How to build a dinner

I have two boys and my oldest was an adventurous eater right from day one and at age 10 he sometimes challenges me, but continues to expand his palette by eating sushi and attending cooking camp. One time he requested cold roasted beets and egg salad to be packed in his lunch and he ate it all, but I do not know if those results would be reproduced.  My youngest son is 8 and I have been dealing with his more selective eating (I am trying to not to label him as a picky eater) and slow weight gain his entire life.  For the first couple years of his life I carried this with me as some kind of punishment, but over the last few years I have realized it is not my fault.  I now believe that his eating habits are because he has a very cautious personality.  It takes him a while to warm up to people and situations.  He also takes a while to warm up to new food.

My adventurous son was swimming without floats in the deep end at age 3, charging down fast roller coasters at age 4, and is willing to try just about any food at least once, but he is also so adventurous that he does not always pay attention to his surroundings and gives me a heart attack anytime we are in a parking lot because he still does not pay attention to all the moving cars. My observant and cautious son will remember every place he has been, and tells me when I have made a wrong turn when traveling and remembers who has given him almost every hot wheel car that he has.  I believe his cautious personality is why it is more difficult for him to add new foods to his diet.  If you are struggling with a selective eater, I challenge you to observe how their personality allows them to relate to food and not label them as a “good” or “bad” eater.

You cannot make your child eat, but you can guide them by continuing to offer a variety of foods to your family.  One of the strategies I use to handle meal times with these two different personalities is that I have “dinner bars” of “build a dinner”.  This is a concept introduced to me by Jill Castle at the Nourished Child (  The concept encourages deconstructing common items served like pasta dishes, rice bowls, tacos, etc so the ingredients are separated and not mixed together.  For a more cautious eater it allows them to be more comfortable to create a plate they feel safe with.  The following is how I do an Asian rice bowl bar:

  • Brown rice that is cooked according to package directions
  • 4 cups of assorted vegetables I typically use carrots, broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, or whatever I have on hand. Stir fry them with some olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and rice vinegar. You can also use your preferred blend of spices as well.
  • 2-3 scrambled eggs
  • 1 cup frozen edamame, steamed
  • ½ pound of chicken, steak, pork, or seafood, cooked
  • Peanuts or cashews
  • Assorted sauces like soy sauce or flavorful hot sauces.

When all the items are prepared serve buffet style and allow the family to personalize their own bowls. The bowls can be topped with peanuts or cashews for an extra crunch or as an additional protein source if you are making the bowls vegetarian.

In my family I save a few vegetables to be served raw since my kids do not always like cooked vegetables and that is easy to do. I omit the meat many times and make this a vegetarian meal because it saves a step.  I also serve a side of fresh fruit.


This is the platter that served the rice, vegetables, and scrambled eggs.  The edamame, peanuts, shrimp, fresh pepper strips, fresh fruit, and leftover dinner rolls were also on the table (I know the dinner rolls do not really fit with the meal, but we were getting ready to leave town and I wanted to use them up).

The night I served this it was just my boys and I for dinner.  I present to you one meal, 3 ways.


Mine was the colorful bowl in the middle.  My younger son was the meal on the left and my older son decided to eat all the shrimp and have carrots.  I cooked one meal and because I deconstructed it everyone was able to build it the way they were comfortable, which resulted in a pleasant meal time.


2 thoughts on “How to build a dinner

  1. […] #5- Try and figure out how to deconstruct the food you are having for your toddler.  Some examples of this would be rather than serving stir fry all mixed together see if your toddler would be more likely to eat it if the rice, vegetables, and meat were served separately.  I recall when my kids were toddlers and we had chili I strained the liquid off and served beans, fruit, and cornbread and they did well with it.  Refer to my post entitled “How to build a dinner” […]


  2. […] Using the principles of my earlier post on “how to build a dinner” one can deconstruct meals to make them appropriate for either meat-eater or a non-meat eater. We have a family friend that comes to dinner weekly that is vegan. I utilize the build a meal concept to serve something that pleases everyone. I have served stir fry bowls, Mexican rice bowls, baked potato bar, pasta bar, and vegan chili bar. When doing this you want to make sure that the staple dish is vegan and then you can have extra toppings like cheese or meat that omnivores can use to customize their dish, but there are plenty of vegan toppings so the vegan at the table does not feel like they are eating air.  Refer to previous post […]


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