I’m lucky, I love to cook. For me, it’s nourishment, creativity, therapy, and comfort all wrapped up together in the perfect plate of cannelloni. When I became a mom I worried I would fail at so many aspects of parenting, but when it came to actually feeding my family, no sweat, I thought, I got this. 

Wrong, wrong and wrong again. Turns out, just because I loved food and everything about it, didn’t mean my kids would. I have one super foodie, Lily, who will taste and eat almost anything. She loves to talk about and critique food. In fact she’s become a food snob. I also have potentially the pickiest eater on the planet and just for fun, let’s combine picky with stubborn. Lastly, to toss in a dash of spice, my husband has celiac disease. 

Now I know, compared to a lot of people out there struggling with major allergies, sick kids, or financial difficulties, my problems are minor. But I’m sure many of you can relate that by the time dinner comes around, trying to please everyone, or just get them fed, while not losing your mind can be exhausting. It can be more than exhausting, it can make the best of us cooks feel like a big, floppy undercooked pancake. A double whammy of failing as a cook and as a parent. In the words of my son, Jasper, every time I put a plate of food in front of him, “BLECH!!!!!!!”

When I realized how picky and stubborn my son was, trust me I tried everything. I read every book, I know French Kids Eat Everything. I listened to all the advice, from those that said they hide veggies in their kids’s food, to those that don’t because they want their kids to know what they are eating. Everyone says it’s about exposure. My favorite is when people say to me, “You just make him eat it.” Ha! Ha ha hahahahahaha. I’m still crying from laughing so hard because those people obviously have not met my son.

Eventually, as with most things in parenting, we had to figure out what worked for us. I’m sharing, not because I think our way is the best way, but because it makes our weeknight dinners easier and more enjoyable, and maybe it can help some of you too.

Although we shake things up on the weekends, during the week we plan the same five meals every week, and we make things that allow flexibility without putting the line cook (that’d be me usually) through the gauntlet. I feel like I’m providing healthy meals, and we all actually enjoy dinner together. I know, I might cry happy tears from that last sentence. Here’s how we do it:

TACO NIGHT: A favorite in our house. Some taco nights my husband makes fresh corn tortillas, other times we use hard shells. Either way, it’s a gluten-free meal and we each pick what we want on our tacos. For Jasper, that equals cheese, tortilla chips and more cheese. Not exactly the healthiest taco on the planet, but he still has veggies on the side like raw carrots, slices of cucumbers or red pepper. He will even eat raw spinach. (Just so you know, it has taken YEARS for us to get him to eat veggies.) 

We use ground beef, leftover chicken from a roast chicken, or, homemade refried beans if we want meatless. The key for your family is whatever floats your boat. Tacos can be vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free or full of meat and gluten and dairy, if you want. Sample ingredient list: taco shells, ground beef, packet of taco seasoning, shredded cheese, red onion, red pepper, jalapeño, avocado, sour cream, salsa, and whatever veggies your kids will eat.

PANINI NIGHT: You can grill your sandwiches in a pan if you don’t have a panini press. Jasper eats a grilled cheese, but again he always gets those veggies on the side. Lily usually choses ham and cheese with her veggies on the side. My husband and I top a gluten-free baguette (we love Against the Grain!) with sautéed red peppers, onions, mushrooms, jalapeños, and pepper jack cheese. We pop it under the broiler for a minute and delish! If we’re feeling spendy we’ll add thin, thin slices of rib-eye from the butcher, which we quick grill on the indoor griddle for a melt-in-your-mouth steak and veggie sandwich. Again, this meal can be vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, whatever pleases you and yours. Sample ingredient list: your choice of bread, cheeses, sliced deli meats, sliced veggies like red pepper, red onion, mushrooms, jalapeño, condiments like mayo.

PASTA NIGHT: Our go-to pasta dish is Lemon Chicken Pasta. (Recipe to follow!) And, I’m almost bored from writing this, but yes, Jasper eats plain noodles with his veggies or salad on the side. He’s boring. BUT HE LIKES IT, and again we all enjoy our meal together. Sample ingredient list for Lemon Chicken Pasta: box of pasta, chicken breasts, onion, garlic, lemon, flat-leaf parsley, parmesan cheese, olive oil, s & p, crushed red pepper, sliced veggies or fruit for your picky eater.

PROTEIN, RICE & VEGETABLE NIGHT: Where we live, the salmon and trout are delicious, so this meal for us is usually salmon, jasmine rice and steamed broccoli or roasted asparagus. It’s just as easy with pork or chicken, or a meatless version with rice and sautéed vegetables. I marinate the fish in equal parts maple syrup and soy sauce (tamari for gluten-free people), a bit of olive oil, some minced garlic and ginger for about thirty minutes; then grill or broil it. This salty-sweet marinade works great on pork and chicken too. And, you guessed it, plain rice, plain vegetables and absolutely NO fish for Jasper because it puts him into apoplexy. There are times we microwave a hotdog to go with his unmixed items. Don’t you dare mix up his food. Oh, and don’t give him meat unless it’s bacon or a hot dog. That boy. Sample ingredient list: protein like fish or steak, rice, vegetable of your choice, maple syrup, soy sauce (or tamari), garlic, fresh ginger, olive oil, lemon slices to squeeze over it all. 

PIZZA NIGHT: Yay! Our absolute favorite because we make darn good pizza, but also because we serve it up with a movie on Friday here, and well, it’s Friday!! I make a batch of sauce and freeze it in portions about once a month, so all I have to do is take the sauce and kids’ dough out of the freezer, sauté mushrooms and sausage, and then I sit down with my glass of wine. Yup, you read that right. I. Sit. Down. With. My. Glass. Of. Wine. My husband and the kids make their pizzas and then he makes ours using Namaste’s Gluten Free Pizza Dough. Everybody gets what they want on their pizza pie. Sample ingredient list: Pizza dough, pizza sauce, fresh mozzarella, other delicious pizza toppings and salad ingredients if you like.

Each of these options above allows for flexibility and makes everyone in my house happy while providing healthy, inexpensive meals. My kids still have to eat things they don’t like, but not in a way that makes us all miserable. These meals are pretty easy and the routine brings me a sigh of relief! (And yes, sometimes we throw in the towel completely and have mac & cheese and frozen chicken nuggets!)

Added Benefits:

  • It makes my weekly shopping easier.
  • You can make a chart (or get the kids to make one) so everyone knows what to expect for dinner. Kids like routine!
  • It makes dinner prep easier. And the kids enjoy helping.
  • You can prep veggies for the week. I slice carrots and radishes and put them in a bowl of water in the fridge to make them nice and crisp for the week. I always have spinach, red peppers and cucumbers handy.
  • I waste less food. All those cut up veggies can be used for my kids’ lunches or snacks. Any sautéed veggies my husband and I have leftover from panini night can be used for taco night, or in a frittata for the morning, or on our Friday night pizza.

I can’t please everyone all the time, but we enjoy dinner together most nights, and at least I don’t feel like a failure or worse, find myself screaming at my child to Just. Eat. It. Without. Whining! Which I’ve done! Sharing meals should be enjoyable and comforting and a way for us to connect with each other. Many of my warmest, happiest memories revolve around a table full of good food and people. I hope this can help bring some warm food memories to your tables.

Lemon Chicken Pasta
Serves 4
A delicious, easy pasta flavored with lemon, onion and garlic.
Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
15 min
Total Time
30 min
Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
15 min
Total Time
30 min
  1. Olive oil
  2. 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into thin bite-size pieces, maybe the size of your thumb
  3. 1 yellow onion, chopped
  4. 3 garlic cloves, minced
  5. 1 box gluten-free pasta like Jovial’s fusilli, or pasta of your choice
  6. 1/2 to 1 lemon, juiced and zested (I usually begin with half a lemon, then add juice from the other half at the end, if needed.)
  7. Fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  8. Parmesan cheese, shredded
  9. Salt & pepper
  10. 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
  1. Cook pasta according to directions, toss with olive oil when done, especially if using gluten-free noodles, lots of olive oil is a good thing.
  2. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat 3-4 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add sliced chicken and cook, turning chicken pieces to cook all sides, usually about two-four minutes per side (depending on the size of your chicken pieces), until no longer pink. Remove to a plate.
  3. Add onion to hot pan, season with salt, and sauté for 5-7 minutes, until onions begin to brown and soften. Add minced garlic and cook for one minute. Toss chicken back in then add cooked pasta, lemon juice, zest and a dash of crush red pepper (if you like a bit of spice), and toss all together. Add extra olive oil if needed.
  4. Remove from heat, toss in parsley and Parmesan, and season with extra salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!
  1. You can omit the chicken, if you are vegetarian. Sauté some asparagus or zucchini instead and toss with the pasta.
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Sara Ohlin

Puget Sound based writer, Sara Ohlin is a mom, wannabe photographer, obsessive reader, ridiculous foodie, and the author of the upcoming contemporary romance novels, Handling the Rancher and Salvaging Love. You can find her essays at Anderbo.com, Feminine Collective, Mothers Always Write, Her View from Home, and in anthologies such as Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak about Healthcare in America, and Take Care: Tales, Tips, & Love from Women Caregivers. Find her at www.saraohlin.com

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