The other night, I made the most delicious dinner of lentils with tomatoes and acorn squash, served over rice. It was perfect at the end of a long day filled with thunderstorms and it used up a lot of our in-season produce. But you know what? Neither of my kiddos wanted anything to do with it! Despite that, I still considered it a successful meal. Here's why the dinners you make that your kids don't eat can still be a win.
I love to cook and making meals for my family is a highlight of my day. I love playing with flavors and making use of the food in our fridge. But as we all know, feeding children often makes what would otherwise be fun turn into a downward spiral. Even if you love to cook—and even more so if you don't!—the sheer act of getting dinner onto the table every night can be draining. Kids don't always appreciate the flavors and textures that us adults enjoy and they are often resistant to new dishes, as I am sure you have experienced. But that doesn't mean that we need to serve mac and cheese or hot dogs at every meal, or that you have to wait until they go to college to make a dish you love. It simply means that the sides served at dinner need to pull more weight.
If you want to take the stress out of family dinner and make meals that make everyone happy, try this: Surround dishes that the kids might be on the fence about with a few sides that you are more confident they'll like.
Some people call this offering "safe foods", which works too. For this meal, the lentils were the only thing that was a "maybe" for the kids. I figured that the little one might be more likely to try them, but in the end, she seemed to dislike like the texture. (She currently doesn't like the texture of potatoes either...go figure!) L tasted one single lentil after I asked her to and she said a polite "no thank you". But both girls happily ate the rest of the meal and filled up on jasmine rice, cheese, and strawberries. (And each had enjoyed a cucumber before sitting down to dinner.)
My point? Even without the lentil dish that I was so excited about, the girls had a balanced dinner and were, at the very least, exposed to new flavors. No one cried, no one went to bed hungry, and my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal.
There is no rule that says that a child needs to eat every single thing on their plate in order for you to call it a good meal. Your child absolutely does not need to like everything on the menu for you to have an enjoyable dinner. And it's entirely fine to rely on accepted foods as a safety net when you're offering new ones. I know that there are loads of recipe sites out there that proclaim that this recipe or that one is the one that your toddler will inhale. It's really tempting to label recipes with that promise but you know what? Each of our kids is unique and you really just never know what they will eat on any given day. And that is okay!
Sometimes, we just need to reframe how we're looking at the foods we serve in order to come away feeling good about the meal. And I find that taking a deep breath and relaxing when the kids refuse something can go a long way. (Admittedly, I sometimes have to leave the room if the kids are being ridiculous by refusing something I know they like, but kids will be kids!)
I wound up having so much of the lentils that I stuck a quart into the freezer to reheat on another night. Maybe a repeat exposure will be just the thing to encourage the girls to give it another try...and if not, more for us parents!
Italian Lentils with Tomatoes and Rice
I made this dish as a way to turn pantry staples into dinner, and to use up produce from our CSA. Feel free to use purchased pre-cut squash to make this easier. You could also serve this as a pasta sauce. This recipe was inspired by this one from the NYTimes.
2 cups brown or green lentils
1 small acorn or butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed
6 cups water
3 cloves garlic, minced or grated
1 small onion, minced
1 teaspoon salt
2 sprigs fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 quart marinara sauce
2 cups fully cooked rice
Goat cheese, crushed red pepper, shredded basil for serving, optional
1. Add the lentils, squashed, water, garlic, onion, salt, and thyme to a medium pot. Bring to a simmer and cook for 25-30 minutes or until the lentils are tender but still holding their shape. Drain if needed. (You may not need to.)
2. Stir in the marinara sauce and warm through. Serve lentil-tomato mixture with rice and optional toppings. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days or let cool and store in the freezer in a freezer safe storage container for up to 3 months.
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Divided plate and bowl are by Replay Recycled.
Bamboo and silicone spoon is by Avanchy.