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Short Order Cooking: How Catering to Kids Plays Out

Short-order cooking is a trap many parents fall into unexpectedly. Learn about the tell-tale signs of being a short-order cook and how you can free yourself from this exhausting (and ineffective) way of feeding kids.

sliced pizza

Maggie was exhausted. She was cooking her buns off at night.

Her three kids were very choosy about food and hard to please and keep well-fed. She was working hard to come up with dinner ideas for her picky eaters.

When she heard my podcast episode on short-order cooking, she wrote me and exclaimed, “HELP! I’m a short order cook!”

Maggie wasn’t in an unusual position, nor were her frustrations irrational. It’s tiring enough to run a household and tend to the kids, thank you very much.

But when you’re cooking like a chef in a restaurant every night, it’s no wonder she was bleary-eyed!

What is a Short Order Cook?

A short-order cook makes what her child wants to eat. Short-order cooking is making separate meals to please members of the family, often a picky eater.

Take this picky eater test to find out:

  • Are you making a separate meal for your picky eater?
  • Do you always have a backup plan for food because sometimes your child won’t eat what you make?
  • In anticipation of rejection at the dinner table, do you go ahead and make what you know your child will eat?
  • Are you in that weird space where you know it’s wrong and you recognize your own frustration, but you can’t help yourself? (It’s the Plan B meal or a dinnertime meltdown).

If you’re nodding your head or answered “yes” to these questions, then you, my friend, may be trapped in the role of short order cook.

What Short Order Cooking at Dinner Looks Like

Short order cooking at dinner is one of the most common (and honest) mistakes I see moms and dads make.

They resort to a back-up meal, an alternate dish, or a “rescue” snack when your child won’t, or refuses to eat, what’s on your table.

It goes like this (or some variation of this): You make a meal of spaghetti and meatballs. Your child refuses to eat it, and instead just wants the plain pasta.

You worry there is no protein in the meal, so you ask your child what he would like to eat instead. He says, “chicken nuggets.”

You make chicken nuggets.

At this point, you’re frustrated, and perhaps even angry at yourself because you knew this would happen….and you should’ve made the chicken nuggets ahead of time.

Sound familiar? 

If so, you’ll want to grab my free printable guide below!

Overcome the Short-Order Cook Syndrome: A guide to help you learn the easy way to overcome this tiresome way of feeding kids.

YES! I want the Short-Order Cook Syndrome Cheat Sheet

Why Short Order Cooking is No Bueno

Catering, or short-order cooking, is a fairly common scenario at family meal tables around the country.

One survey found that 80% of parents with picky eaters felt they had little control over their child’s food choices and their eating. Seventy-five percent of parents gave in to their picky eater’s requests for food.

That’s a lot of catering, my friend.

For many parents, giving a child what he wants is the path of least resistance.

Short order cooking may be the path of least resistance, but it doesn't serve your child in the long run. #pickyeating #shortordercook Click To Tweet

Whether it’s your guilt getting the best of you, the meltdown you’re trying to avoid, or the belief that your job is to please everyone to keep the peace, one thing I know is this: 

The more you aim to please your child with food, the less pleased (and more demanding) your child will be. 

Let’s tweet that out!

The more you aim to please your child with food, the less pleased (and more demanding) your child will be. #pickyeating #shortordercook Click To Tweet

Ultimately, short order cooking makes it harder to feed your child and your family (which, let’s face it, can make you unhappy).

[Read: How to Cook Dinner Every Night (& Be Happy)]

Short-term Consequences of Short Order Cooking

Several short- and long-term consequences arise from being a short-order cook. Let’s look at the short-term consequences first:

1. Your authority is undermined.

You are supposed to call the shots on food in the home, what is served for meals, when they are served, and where. However, when you cater to your child’s food requests, your child is the one in charge.

At least in terms of the food he eats.

2. You may miss out on nutrients.

Catering leads to repetitive meals. In other words, when you cater to your child’s favorite, accepted foods, you are narrowing his or her food variety.

Food variety is a safeguard for adequate nutrition—the more variety in your child’s diet, the more overall nutrients your child receives.

3. You end up having a frustrated relationship.

Although family discord and drama is placated for the time being, you may be left feeling frustrated, overworked or under-appreciated.

Let’s face it, a lot of work goes into preparing a meal for a family, and to make an additional dish is more effort, time, and inconvenience for you.

Long-Term Consequences of Being a Short-Order Cook 

Of course, the longer you cater to your child’s food preferences and limited palate, the more damage occurs. Here are some of the obvious long-term implications:

1. You encourage picky eating.


“Catering” to food requests (or demands) on a regular basis not only encourages picky eating, according to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, but your child may miss out on nutritious foods like fruit, veggies, and dairy products.

Basically, being a short order cook gives life and longevity to picky eating.

Try New Food book

2. Your child’s health may suffer.

The longer picky eating lasts, the higher the risk for poor nutrition, inadequate weight gain and growth, and social challenges.

How to Stop Feeding Your Child What He Wants All the Time

OK, you know what’s at stake—so how do you get yourself out of this rut?

I’m going to be honest—it’s not easy. But, it’s not impossible either. I’ve got several things you can try.

Word of warning: don’t expect overnight success. You’ve been doing this for a while and your child has gotten used to this way of life.

You may see some resistance in the form of sadness, anger, or defiance.

It’s ok.

Think about it: You’re asking your child to stretch, to take a grown up step in his maturity around food and eating.

At the same time, you’re reclaiming control. In a way, you’re diminishing the control and comfort he has grown to love.

Be patient, loving and kind. Be firm and be on a mission.

And don’t roll over.

How to break away from short order cooking.

9 Ways to Shed the Short Order Cook Habit 

Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Offer safe food.

When you’re planning your meals, make sure to include one or two foods you know your child can handle. Safe foods are familiar and liked foods, which might be milk, fruit, cheese, or bread and butter.

The goal: make sure there is something on your table you know your child will eat.

2. Nix Plan B.

Done. Finito Benito. No more backup, rescue meals. Adios to hefty snacks one hour after dinner is over.

You are done with that. Period. (And it’s okay to let your child know there’s a new gal in town).

Close that kitchen when the meal is over and move on to the next scheduled meal or snack. It’s really as easy as that. And..oh yeah…I guess I should confirm…your child will survive.

3. Try family-style meals.

If you haven’t given this a whirl yet, what are you waiting for? Family style meals allow your child to pick and choose what and how much he wants to eat from the foods you have set out for the meal.

Try to include a serving from each food group so there are a wide variety of options on the table. And, here’s the upside: The more you let your child pick and choose from the options you have set out, the more likely your child will be able to find something to eat.

[Listen: How to Serve Meals Family-Style (& Why You Should!)]

Check out my training about starting family-style meals.

4. Do it the Dinner Bar way.

Offer a smorgasbord of entrée ingredients and let your child assemble his main course the way he likes it. The Dinner Bar works well for combination dishes such as pasta primavera, pizza, tacos and salads.

These are dishes that can send a picky child running the other way. Why? They are too complicated and not easily identified.

Deconstruct your entrees and you may get more cooperation from your child. The highlight: Kids eat better when they assemble their entrée (because they are invested in their creation).

[Here’s a Dinner Bar recipe for Meatless Mexican Bowls. I have many more Dinner Bar ideas on my website; search for “dinner bar” in the search bar.]

5. Offer the basics.

You know the important food groups—protein, grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy (or non-dairy substitute) and healthy fats. The more food groups you can offer at mealtimes, the better.

Try to hit all of them so you create a balanced meal, especially at dinner when appetite is variable. Young kids may have little appetite due to other scheduled meals and snacks earlier in the day, and older kids may carry a bigger appetite due to sports or growth.

Here’s the bottom line: More food groups on the table means you have a better shot at meeting your child’s overall nutrient needs.

6. Double up on nutritious foods, especially the ones your child likes.

If you’ve got a fruit lover, offer 2 types of fruit at meals, such as strawberries and clementine.

Got a starch lover? Offer peas and pasta, or corn and whole grain rolls.

Keep Your Sanity: Don’t panic about missing veggies, or too many starchy foods! You can still pack nutrition into your meal. 

7. Keep it simple.

Lose the idea that you have to make gourmet meals for your kids to be healthy eaters! Kids like food to be recognizable, identifiable and yummy.

For veggies, raw and crunchy with an easy side dip will do the trick for many kids. Most kids are perfectly happy to see a meal with slices of bread or a bowl of unadulterated fruit.

Take-away: Shift your mind-set. Kids prefer less complicated food over food they cannot identify or that may be foreign to them.

8. Get your child involved. 

Older children can peel a banana or an orange. Young kids can pop the tops off strawberries or separate orange sections.

Support and challenge your child as needed, but periodically ask him to do some of the work at the meal table. You’ll be teaching independence and food skills at the same time. 

Basic point: Kids are happy to pitch in and take over easy food prep and eating tasks. 

Go deeper with my Short-Order Cook FREE Cheat Sheet!

YES! I want the Short-Order Cook Syndrome Cheat Sheet

So, tell me, are you a short-order cook? If so, what is preventing you from moving beyond this?

Need More Help?

I have two great resources for you:

Try New Food: Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat and Like New Food: The Workbook for Parents

The Nourished Child Blueprint — A program for parents who want to learn how to nourish and nurture healthy kids with food, positive feeing and healthy habits.

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  1. Hi Jill! I love your blog as a fellow RD but also as a new mama who has been reading and researching so much more about nutrition as it relates to children. Thank you for being a great resource. I share your work daily with my clients/friends/peers.

    Question – let’s say a child who typically eats really well had a one-off day where intake was ++ poor. After “closing the kitchen” – would re-opening it to offer a new snack be “considerate, but not catering?”.

    And, for the repeatedly picky child – is offering a snack post-dinner eventually going to be something the child figures out and “expects” when dinner is not eaten. I’d love your thoughts!

    1. All good questions, so thank you for asking them! FIrst, for the child with a one-off day of poor eating, I think it’s good parenting judgement to stay with the schedule/structure as best as possible but increase the nutrition you’re offering. So a snack may become heftier if a meal is skipped. For the repeat picky eater, it’s hard to say about the evening snack, as it depends on whether or not the child uses it as a crutch. I suggest making that evening snack nutritious and unexciting… a glass of milk or piece of fruit, for example.

  2. I like what you mentioned. I like the list of what the parent gainso and loses by short order cooking for their loved ones. I usually go by Ellen Satter’so advice. I use that with my WIC clients as well. Provide the family meal keep a variety of foods that way your child can choose something to eat from what provided even if it is only plain pasta or bread. One day your child will learn to eat what is offered. Thank you for sharing your article, Jill!

  3. This is great advice, thank you. What do you do when your child is part of a two family home (divorce) and in one home the child’s parent is a short order cook and has been catering to the child’s every whim and desire because it IS the path of least resistance. Such as giving him cookies, ice cream and/or cheese and crackers BEFORE dinner? This parent also encourages the child’s non-conformity to eat a balanced meal by making an alternate meal at the end of our weekend with the child. The child refuses our meal because he “is going to get a better meal at his other home, something he likes with a treat too”. The child has an insatiable craving for sweets, eats nothing but carbs and sugar. Zero veggies and limited fruits and he’s been raised a non-meat eater. He often asks for another choice even before we sit down to dinner. We do have a family meal with several options for him to choose from. We are concerned with his health, however we are the non-custodial parents and have little time in which to affect real change. His other parent is uncooperative.

    1. That’s a really tough situation. The best scenario is to get both families on board with how and what you feed him. Feel free to share any of my resources–the first step is interest and agreement on the feeding approach and food quality.

  4. What do you do if your child fills up on the “safe” foods and continuously refuses to eat the other foods on the table. Do you limit the amount of “safe” foods he/she can have at the meal?

    1. You only have to provide 1 or 2 “safe” foods. If you offer a balanced meal (fruit, veg, starch/grain, dairy, protein) there will be 5 or so foods available, so the balance is shifted to newer foods, naturally. Positive reinforcement for trying, exploring is very helpful, because many kids who are picky get a lot of negative feedback…this series of posts may help you:
      Be sure to read the first 2 parts as well. Best regards!