Dinner Makeover: Cooking for Picky Eaters in a Tiny Kitchen
Gail Albert Halaban
1 of 8Gail Albert Halaban
‘I’m Struggling With Limited Space and Limited Palates.’
Brook Easton, 38 Iowa City
“Crunched” describes both Brook’s schedule and her 14-by-3-foot kitchen. “It’s basically a hallway with appliances,” she says. “You can’t open the dishwasher and the oven at the same time.” She would love to sit down for dinner as a family with her husband, 40-year-old Web designer Bill, and their two sons, Edison, four, and Grant, one. But that’s easier said than done, as Brook has a full-time job in marketing and is training for a triathlon. When she gets home at 6:30, she has an hour and a half before the boys’ bedtime, so she and Bill often resort to serving the kids frozen meals or PB & Js. The grown-ups eat separately—usually frozen pizza—before they collapse into bed. Brook fears the pattern is just exacerbating her sons’ picky-eater tendencies. “I grew up on boxed mac and cheese and Hamburger Helper,” says Brook. “I want my kids to learn to eat healthy foods and try new things. But they’re already starting to be very choosy, and I’m running out of ideas.”
2 of 8Gail Albert Halaban
Brook couldn’t get cooking until there was some order in her cramped kitchen, so Real Simple first called in organizing expert Chip Cordelli to help excavate usable work space. Then staff food editor Dawn Perry and Emily McKenna gave Brook some easy meal ideas, plus strategies for getting the family to actually eat them.
3 of 8Raymond Hom
Reclaim the Cooking Space
Chip freed up valuable real estate by moving items that Brook rarely used—the coffeemaker (neither she nor Bill drinks the stuff), a dish drainer, and flour and tea canisters—off the counters. He then tackled her drawers and shelves with these kitchen organizers.
4 of 8Raymond Hom
Dress Up Frozen Vegetables
When Brook “made” vegetables, she would just microwave them. Thanks to Dawn, she discovered that tossing in a few ingredients right before serving takes them to a whole new level.
Cook 16 ounces of frozen peas, corn, or green beans according to the package directions, then fold in one of these easy combos. (Each recipe serves 4.)
No two are alike, so there’s no universal strategy to outsmart them. That said, Dawn gave Brook the following suggestions.
Have kids help. Let them pick out fruits and vegetables at the store. Ask them to give you a hand with the washing and prepping.
Present them with choices. Don’t ask, “Do you want carrots?” Ask, “Which would you like, carrots or peas?”
Offer new foods at the beginning of a meal, when a kid is hungrier (and thus more receptive).
Serve meals family-style to give kids control over their plates. Take victories as they come: If he eats two lima beans, that’s better than none.
Make it fun. Include vegetables in a taco or a baked potato bar. Or let the kids make their own kebabs or top their own pizzas.
Don’t try to sneak in vegetables. Kids need to learn to appreciate healthy foods as delicious in their own right—something that will never happen if squash is always pureed, then hidden in a brownie.
6 of 8Robin Macdougall/Gettty Images
Rely On Quick-Cooking Proteins
“My idea of an easy protein was chicken nuggets,” says Brook. Dawn taught her about simple, and healthier, cuts of meat and fish—pork, beef, salmon—that are fast and foolproof, thanks to a 10-minute stovetop technique.
Master Cooking Method
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Season 1½ pounds of the desired protein (see list below) with kosher salt and black pepper. Cook, in batches if necessary, until golden brown and cooked through. (Each recipe serves 4.)
In a small kitchen, trying to prepare multiple dishes at once can feel like a contortionist’s act. Dawn gave Brook recipes for three easy big-batch sides that she can make on a Sunday and serve throughout the week.
“I used to spend 10 minutes just clearing space to cook,” says Brook. “Now I can get home and have chicken, couscous, and Parmesanpeas on the table in under 30 minutes. Victory!” She’s also winning battles with her picky eaters. “Even Edison loves the peas,” she says. “The other day, he helped me scoop seeds from a melon and cut the fruit up. His brother wanted some, too. I thought, Hurrah! We’re bonding over food, not fighting over it.”