Kids

How to Cook for Your Family in Spite of Your Children

Here’s the secret: I don’t cave.

September 12, 2021
Photo by Hyesu Lee

Welcome to Kids & the Kitchen, our new landing pad for parents who love to cook. Head this way for kid-friendly recipes, helpful tips, and heartwarming stories galore—all from real-life parents and their little ones.


I remember the precise smell of my mom’s lamb curry. It would carry down the driveway, walloping us when we got home from school. I hated it, just like I hated eggs, but that didn’t stop my mother from serving those things. She didn’t ask us for our suggestions; we ate what she felt like cooking. And at our family dinner, when she served something she knew my siblings and I disliked, she didn’t flinch when we moaned.

Today, I have two kids of my own. And I think my mom was on to something: The secret to family dinner is that you’re not making it for your children, but in spite of them.

If you love food, nothing will suck the joy from cooking faster than becoming shackled to the demands of your children. Nothing will make nightly dinner feel more like a chore than baking endless rounds of macaroni and cheese, cajoling kids to try just a tiny bite, or—God help us—making them a separate dinner.

To be clear, I know it’s not easy. Working parents, single parents, guardians of fussy eaters or special needs children: My hand is on your shoulder. Nightly dinner can be a thankless, grueling task, and sometimes the only way to make it easier is by capitulating. But I’d still argue that if you want to raise adventurous eaters and maintain a love for cooking, you need to show them the way. It’s our job to teach about the good stuff: first-of-the-season asparagus; a really nice omelet; homemade fried chicken.

Even when they wrinkle their noses and ask for buttered noodles, I do not budge.

I loved cooking before I had children, and their arrivals did not change that. I was willing to make some adjustments, starting with the amount of time I was willing to spend in the kitchen, the number of dishes I was willing to dirty, and the distance I would travel to a specific market to get a particular ingredient. What did not change was my commitment to cook what I want to eat, and to make what I feel like making.

I do not ask for feedback. Feedback comes, of course, but I taught my kids to say “That’s not my favorite,” rather than “Yuck,” which preserves the cook’s feelings while also acknowledging their effort. Feedback also comes in the form of requests: The kids know that if they ask for a favorite meal, or if they express any interest at all in trying something new, I’ll make it, because I want to throw some kindling on that spark of interest.

I don’t dumb down recipes for my boys, but I don’t force the issue, either. I’ve learned that deconstructing a dinner into its constituent parts allows me to make one thing that can be enjoyed many ways. I’ve learned the power of an exciting condiment for my wife and me—a zippy salsa verde for steak; chili crisp on almost everything—while our kids opt for unadorned servings. And I always put something on the table I know my boys will eat, be it bread or rice or a sliced apple, a sort of culinary security blanket.

Lest you think our kids are champion eaters, grateful to have a cook for a mom, let me assure you that, like all children, they’re fickle: The list of vegetables they’ll willing to consume is short, they favor carbohydrates in all forms, and one of my children really dislikes peanut butter, while the other is not a huge fan of cheese. The secret is that I don’t care, and I don’t give in to their idiosyncrasies. I don’t care whether they try a micro bite of a food they claim to detest, or if they only eat bread for dinner, or if they pull every tiny piece of basil off their pizza one day only to eat spaghetti with pesto the next.

What I do care about is being together at the end of day, exposing my kids to new ingredients and recipes and ideas, and preserving my sanity and love for a task that can feel relentless in the best of times and unforgiving in the worst.

And let me tell you: Not caring on the micro level—while caring an awful lot on the macro level—has set me free.

To fellow parent-cooks, one final piece of advice: Don’t give up, and don’t give in. I like to imagine my future adult children making my recipes for black beans, or cacio e pepe, or tortilla soup—all things they’ve now learned to love—and serving them to their own children, who might wrinkle their noses. But like their mother and grandmother before them, they won’t flinch.

Jessica Battilana is the author of Repertoire: All the Recipes You Need and a forthcoming cookbook from W.W. Norton.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Bianca Rose
    Bianca Rose
  • festilou
    festilou
  • Lindseyannstyle
    Lindseyannstyle
  • Anne
    Anne
  • Talicia Smith
    Talicia Smith
Jessica Battilana

Written by: Jessica Battilana

8 Comments

Bianca R. September 24, 2021
This is a great article, as a chef mom who cooks all of our meals from scratch (even bread, tortillas, soup, wraps etc.) I love the don't cave motto. I've seen the pitfalls of other parents who succumb to their children's picky eating where they eat nothing but fries or cheese sandwiches and are scared of vegetables. I've made some adjustments to my cooking (less spicy or less onions and garlic for more sensitive tummies) but otherwise we've had "the kids eat what we eat" mentality which I feel helps my children be more well rounded eaters.
 
festilou September 23, 2021
Thanks for this! I am not always good about not caring about what my son eats on any given meal, but I know this approach when I can relax enough has given him space to try new things, even though not nights he won't necessarily eat a lot. Like the author stated, the goal is to preserve your interest in cooking and food, and the rest should follow... Perhaps when the kids are out of the house, like every other important 'skill' they learn, it seems
 
Lindseyannstyle September 21, 2021
This is the article I needed to read, thank you! It’s funny, most nights I cook a kid friendly meal for my toddler, healthy as possible. (Chicken, beans, avocado for example). He almost always skips the veggie or has learned to push it off his plate to our willing dog. As a working mom who picks her kid up from daycare right before dinner I want his dinner to be served first. Typically while he eats I make dinner for my husband and myself. Even after my toddler has snubbed his dinner he will want to devour our non kid friendly meals.

I used to plead with him to eat his veggies, in the most ridiculous ways, with no luck. I recently read a similar concept —don’t comment on your kids’ non-eating at all. Not positive or negative. If you want them to eat the carrots don’t put on a show about how they’re the most delicious thing in the world. If they do take a bite don’t pay much attention. It actually creates a lot of pressure for them. I’ve tried this and he ate the carrots, not all of them but some abs that’s a huge feat!

So taking that approach I’m excited to combine it with this one, one meal for all.

I always think about the children in third world countries, whose moms are not likely serving up Mac and cheese and chicken fingers. I do feel a duty as a mom to provide my kid with Whole Foods, real ingredients, and exposure to different tastes. I guess I have to not stress and let him naturally eat what he wants to, his tastes and feelings will evolve.

Thanks for this article!!
 
Anne September 20, 2021
Growing up with parents who endured war depravations and who used poor cooking techniques and expired food as ways to force us to understand their upbringing, I was determined NOT to inflict this on my kids. Kids must learn to try new things, but its a fine line between that and creating lifetime food and control issues. We managed complaining by having a weekly "family council", starting when my kids were quite young. Every family member was responsible for at list one dinner menu each week, and had to help cook it and clean up after it. It had to include real food (not fast food junk), vegetables, and be nutritionally balanced. This taught them to understand how to plan a meal, how much work it was, how much cleanup it involved, and how irritating criticism was from other family members. It worked so well for us that my adult kids still use the process today with their families.
 
Talicia S. September 16, 2021
I won my fight against a food once in my life. Lima beans. Do not like. When I was around 5, I took a stand. My mom served lima beans for dinner and informed me I would not leave the table until they were finished. I stayed there until I fell asleep. I saw the lima beans at breakfast, lunch, and dinner the next day with the same requirement. I was at the table all day because I refused to eat the lima beans. It was the last time I had to eat lime beans. My mom never made me eat them again.
 
Daisy September 16, 2021
Thanks for that! I found the following on you tube years ago. I wonder if the little girl still hates green beans. She's quite the drama queen!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNWohBssn_k
How clever of her mom to have a camera ready to catch it all!
 
Nicole September 12, 2021
As an 80s baby with a working mother, there were a lot of fast meals and fast food. I didn't have any issues with eating my food until I went to a family member's house and she would make bread and jam in the mornings that I hated. That stuck with me and now I don't force my kids to eat if they don't like it. And we do make separate meals for them, but if they don't like what we make for them, they won't get anything else (except for fruit - I allow unlimited savings of fresh fruit). I would love to just make one dinner but I'm afraid we're too far gone in my house.
 
Daisy September 12, 2021
This is a mystery to me. My mother NEVER asked what we wanted for dinner. We ate what was there. I don't remember any hassles at the dinner table. There were SIX of us growing up in the 50's and 60's. Mom was inclined to make stuff my dad liked. Most things she made were made from scratch. I think there may have been frozen french fries then. For sure no chicken nuggets. A lot came out of cans. Not much fresh stuff...lots of iceberg lettuce! So food was simple for us as a family. We were all pretty healthy...no fat kids, no eating dysfunctions, no meal time trauma. So my question is, when did kids get to choose what they would/wouldn't eat? Obesity, diabetes, etc. were unknown to kids when I was growing up in the Midwest. Six kids with no food trauma. That's pretty amazing! Except for one sister who said if they made her eat ham she'd throw up. They did, and then she did. As for my kids, I didn't ask but offered choices so they could decide what they wanted...not always, but sometimes. They were pretty good about eating what was put in front of them. It appears things have changed...and not for the better.