Adapting Recipes for Fussy Families (Cabbage + Carrot Slaw Recipe)

First, I should say that I’m not the biggest fan of the term “picky eater.” And neither is my friend Christina, who explains the objection more eloquently than I can…But some families are plagued with a plethora of food preferences.  And while I don’t always cater to a finicky child, I do make accommodations sometimes.


Dinnertime has been challenging at our house lately. Our daughter has always had a very sensitive palate, and lately, our son is copying her resistance to the foods on the table. He is a fantastic eater when we are alone, but when she is at the table, he mimics her rejection of foods. If she claims that something is too spicy, he’ll avoid what he would otherwise dive into head first.

When I select which recipes to cook, I often need to make some changes.  Here are my main reasons for adapting a recipe:

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  1. I like to use seasonal ingredients.
  2. The level of spiciness needs to be adjusted so that it meets the lowest common denominator of the family.  The rest of us can add in condiments or spices, as desired later.
  3. Texture – we like crunch.
  4. Whole Grains – I try to substitute whole foods for overly processed ones, when possible.  (But that doesn’t relate to this recipe.)

cabbageLast night, I served Hawaiian Chicken along with a recipe for Green Cabbage slaw that I adapted from Everyday Food. You might wonder why I adapted the recipe. I was hoping for more peace at the dinner table. Pure and simple.

Plus, I was also taking the seasonality of the ingredients into account. It’s easier on the wallet and the planet to eat fruits and veggies that are available locally and in season. This recipe called for bell peppers, which are most readily available during the summer months.  The ones that are in the stores now come from Mexico, and I’d rather not pay for their flight.  Plus, bell peppers are on the Dirty Dozen list, which means that when they are grown conventionally, they retain chemicals from the fertilizer, soil and pest control used during their growth. Ick.  This is one of a few foods that I eat organic or not at all.  Something to consider…

The salad looked awfully monotone without the bell peppers, so I used a vegetable peeler to cut ribbons of carrots to adorn the greenness of the cabbage.  The verdict?  Mostly good.  My daughter didn’t like the mustard that I added to the dressing, but said that it was otherwise edible.  Not a ringing endorsement, but it got eaten without too many objections.

A few other tips for feeding a selective family:

  1. Serve everyone the same basic meal (family style), with everything on the table.  (AKA – don’t be a short order cook.)
  2. Put sauces on the side, so that they can be added as desired without people complaining (or asking you to wash the pasta!)
  3. Reserve a few veggies or grains from a one-pot meal to serve on the side, in case your family objects to ingredients that touch.


Green Cabbage and Carrot Slaw with Yogurt Dressing
Adapted from Everyday Food by What’s Cooking with Kids

1/2 head green cabbage
2 carrots
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 Tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey or agave nectar
salt, to taste

  1. Using a sharp knife, slice the cabbage into thin ribbons and put them in a large bowl
  2. Use a vegetable peeler to the carrots into ribbons.  Your kids can help with this.  Add them to the cabbage.
  3. In a small bowl, mix together the yogurt, vinegar, honey and salt.
  4. Pour the dressing over the slaw and toss with clean hands or tongs.
  5. Adapting this recipe:  Reserve some of the dressing so that you can add stone ground mustard or other flavorful ingredients, and then add it to your serving.


Do you struggle with fussy eaters in your family? Please share any strategies that bring peace to your dinner table (or link to a post you might have written on this topic).

Next Friday, I’ll be talking about Feeding Challenges for Children with Developmental Delays – If your family is struggling, I hope you’ll come back. Thanks!

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21 Responses to Adapting Recipes for Fussy Families (Cabbage + Carrot Slaw Recipe)

  1. My son is 18 months old, which means some days he is a fussy eater, and some days he is a wonderful eater. My strategies for getting him to try new foods are specific to his age, but these may help if anyone reading has kids his age!
    1. As you said, I only serve one meal – if he doesn’t eat it, he’ll eat at the next meal.
    2. I always try to eat with my son. When he sees me eat, he’s more likely to eat too. Plus, eating the same thing means he’s more likely to try it (even if he refuses his bowl and opts for mine!).
    3. I use flavors/ingredients he likes to introduce new foods. When introducing kale, I put cinnamon and sugar on it – he happily ate it (

    Anyway, feeding my son is an adventure at each meal – I just try to keep my cool when he refuses to eat! Blogging about it helps to put things in perspective too 🙂


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  3. Kia says:

    I absolutely love this article!!! Whatever term people feel comfortable with whether it’s picky, reluctant, finicky, selective…the point is it’s not easy for anyone! I have been “picky” my whole life so from this side of the fence I can tell you that it makes cooking, mealtime, eating out difficult! I don’t want to be “picky” I see other eating and enjoying all kinds of foods and I wish I could too. I have a very sensitive palate, I can taste things that others around me can’t. Especially bitter flavors! I’ve learned to prepare and cook things so that it works for me…in the mean time it’s given me a lot of ideas to share with parents who have “picky” eaters 🙂 Such as using dips (on the side) serving veggies in different ways to see what texture is best enjoyed, make food fun by getting kids involved in the kitchen etc.

    I just wanted to say that I think this article is exceptional…thank you!

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  5. So, OK, we’ve already established how I feel about labeling eaters, so I won’t belabor that point. 😉

    But your comment about being asked to “wash pasta” reminded me of something. My daughter thankfully has never asked for that, but she does goes through phases where pasta must have only-butter-and-cheese-and-nothing-else-thank-you-very-much.

    That’s fine occasionally, and we’re actually very relaxed about the what-and-how of eating. It’s all good food, so it all works out in the end. But recently Tess was in a bit of a rut with the butter and cheese.

    So the last time I made pasta, I set aside a small amount (undressed) as a backup, then prepared the rest of it with roasted tomatoes, arugula, herbs and parmesan. The bowl was barely on the table before Tess asked for pasta with just butter and cheese.

    “Oops,” I said, “I forgot to make any that way.” (Hey, that was technically correct.) After a brief scowling period where I feared I might have to “find” some extra pasta, she scooped a bunch on her plate and ate it. A lot of it.

    Now who knows why? Maybe she was starving. Maybe she was feeling cooperative. Or maybe she likes decked-out pasta almost as much as the buttered stuff, so when the lesser option wasn’t offered, that was the end of that. Guess we’ll have to see if we can get a repeat!

    • Michelle Stern says:

      That’s a great reminder, Christina. It is so important to offer the kids food to see what they will do with it. It never helps to pre-judge how they will respond. I love it when they surprise me! xo

  6. Kris says:

    Everyone in my house is a picky eater of some kind. So dinner is a challenge. I try to make basic meals and not make too many changes. With any new meal I try to have an old standby to serve with it, such as fresh fruit or oven baked chicken. Then if anyone does not like the new addition they can have more of the oldie but goodie.

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Thanks Kris – but you cook with your little ones SO much – they will come around eventually 🙂 I love watching the two of you in the kitchen!

  7. Amanda says:

    Great information as always… you are an inspiration!

  8. Great tips! I need to find a way to tell my good friend to start reading your blog (without her realizing WHY)… She and her hubby always give in to their son’s fussy eating habits (though, I think they have caused them in some ways, too). It’s hard for me to eat with them because it kills me to see them feeding him “fruit snacks” (which contain little to no no fruit) and other packaged junk for dinner because he won’t eat what everyone else is eating!

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Your comment made me laugh, Jen. You could relate to this story, then… One time, I was doing a cooking class in my home as part of the school auction. A mom dropped off her son and handed me a snack. In front of her child, she said, “he won’t like what you make in class today, so if he’s hungry, please offer him this snack.” I almost burst with frustration. Have you ever heard the term “self fulfilling prophecy”? GRRRRRR.

      • Yes!! My friends were over at our house, and we had some veggies and dip as a snack. He had already eaten one baby carrot and was raving about how good it was. Then, when Dad announced to everyone that he doesn’t eat carrots, he spit out the second one and refused to eat them. Ugh… Makes me crazy.

  9. Penny says:

    My daughter (almost 12) wouldn’t touch cole slaw and would make a face at it the entire time it’s on the table. She thinks kids inherently don’t like vegetables and fruit. She ate everything I fed her until she was old enough to be brainwashed with this madness. She will eat peas, corn, green beans, and an apple (if it’s peeled and sliced). It makes me crazy! I don’t know how to get her to try new things. She even sees her friends eat salad and all sorts of things now but she’ll say they the one with a difference, not her. I refuse to be a short-order cook though. I make one meal for dinner, you eat it or you don’t. I do often make “plain” versions of side dishes for her pickiness and I don’t force her to eat anything. Then I am sure she has her multi-vitamin — goodness knows she isn’t getting any nutrition in her diet!

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Hi Penny – so glad you stopped by and took the time for such a thoughtful comment. I love how you have adapted to your daughter without making her feel badly about her eating habits. That is so important. I am excited to go check out your blog – our son has ADHD and is switching to a private school next week that focuses on kids with learning differences. I hope it helps his self esteem – we have been struggling so much for the past few years… Thank you again!

      • Penny says:


        What a small world that you also have a child with ADHD! Oddly enough, my ADHD (and SPD and LD) kiddo is not my picky eater. He’ll try most things and judge them swiftly and decisively. But he tries them.

        I am struggling with a school decision right now for my son. I know private school would be better but I can’t figure out how to make it happen financially and it’s KILLING me. Would love to hear more about your experiences with ADHD. Feel free to share on the web site. I may even hit you up for a food-related guest post. 🙂

  10. naomi says:

    Great post as usual, Michelle. Awhile back I was doing the short order cook thing because not only did my son, step son have varying palates, my husband did as well. Dinner was not fun during those days. We’ve come to a better place with it now.

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Thanks for your honesty, Naomi. Do you have any tips that helped you get through the dark days? I am sure we could benefit from hearing what worked for you…

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