9 build-your-own dinners to please picky eaters

Or, a lesson in peaceful family meals and minimizing food waste.

There was a time in my household when we had one vegan, one vegetarian, one pescatarian, and one omnivore; one of them stayed away from gluten, another had stomach issues with nuts and tomatoes, a frequently visiting relative had a severe soy allergy. Needless to say, cooking each night to please everyone was no small feat of creativity and cajoling. Someone was always not quite happy, and it ultimately led to wasted food, no matter how hard I tried otherwise.

The saving grace came in the guise of a glorified salad bar – a very basic base meal with various things to decorate with, allowing everyone to custom-build to their heart’s content. It’s a great strategy if you’re trying to satisfy a variety of diet requirements and/or picky eaters. And the leftover components can be reconfigured in any number of ways, lending themselves to flexible reinterpretations the next day. Happy eaters and no more food waste! Here are some of the successes that we keep on regular rotation.

Chili / Bean Bowl

I love putting on a pot of beans or chili and letting it simmer, but you could do this with (BPA-free) canned beans if you are short on time. Possible additions include bowls of grated cheese, Greek yogurt, avocado, diced tomato, diced onions, charred corn, cole slaw, steamed potatoes, roasted peppers, sautéed mushrooms, cilantro, lime slices, and so on. I usually also make brown rice or quinoa, or baked corn tortillas chips for scooping.


Basically, all the ingredients above, but with soft corn tortillas. Here I will also make something to be the “heart” of the tacos, either roasted vegetables, crumbled Beyond Burger, sautéed tofu, et cetera.


Well this one is pretty obvious, but it’s amazing how much variety one can get in a salad. This is a great way to use up leftovers. We go for the “kitchen sink” approach, starting with greens and any leftover grains we have, and throwing in all the tidbits in the fridge or produce bowl that want to get used up … and then we toss in cheese, fresh and dried fruits, and nuts as well.


Bake a potato for everyone, provide an array of toppings. Things that work well include sautéed vegetables (spinach, broccoli and mushrooms are always good), hard cheese, goat cheese, ricotta cheese, pesto, Greek yogurt, curried pinto beans, avocado, other protein choices – there is really no limit since just about everything goes with potatoes. These can be kind of heavy, so it’s nice served with a big green salad.


Provide skewers and skewees, from fruit and firm tofu to vegetables and other assorted proteins. Let everyone make their own kabobs and grill or broil them. Serve with salad or rice.


We love DIY individual pizzas, especially good when the kids have company over since it’s a fun activity and you don’t have to guess what the guests will like. (Because as far as I know, every kid likes pizza.) You can make your own dough or buy raw pizza dough at the supermarket. Divide into individual sizes and provide sauce, ricotta and grated cheeses, vegetables, and whatever else seems pizza pleasing. Bake, eat.

Meze Platter

We make our American versions of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes and present a big mess of things like hummus, baba ghannouj, tabbouleh, tzatziki, oven-roasted tomatoes, feta cheese, taramasalata, falafel, olives, caponata, fattoush, cucumber salad … the list goes on. We don’t usually make all of those at once, but a selection of them based on mood and what’s on hand. If making things from scratch, this isn’t the quickest dinner to get on the table, but what a lovely way to spend a weekend day in the kitchen.

Cheese Plate

One of our go-to summer meals on hot evenings when the appetites aren’t screaming. We bring out the cutting boards and lay out an array of pretty cheese. Add a lot of fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, olives, as well as whole grain crackers, endive leaves, or a nice hunk of bread. It’s kind of like a picnic inside … even though sometimes we haul it all to the waterfront park and make it a proper picnic.

Crepe Extravaganza

We had this last night: Thin crepes made on a regular skillet – meaning, no need for fancy crepe techniques – with a bunch of filling options in bowls on the table. We had curry vegetables, coconut creamed kale, sautéed mushrooms, vegetarian sausages, tossed salad greens, and grated cheese. And after, we brought out bananas, chocolate-hazelnut spread, strawberries, and ice cream for crepe desserts. All palates were pleased … the only problem with that? There was nothing left for leftovers…