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Deconstructing Dinner

By Amanda Morgan - Not Just Cute


My boys are finicky eaters.  I try not to take it personally that the same child I’ve asked to stop eating playdough may very well refuse the dinner I spent an hour preparing.


It’s well-known that children may need to be introduced to a food at least a dozen times before accepting it.  In the case of my oldest, it may even take a few years before they suddenly proclaim as “delicious” dishes they’ve turned their noses up at time and time again.


Your child’s appetite and preferences will change dramatically over the years – and sometimes even over the course of a week!  There are many tips for addressing the daily power struggle called dinnertime (some great ones found here).  One secret that has worked particularly well for my family is to occasionally deconstruct dinner.


In order to let the kiddos have some personal choice and ownership in their dinner, I sometimes break a recipe down to separate parts and let the children make it their way.  They’re always more likely to eat something they made themselves, not just because it’s just the way they like it, but also because they had an active role in making it.  It’s a boost to their self-efficacy to have completed such a “grown-up” task. 


The deconstructed dinner also provides ample opportunities for nutrition discussions as we sometimes point out that their plates need more protein, or more veggies.  As you would expect from young children, that’s usually followed by a “why” or “what’s that”, opening up a relevant discussion about their choices and how they effect their bodies.


Here are some of the favorite deconstructed dinners on our list:


Chicken Salad Sandwiches:  Instead of mixing up my chicken salad sandwich recipe complete with all my favorites (craisins, sunflower seeds or almonds, green onions, celery, etc., etc.) I mix up just the chicken with the creamy sauce.  Then I set out the other toppings along with the rolls.  Some of my boys load it up with everything.  Others pick and choose.  But everyone gets something nutritious, and hardly anyone complains (until I remind them to clean up their dishes…).


Pizza:  Pizza night happens almost weekly at our house.  Often times, I’ll mix up the dough and sauce and get the toppings ready, then I’ll encourage my kids to come make their own mini pizzas.  It’s a sure-fire crowd pleaser.


Tin Foil Dinner:  This is an old favorite from our great outdoor adventures.  Mixing meat, potatoes, veggies, and a dab of cream soup or a barbecue sauce, folding it into a packet and tossing it on a fire has been something my husband and I have been familiar with for years.  But we took for granted how much our boys would love making their own little dinner packets.  We’ve even made them in the oven for adventurous nights in.  (Here’s a sample recipe for more ideas.)


Salad Bar:  I was also surprised to find out how much my boys enjoy a hearty salad.  Since my husband and I can’t even agree on the same toppings and dressings, it makes perfect sense to simply set out the pieces and parts and let everybody build their own.  Spinach, carrots, kidney beans….I never thought I could get my boys eating so healthfully with so little effort!


Hawaiian Haystacks: If you haven’t tried these yet, they may sound strange, but they taste delicious.  It’s essentially cooked chicken in a creamy sauce poured over a bed of rice and then topped with things like pineapple, green onions, celery, cheese, tomatoes, mandarin oranges, and chow mein noodles.  (Here’s one recipe example.)  Set out all the toppings and let everyone make theirs just they way they like.  For separatists like my middle son, that often means a pile of rice next to a pile of chicken, next to a pile of cheese, next to a pile of celery, next to a pile…..


So while you still want to encourage your children to try new foods, it’s also nice now and then to let them make the call and build their dinners just the way they like.


What’s your favorite deconstructed dinner?


Amanda Morgan
Amanda Morgan is a full time mom to three busy boys and a part-time trainer and consultant for a non-profit children's organization. She also writes at Not Just Cute, a blog focused on intentional whole child development. It's full of ideas that are more than just cute, for preschoolers who are much more than cute too.