Trying to accommodate to a variety of eating preferences? Many families struggle with this. It could be that you are dealing with a picky eater, or perhaps have someone in the family with a particular allergy or intolerance. It could also be that you have a wide variety of ages among family members (for example a 6 year old, 16 year old, two parent’s and your mother in law), which makes it hard to serve something that everyone wants to eat. Whatever the case may be, planning only one meal that will meet the demands of everyone becomes a seemingly impossible task. And the last thing you want to be doing is making multiple meals or short order cooking for that one eater that doesn’t like what they’ve been presented with.

I used to battle quite a bit in my household with what to make. My husband was a real meat & potatoes kind of man – very little liking for vegetables or salads and he also liked his food spicy! I preferred trying more unique foods with different flavour palates, most of it vegetable based and always whole grain rice! My kids went through a phase where they basically only wanted to eat if it was a pizza, chicken nugget, mac & cheese or fries… and no spinach, mushrooms, onions…the list went on. I was at my wits end!

It wasn’t until I one day I noticed that the only time my whole family enjoyed a meal was when it fell on one of my “Mexican themed” food nights (i.e. taco, burritos, quesadilla, etc.). I realized that these were the only nights that I would serve food “family style” – that is, have all the ingredients to a meal separated and set out on the table as part of a spread. I never really had to deal with anyone picking out little bits of food from their plate or making a sour face after tasting a certain ingredient. That’s because everyone was able to choose what they wanted as part of their meal! After contemplating this for a day, I decided that I would switch my meals plans around a bit and try removing recipes like casseroles or stews that included many different ingredients mixed together. Instead, I swapped in more meals where I could just lay out different fixings and have each person build their own meal.

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For example, things like pizza, sandwiches, and tacos worked really well. I also began to separate side dishes like “orzo pasta salad” to a simple orzo with a couple different vegetable options on the side. That way, if someone didn’t like the orzo, they could still have veggies or vice versa. I would still make meals like “salmon with dill sauce”, but would separate the salmon, serve the dill sauce on the side as optional, and let everyone build their own salads and choose the dressing. This not only allowed us to modify our meals as we liked, but interestingly enough started generating an interest in new foods that previously were not touched. When “mixed” food options are served (like a shepherd’s pie) and isn’t liked for even the tiniest of reasons, parents get extra frustrated because it’s the only dinner choice and now their child either isn’t going to eat at all, or the parent feels compelled to make them something entirely different. Parents may get frustrated to the point that they “force” or badger their child to eat what’s in front of them. While this come with good intentions, pestering or pressuring a child to eat something often exacerbates (or even creates) a picky eating problem. When children associate a negative feeling or experience with a particular food, this can lead to developing an aversion to that food in the future. Instead, with this new method of separating foods, everyone could eat what they liked with no pressure. This created a positive atmosphere that encouraged the kids to try foods in isolated forms (so as not to overwhelm them) and allowed them to choose something else off the table if they didn’t like it.

Here are some tips for creating family style meals to please all taste buds:

Make sure to include all food groups in the spread: Meat or other protein like fish, beans, tofu, etc.; a high fibre carbohydrate source like whole grain rice, pasta, bread, sweet potatoes, etc; at least one or two types of fruit, vegetable or both; and a dairy like cheese or milk.

Have things like salad dressings, gravies, condiments, even certain spices and herbs separate from the main meal and allow each family member to add what and how much they like.

When you introduce new foods, also offer something familiar that everyone likes and can fill up on. I typically recommend having at least a roll of bread or plain rice that family members can eat in case they don’t like the “new” food.

Make mealtimes pleasant. Enjoy a good conversation and never scold or fight with someone to eat. You’re job is to choose what and when your family eats and it’s up to them to choose if and what they eat.

Let me know what strategies do you use to manage different preferences within your family!

Looking for ideas for quick, family approved meals you can make in less than 25 min? Click here for my top 5 recipes for busy families (with meal planning template included)!

Much luck and happy eating,

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