Customizable One-Bowl Dinners for the Whole Family (Including Picky Eaters)
One meal; no special orders. A mom’s sure-fire recipes and tips to make everyone happy.
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Article and featured recipes and photos by Ashley Strickland Freeman
Raise your hand if in the last week you’ve experienced at least one night when you felt like a short-order cook. (Do you see my hand raised high?) Pleasing the whole family at dinnertime can be a struggle, and I know we’ve all been there. Just last night when I asked my little guy why he didn’t eat the noodles on his plate he told me “because there were green things in there.” That’s not the first time I’ve heard an excuse for him not eating his dinner. “Eww those two things are touching” or “that’s too spicy” are phrases I’m certain we’ve all heard before. I’ve also gotten “I’m so full” even though I know in about an hour, right before bedtime, he’s going to tell me that he’s starving.
I’ll admit that sometimes I make two separate meals just to keep the peace. And while my little dude is typically a great eater (he loves broccoli and will eat cucumbers like they’re popsicles), our household is no stranger to chicken nuggets and mac ‘n’ cheese. All in moderation, is our motto. But sometimes (okay most times), is it too much to ask to make just one meal that everyone will like?
Fortunately, over the years I’ve collected a few tricks to get my son to eat what’s on his plate. And I have one sure-fire strategy to make the whole family happy.
Jump ahead to:
3 ways to get kids to eat their dinner
No tricks here, just a few sensible ideas that over the long run will help encourage kids to take some ownership in their meals.
• Enlist their help. Without fail, if my son helps me cook, he almost always eats what we’ve prepared.
• Dip in. We’re also big fans of dips and sauces. Add a little dish of sauce, ranch dressing, ketchup, honey mustard, barbecue, fill-in-the-blank, my son is game. I don’t blame him — sauces are good, and they make the meal feel special.
• Just have a try. Our rule is you have to try at least one bite. Don’t like cauliflower? Well, have you ever tasted it? No? Try at least one bite before you make up your mind. You get three tries before you can decide if you don’t like it.
3 customizable, one-bowl, family-friendly meals
My sure-fire strategy to please everyone at the table is as simple as this: Serve dinners that are easily customized for both the flavor-seekers and the picky eaters in your life. With that in mind, I created these next three recipes.
The meatball and orzo bowls, Buddha bowls, and chicken teriyaki bowls that follow allow you to mix all of the ingredients together for a one-dish wonder the adults can enjoy. And for those strong-willed kiddos, you can leave their components separate so “nothing touches.” One meal; no special orders. How great does that sound?
Jazz up moist homemade meatballs, seasoned with lemon and fresh dill, with store-bought tzatziki sauce, fresh vegetables, and orzo and you’ve got a home-run, one-bowl dinner. (I’m often in a hurry when making this, so I opt to buy the tzatziki. If you’d like to make a from-scratch version, this one is great.) Also, if your children are like mine and are afraid of unidentifiable “green things,” leave the dill out of a few meatballs if you’d like.
This next meal, a quinoa bowl, is great if you’re vegetarian or just trying to eat less meat. (We aim for at least one or two meatless meals a week.) Healthy, light, and refreshing, the Buddha bowls are seasoned with a mix of sweet, salty, and tangy flavors reminiscent of BBQ seasonings. I serve my son’s spinach salad with ranch dressing instead of the tart apple cider vinaigrette.
Chicken teriyaki is a dish my whole family can get behind, and I’m predicting this one-bowl version with broccoli and noodles may soon be a favorite with your family as well. I like to make my own teriyaki sauce, which is surprisingly easy, so that I can control the amount of ginger and garlic that goes in. (Our son loves these Asian flavors, but you may opt to cut them in half in the sauce so it’s not “so spicy.”) I also opt for reduced-sodium soy sauce so it doesn't get too salty. But to speed things up even more, you can use bottled teriyaki sauce.
10 more customizable one-pan dinners
Now that you’re behind the customizable, one-bowl meal concept, check out these additional family-friendly weeknight dinner recipes from the Yummly community of recipe creators.
I love this idea. How fun is it to be able to eat your bowl? You can use your favorite chili, or make this Chili recipe, reducing or omitting the cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes for little ones who are sensitive to spice. Set up a toppings bar for everyone to choose what they’d like to go on top. I like to set out sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese, and green onions.
Here’s an efficient sheet pan-plus-stovetop recipe that shouldn’t need much adjustment for the kids’ plates. I like to serve the potatoes with additional barbecue sauce or ketchup for dipping.
Sometimes breakfast for dinner is a nice change of pace. These bowls are even freezable and combine crispy hash browns, scrambled eggs, breakfast sausage, and cheese. For the kiddos I like to serve everything separately, and for the adults everything gets piled high together. You can also try this recipe with creamy grits and bacon in place of the hash browns and sausage. Serve with a fruit salad to round out the meal.
Vegan burrito bowls with tortilla chips, canned black beans or kidney beans, corn, tomatoes, and avocado make an easy 30-minute meal, but feel free to add an additional protein like grilled chicken, ground beef, or seared shrimp. This is also a great recipe to set up in bar form with all the toppings for family members to build their own bowls. For diners who like bigger flavors, you could easily add cilantro or a drizzle of hot sauce, and even flavor a portion of the beans with some chipotle.
For a lighter meal, I like to serve these roasted veggie grain bowls. The recipe is very quick, as it relies on pre-cooked chicken, quinoa, and vegetables (hello, meal prep!), but it’s versatile, too, if you still need to cook the ingredients or if you want to use other components instead. I make sure that the roasted roots include carrots for my 5-year-old, and I serve the chicken with a dip of some sort. The quinoa is a winner for my family, too, as long as I add a little butter and salt. As a variation, you could make brown rice bowls, farro bowls, or cauliflower rice bowls.
Who doesn’t love an Alfredo dish? This lighter version, made with low-fat milk and a more modest amount of cheese than some, includes chicken, broccoli, and fettuccine so it’s truly a one-pan chicken noodle meal. Your kids may be okay with everything mixed up, but if not, it’s easy to leave ingredients separate for them.
Enjoy Chinese take-out at home with this 30-minute Mongolian Beef Dinner. I like to serve it with steamed sugar snap peas or broccoli.
Sheet pan dinners are a favorite in our house and make for easy customizable dinners, since we can swap in different ingredients and serve family members more or less of their favorite components. (Though my son loves both the Brussels sprouts and carrots in this savory fall sausage dinner.) For the cook, not only does everything bake together, there’s minimal cleanup!
In this Italian-seasoned sheet pan dinner, pork loin chops, a protein that’s as versatile as chicken tenders, bake with potatoes and your choice of mixed vegetables.
Finally, pizza night is another family favorite. Try these Quick and Easy Barbecue Chicken Naan Pizzas and let everyone build their own. We also like to experiment with other flavor combinations to top the naan bread. Mozzarella cheese and pepperoni with marinara sauce is a classic combination, but pesto or Alfredo sauce also works great as the pizza sauce base.
Explore more family-friendly recipes
Looking for additional family-friendly recipe ideas? We have so many ideas for you! For starters, how about a pot of lentil soup, butternut squash soup, or sausage and kale soup? We have favorites like sheet pan chicken tacos, soba noodles, hummus bowls with feta (great with a drizzle of tahini), crunchy toast with fried eggs and avocado and sheet pan chicken fajitas. Maybe some rice bowl recipes would make the gang happy. Slow-cooker recipes and stir-fries are easy on the cook, as well. If your family is ready for bigger flavors, how about Korean bibimbap or chicken pad Thai with crunchy peanuts? Our recipe filters can help you address any special diets such as gluten-free and low-carb.
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