Mealtime, deconstructed and reconstructed.

June 9th, 2014

Cooking for picky and plucky eaters.


I’m a plucky eater. I love complex, highly seasoned dishes, with lots of textures and flavors coming together to make something greater than the sum of their parts. My middle son is a picky eater. What I just described to you would make him gag. There is no bribe or threat or loving logical consequence that can make him eat certain foods without cost to his psyche, our relationship, and the family harmony. I decided years ago that we would not pay that price. There are plenty of moms for whom it’s a point of pride that their family eats whatever is put in front of them, but I’m not that mom. Dinner in our home isn’t just about eating–it’s about nourishing. My kids don’t bolt from the table the second the plates are cleared; they linger because the family dinner table is a pleasant place to be. Let their spouses fight with them someday about getting more cruciferous vegetables in their diets. Our table is not a Phyrric battle ground.

Everyone else in the family falls somewhere in between our two extremes. My youngest is an adventurous gourmet, who loves raw vegetables and spicy foods. My eldest is a meat-and-potato guy who will eat a whole pan of roasted broccoli, but won’t go near a banana. My husband goes along to get along, but really doesn’t care for casseroles or tomato based dishes.

You can’t please all the people all of the time, but over the years, I’ve learned how to keep most of us mostly happy at mealtime by deconstructing recipes, and letting diners reconstruct them to taste. Take spaghetti and meatballs for example: I put out serving bowls of hot buttered pasta, baked meatballs, marinara sauce, and cheese. Spaghetti squash, too, if I’m low-carbing. There’s usually a bowl or two of raw vegetables to munch on. Everyone fills his plate to taste, with a little parental prodding to have a bite of this or that.

Curries and stir fries can be taken apart and put back together the same way: grill or roast the protein and vegetables separately with simple, but flavorful seasonings like garlic, soy, or citrus. Serve with a huge bowl of steamed rice, raw veggies (sugar snap peas and bell peppers are favorites), and offer the sauce on the side to pour over whatever you like. Sure, I love a slow-simmered lamb korba, but I save those recipes for my dinner parties where they are most appreciated. Someday the boys will get curious enough about what the grown ups are raving about to want to try a taste. Which is exactly how I overcame my childhood horror of stewed tomatoes long enough to try my mother’s famous cabbage rolls. My picky eater recently started eating sushi on his own volition, not because he was pressured into it by his parents, but maybe because he sees that we regard it as a special date night treat.

My latest triumph in pleasing picky and plucky eaters is beef chili. I simmered a big pot of it all afternoon yesterday, thinking we’d have leftovers for nachos later in the week, but almost every bite of it was eaten at dinner last night. I’ve come to prefer it to traditional ground-beef/beans/tomato chili, and if we ever did have leftovers, they’d be very versatile in tacos, nachos, a green salad, or a hot sandwich. The beef is stewed with chiles, onions, and peppers, and is very flavorful, but because the meat is cut and not ground, it’s easy for picky eaters to separate from the “green bits.” Plucky eaters can just ladle out the meat and broth together and load up on favorite toppings. 

Try it on your picky or plucky eaters and let me know how it goes over! Here’s the recipe:


Deconstructed Chili Con Carne
  1. 2 lbs fajita or stew beef, cut into 1.5 in chunks
  2. 1/2 onion, diced fine
  3. 1 jalepeno pepper, diced fine
  4. 1 4-oz can diced green chiles
  5. 1 cup finely diced green pepper
  6. 3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  7. 1/4 c. dry red wine (optional)
  8. 1 tsp salt
  9. 2 T chili powder
  10. 2 tsp cumin powder
  11. 1 tsp. pepper vinegar (a.k.a. "pepper sauce" with pickled tabasco peppers, or use a splash of vinegar from pickled jalapenos or other hot pickled pepper)
  12. 1 qt. water
  13. 1 can low sodium beef broth
  14. 1/4 c. corn meal
  15. toppings and sides as suggested
  1. Brown beef and onions in oil over med-high heat, add peppers and chiles, and cook until vegetables are tender. Add garlic, wine, and seasonings, cook one or two minutes. Add water, broth, and pepper vinegar. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmer for at least two hours, or until meat is very tender. Make a slurry of cornmeal and 1/2 c. water and pour into chili, stirring to prevent any lumps. Let simmer another 20-30 minutes until thickened.
  2. Serve with cornbread, shredded cheese, pickled jalapeno peppers, ranch-style beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, corn chips, or whatever else you can dream up.
Planting Dandelions

5 Responses to “Mealtime, deconstructed and reconstructed.”

  1. Thanks for the recipe, Kyran. I’m going to have to try that one. We have an extremely picky eater as well. He’s better when he’s not with us, but not by much. Sad to say, even moving certain items away from the rest of a dish is not sufficient for him to eat those items. For instance, if those items ever so much as existed for a few seconds in a concotion that included green stuff, they are anathema to him. We too decided long ago not to make our table a battle ground. He and brother certainly do have battles at the table sometimes, but not about the food.

    • And yet somehow, they grow, right? 🙂 I think if my picky eater had been an only child, I would have found it much harder to let it go, because I would’ve felt I was to blame. But having two other kids with completely individual tastes and peccadilloes has helped me accept that I can only influence, not control.

  2. Bev says:

    Deconstructing…what a great suggestion and one that I will apply to meals prepared for our three grands and their parents on weekends that they spend with us at our winter home. Like yours, they have quite individual tastes and acceptable foods. Thanks!

  3. Betsy says:

    We have been doing this for years. My oldest and i are vegan, my youngest and husband are vegetarian and we all have varying tastes for veggies, etc. We also do holidays this way with extended family. Now our kids are at college and it is a great way to please the large crowds they bring home during vacations.

  4. I love the idea of deconstructing dinners so people can take what they like. I have 4 kids, so it’s a rare meal that everyone loves, but this might help!

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