A few weeks ago, on a random Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., I found myself in a situation familiar to many parents of small humans: I had finally gotten my toddler, a pixie-faced 2-year-old named Olive, to sit at the table for dinner. She took one look at the dinner in question—in this case, a mini frittata and strawberries—bellowed “NO,” and flung herself on the floor, screaming.
It had been a long day of work for me, full of phone calls and deadlines. The fact that I had even conjured up a homemade meal in the 20 minutes I had between the end of my work day and Olive’s dinner time felt like a small miracle in itself.
Instead of getting worked up, however, I took a few deep breaths, and walked back into the kitchen to give Olive some space for her complaints. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being the parent of a 2-year-old, it’s that there are some things I can control, and other things I cannot—especially when it comes to food.
When I was pregnant with Olive, I just knew my child would be a good eater. After all, I am a food professional. I’ve cooked in restaurants. I’ve edited multiple cookbooks. I’m currently Editor in Chief of America’s Test Kitchen Kids, where our mission is to create a whole new generation of food lovers, for crying out loud. But, of course, I knew she would be a good eater in the way all soon-to-be-parents who have no real experience with kids can know anything—i.e. I knew literally nothing.
Today, Olive is a pretty average eater for a 2-year-old. Sometimes she’s adventurous and delights in food. But if she loves something one day, the odds are high she’ll reject it the next. The majority of the time, the only sure bet is some kind of bland beige food. I mean, she’s a toddler. A delightfully obstinate toddler. And, thus, I can’t really count on anything from her at the dinner table.
Which is why, when it comes to mealtimes, I work on what I can control, and I have learned to let go of what I cannot.
One thing I can definitely control: The context surrounding any given meal. Research has shown that kids feel more engaged in eating when they’ve played a role in the cooking or even shopping. This is true for kids as young as Olive, who I started cooking with pretty much as soon as she could stand. (She is great at whisking dry ingredients together, stirring eggs, eating cheese after I’ve grated it, and turning the kitchen into a general scene of chaos.) She comes to the farmer’s market in the summer, and the supermarket in the winter. I read cookbooks to her like picture books. She is far more likely to try a new food if she helped cook it or pick it out at the market. Last summer this vegetable-averse toddler gobbled up cherry tomatoes and snap peas from our garden.
I also make it a priority to eat together, all of us, whenever we can. Because both my husband and I have intense jobs and long commutes multiple days a week, this is mostly possible on the weekends, and the occasional early-morning weekday breakfast. What is non-negotiable: Sunday nights. Every Sunday evening, we sit together for a family meal. I try and cook a meal that my husband and I want to eat, but also has some flexibility for Olive. Tacos, with their built-in options and ability for every diner to make his or her own choices, is a favorite. Sometimes it works great, sometimes Olive takes a couple bites and is done. It doesn’t matter. At least we do it.
Which brings me to the thing I can’t control: Olive. Sometimes she just won’t eat. After a few rough nights toward the beginning of her eating career, we made the decision not to turn mealtimes into a power struggle. I won’t cook a new meal for her if she doesn’t like what’s on the table, but I do try and make sure each meal contains a few very familiar options for her to choose from (fruit, cheese or yogurt are always a good bet). (For the record, I have absolutely no problem with boxed mac and cheese or frozen spinach bites or fish sticks on hectic days.) We try and make the eating experience fun, not stressful. And, if Olive doesn’t want to eat, she doesn’t have to eat. She’ll be more hungry for breakfast.
On that recent Tuesday night, after the bellowing and complaining, Olive did eventually sit down at the table, lured by a glass of “bubble water,” her new favorite thing to drink. She took one bite of frittata, and, realizing that it was a frittata loaded with bacon and cheddar cheese, then took another and another. The strawberries—the only thing she wanted to eat the day before—remained untouched.
Here are two of my go-to recipes I can usually convince Olive to eat:
Bean, Cheese and Spinach Enchiladas
Makes 12 enchiladas
Total Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes
Why This Recipe Works:
Enchiladas don’t need to be complicated. Our vegetarian version is simple but flavorful—with lots of mashing, mixing, brushing, and rolling for your little helpers to do. A great enchilada isn’t possible without a great sauce; we start with canned tomato sauce and then flavor it with sautéed onion plus garlic, chili powder, and cumin. For the filling, we smashed some canned black beans to create a quick “refried” bean base, and then we added some whole beans, creamy Monterey Jack cheese, spinach, and just enough sauce to bind it all together.
Serve with your favorite enchilada garnishes, such as sour cream, diced avocado, sliced radishes, shredded romaine lettuce, or lime wedges.
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 onion, chopped fine
- Salt and pepper
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons ground chili powder
- 1½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 3 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
- ½ cup water
- 2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed
- 8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (2 cups)
- 3 ounces baby spinach, chopped (3 cups)
- 12 (6-inch) corn tortillas
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in medium saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and ½ teaspoon salt and cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic, chili powder, and cumin and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomato sauce and water. Bring to a simmer and cook until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat.
Spread ½ cup sauce over bottom of 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Let remaining sauce cool to room temperature, about 10 minutes.
Place half of beans in large bowl and use potato masher to mash beans until smooth but some pieces remain. Stir in remaining whole beans, 1 cup cheese, spinach, and ½ cup cooled sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Brush both sides of tortillas with remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Stack tortillas, wrap in damp dish towel, and place on plate; microwave until warm and pliable, about 1 minute.
Spread ¼ cup bean filling across center of each tortilla. Roll each tortilla tightly around filling and place seam side down in baking dish. Pour remaining sauce over top of enchiladas to cover completely. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup cheese over top of enchiladas.
Cover dish tightly with greased aluminum foil. Bake until enchiladas are heated through and cheese is melted, about 25 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes, sprinkle with cilantro, and serve.
How You Child Can Help:
- Make filling in step 3
- Brush tortillas with oil in step 4
- Roll up tortillas in step 5
- Sprinkle enchiladas with cheese in step 5
Weeknight Beef Tacos
Makes 8 to 12 tacos
Total Time: 35 minutes
Why This Recipe Works:
Long live Taco Tuesday! We love ground beef tacos for family meals because they are quick and easy to make, and everyone at the table gets to pick and choose whichever toppings they like best. To ensure the meat stayed tender and juicy, we used a long-standing test kitchen trick: raising the beef’s pH by adding baking soda to the mix helps the meat proteins attract and retain more water.
Our homemade taco seasoning, along with sautéed onion, salt and umami-rich tomato paste, gave our taco filling savory depth that was far superior to any commercial taco kit.
Serve with your favorite taco toppings. Options include cilantro, chopped white onion, shredded cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomato, sour cream, salsa (red or green) and hot sauce.
- 1 tablespoon water
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 12 ounces (90 percent) lean ground beef
- 2¼ teaspoons chili powder
- 2¼ teaspoons paprika
- ¾ teaspoon ground cumin
- ¾ teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 onion, chopped fine
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 8 to 12 hard taco shells or 6-inch corn tortillas
Stir together water and baking soda in large bowl. Add beef and mix until thoroughly combined, set aside. In small bowl, stir together chili powder, paprika, cumin, and garlic powder.
Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add spice mixture and salt and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in tomato paste and cook until paste is rust-colored, 1 to 2 minutes.
Add beef and cook, using wooden spoon to break meat into pieces no larger than ¼ inch, until beef has just lost its raw pink color, about 5 minutes. Serve in taco shells with toppings.
Make-Ahead Taco Night:
You can make a larger batch of the taco seasoning to have on hand and make tacos quickly and easily any time. Double or triple the spices, mix until thoroughly combined, and store in an airtight container. When you’re ready to cook, use 2 tablespoons of the spice mixture for every 12 ounces of ground beef.
Tips For Toddlers:
If your toddler is on the pickier side, in step 2, use half of (or even omit) the spice mixture for a plainer finished taco filling. Younger toddlers may prefer soft corn tortillas to hard taco shells. Have your child pick toppings of choice.
Written by Molly Birnbaum for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image provided by Working Mother