The back-to-school season is a stressful time for parents: buying new school supplies and textbooks, scheduling after-school activities—and of course, putting dinner on the table.
Food writer, cookbook author, and mother of two Katie Workman has heard plenty of stories from desperate parents, who had to serve bowls of cereal to their children when they were strapped for time, out of ideas, or simply too exhausted to cook.
“Everybody’s had their experience with those sad dinners. If that’s how you want to handle it as a parent, [saying] ‘I just made this one thing [and] if you don’t like it, go pour yourself a bowl of cereal,’ I think that’s within reason,” Workman said in a recent interview.
“But if that’s happening every night, I think you want to address the problem, and try to figure out how to not let that be the dynamic every night.”
Luckily, Workman has solutions—her recent cookbook, “Dinner Solved!” not only includes versatile recipes that can satisfy the pickiest of eaters, but also cooking tips and ideas for how your children can help out in the kitchen, so dinner won’t become a headache-inducing chore.
We spoke with Workman to get her advice on how to make meals that satisfy everyone’s palates—even the fussy 4-year-old—without stressing out the family cook.
The Do’s and the Don’ts
Growing up, Workman had a curious palate and enjoyed the dishes her parents loved cooking from different ethnic cuisines.
“We always had good cheeses in our house. When I was little, I loved olives and salty things. [Now] my kids do too—they’ll eat a jar of pickles, or a bowl of olives,” she said.
But for those of us with more timid eaters in the house, Workman knows what will get them to open up. She started helping parents with common cooking dilemmas while writing her first cookbook, “The Mom 100 Cookbook.” Being a cookbook editor for 13 years, and cooking for her own family, have given her expertise to answer questions like how to get children to eat more vegetables, or how to get out of the rut of serving chicken all the time.
For the eternal vegetable question, she suggests roasting instead of steaming. “It can bring out the natural sweetness thru caramelization. A piece of roasted broccoli is, in my opinion, 10 times better than steamed broccoli. I’ll add a little olive oil, some salt, and maybe a little shredded cheese.”
For introducing new flavors or foods to young, skeptical palates, Workman has several working principles. First, when serving the dish, parents shouldn’t preface it with “I don’t know if you’ll like this.”
“The minute you say that, you’re introducing doubt into their minds. You’ve expressed that you think they won’t like it,” Workman said. Parents often make the mistake of assuming that their children will not like something just because they’ve never had it before, or that they won’t enjoy foods with pungent, strong flavors.
Second, parents shouldn’t give up after the first failed attempt. Workman cites nutritionist research that children have to try a new food about 10 times before they finally embrace it. She encourages parents to keep finding opportunities to broaden their children’s tastes.
“If you just try something once or twice and walk away, that food probably won’t get on the acceptable list,” Workman said.
“You really do have to keep offering it, and ask, ‘Can you please just take one bite? And if it’s not for you, okay.’ Then you try it again a few weeks later.”
Children are also more likely to enjoy a dish if they had a hand in making it. Workman suggests looking through a cookbook together, asking what they’d like to try making, and letting them do some simple tasks, like peeling vegetables and measuring ingredients.
Then when you’re plating the dish, make sure to keep the portions small. For example, if you’d like to get your child to try salmon, don’t serve an eight-ounce portion; serve the fish in small strips.
In addition, try to introduce new elements slowly by serving them with foods your child is already familiar with. That way, you won’t overwhelm your child.
Workman said parents should not burden themselves with trying to make every meal the perfect one—serving one inventive component with some familiar ones is totally okay.
“If it becomes a battle of wills [with your children], that’s where you start to get yourself into trouble,” she said.
Finally, you can also get them experimenting when the family is eating out or eating at someone else’s house. Children tend to be more receptive when there’s an older friend sitting at the table. “They want to sort of impress them. If these kids are just hunkering down and eating a big bowl of chili, your kids will be more likely to try it.”
Pleasing Different Palates
From years of cooking experience, Workman has developed a two-in-one approach to recipes that can help introduce children to new foods, while at the same time pleasing an adult palate with a few extra steps.
For example, Workman’s Cornmeal-Crusted Tilapia is a sure-fire way to get her kids to eat fish, but she also includes an extra recipe for a sauce made with shallots, tomatoes, and mustard, for those with more sophisticated tastes.
Or in her Stir-Fried Shrimp and Scallions recipe, she includes a version with black bean-and-garlic sauce and minced jalapeños.
Her two-recipes-in-one also work for accommodating meat and vegetarian eaters at the same dinner table. Her Chicken and White Bean Chili can be turned into a vegetarian dish by replacing the chicken with tempeh—a fermented soy product—and adding some zucchini, chickpeas, and corn.
Another method she uses to satisfy different eaters is to take apart the dish into its different components, then let each person pick what they’d like to include. For example, when serving her tacos and her Asian Rice Bowl Many Ways, Workman places the different fillings, toppings, and sauces in separate bowls, so each person can assemble his or her own version while still eating the same dish.
Workman said her variations are designed to introduce deep flavors to family meals.
“It’s not about keeping their food kiddie food and our grownup food interesting. It’s about the opportunities. ‘Oh look, you want to try mine? Mine has roasted tomatoes and mushrooms in it. Try both versions and see which one you like better,’ or say, ‘Add some of this if you want.’ It’s about being encouraging,” Workman said.
Each family has a different dynamic when it comes to food, but Workman believes there are ways to broaden your children’s tastes without forcing them to eat something they don’t like.
“For me, sitting there and saying, ‘You’re not leaving this table until you eat every last lentil on your plate,’ doesn’t feel good to me. It creates a stressful relationship between family and food and dinner,” she said.
Practice Makes a Better Cook
The same principles apply to adults cooking dishes for the first time. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to get it right from the start, Workman said you can start by getting a basic recipe down and experimenting from there.
“If you’re making a pot of plain rice, maybe add some sautéed fresh ginger, see how that works. If you like it, next time you add some soy sauce and garlic, and then next time, you’re making stir-fried rice,” Workman explained.
Practice makes perfect applies here too. With time, it’s possible to make the challenge of cooking dinner a problem no more.