuuper picky toddler, amazing eater of a four year old, meat/potatoes husband): Chop Chop Salad (whatever veggies there are, some ham/salami deli meat, salty cheese, croutons, whatever you have, and then, as per Jenny: deconstruct as necessary), burgers on the grill (buy some veggie burgers for sister, turkey burgers for everyone, or whatever), grilled cheese and tomato soup (add ham on the grilled cheese if that’s going to satisfy whoever needs it), fried rice (again, dice up and add BBQ pork, which you can purchase already cooked, at the end, if meat is really necessary–but a great way to slip in veggies, eggs), and Red Beans/Rice (plus sausage on the side, if necessary). For what it’s worth, I’m also a teacher and do the lion’s share of the cooking/planning/shopping, along with a crummy commute home, and these are things we actually do pull off.


Many of the recipes mentioned above are successes in my home with a four-year-old at the table. She’ll eat almost any deconstructed salad (except for the greens part: we’ll get there someday). Burrito Bowl is a big hit, too. Our favorite, though, is the Peanut Butter Noodles from your first cook book. It is always a winner, and easy to deconstruct.


Stir fry is another option. Meat for the omnivores, tofu or edamame for the vegetarian, and vegetables for all. Another idea is a meat main dish and the side dish being the main dish for the vegetarian.

During the summer there are things like a traditional Greek salad served with meat or chickpeas. Also salad nicoise — minus the fish for the vegetarian. A couple of years ago I was introduced to le grande aioli which typically consists of a white fish, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, potatoes and other vegetables (raw or cooked and cooled) served with aioli. Again, the fish (and eggs) can be omitted and replaced with chickpeas or lentils for the vegetarian.

If you look to other cuisines there are often lots of options.


We make your salmon salad recipe frequently for this exact reason! I leave all the components separate for everyone to pick and choose. It’s one of my favorites to serve for guests that have kids whose pickiness I’m unfamiliar with.


Vegetarian- type meals with meat “add-ins”. Example: a vegetarian pasta, throw in chopped cooked chicken or sausage to half. Veggie-rich chili or soup, divide and add meat to half. Consider cooking up lots of chicken, ground beef, sausage, etc, freeze in 1/2 to 1- lb. portions, grab and add in as needed. And for the one who needs to gain weight, serve bread and butter/olive oil at every meal :). The only problem… You might all gain weight!


We have been loving actual burritos. First night: everyone fills their own. I see how the fillings break down along party lines, and once everyone’s in bed, I make up the rest, wrap them individually in wax paper and freeze two bags (one with corn, the other with sour cream, for example, but you could do one with meat, one without). It’s the burrito bowl idea that just keeps giving. Fillings: refried beans, black beans, pickled onions, corn, seasoned meat (or rotisserie chicken, or sausage, or whatever), cheese, a smear of cream cheese (indulgent alternative to sour cream), seasoned rice cooked with onions, salsa (though my kids won’t eat that), green onions, grilled veggies, etc. We heat them in the microwave to serve, but then pan fry like Jenny teaches us in the book. There is nothing more amazing than the assurance of a 5-minute meal–that everyone loves–in a pinch. xox


This post couldn’t be more timely as I just sent my friends a request to share meal suggestions because I’ve so grown tired of the usual rotation. My family of four is also a mixed bag when it comes to food preferences & unfortunately multiple food allergies leave us without dairy, eggs, nuts & poultry & my husband won’t eat fish. I am also pushing us to be more vegetarian. While I’ve learned how to cook with substitutes, I am always looking for new ideas. Please post more meal ideas for families like mine. Thanks!


This is pretty much the story in my house, too. One successful customizable/desconstructible meal for us (besides the great ideas mentioned already) is crepes; my three kids and husband eat them (me, too) with salad, meat, cheese, jam, or nothing inside. My 10 year old made the batter in the blender yesterday afternoon, and then, at dinnertime, we took turns cooking them in the kitchen. It’s a casual meal in our house, because they are cooked to order and served up at the kitchen counter. I have made them ahead, though, and they warm up pretty nicely wrapped in tinfoil in the toaster oven or in a damp paper towel in the microwave. Sometimes we go buckwheat to make them healthier. Good luck!


Donburi is another great deconstructable meal – crispy soy-sauce marinated tofu for vegetarians and chicken/beef/salmon/whatever for meat-eaters, plus plenty of salad and lashings of wasabi mayonnaise. mmm…


i feel a mother there. its soo frustrating when a mom invest her time in the kitchen only for here product not to satisfy her expectations that is all the family members not only enjoy but ask for more. hope you get a solution mom. all the best.

Cassie Sue

These are great tips. And burrito bowls are HUGE in our house.

One other thing that has helped me is that Thursday night (my end of the week) we eat something simple. Whether it is order pizza, or grill up hot dogs/burgers (not homemade, just something from the grocery store). Not to have to plan at meal at the end of the week is a nice mental break for me, and then I can cook all the fun big meals that I like to cook over the weekend. Plus everyone likes the easy meals so not hearing any complaining is a nice treat too. Though I guess I need to add that my family doesn’t complain much, so I’m pretty lucky, but there is nothing more frustrating than cooking a meal after a long week at work and hearing complaining.


Awesome way to conquer this dilemma. Thanks for this creative idea i am also in the same boat as you. Thanks for this