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A DIY Approach to Dinner Lets the Whole Family Play Chef

Let 'em add a little of this, a lot of that—when there are no rules, dinnertime is deliciously fun.

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Ever noticed how excited everyone gets for taco night—even the toddler who only nibbles the crunchy shell and eats half a cherry tomato? Granted, Mexican food, whether it’s uber-authentic with hand-rolled tortillas or made in a pinch with a box of Old El Paso, is delicious. But I’d venture that the appeal of taco night has something to do with the DIY aspect of the meal. For kids, this equals freedom, but there are serious advantages for the whole family when you apply the build-your-own model.

Pizza, of course, is a DIY classic. This is a little different from tacos because the building happens before the final cooking; but the upside is that you get to outsource the meal prep to your family.

To make it, simply press homemade or store-bought dough into flat circles (little ones are pretty good at this), and then everyone can spread their own sauce and top with cheese. But here’s where it gets interesting: After scattering the cheese, kids still scan the table for things to arrange on their pizzas, because they don’t want the fun of assembly to end. Even kids that don’t typically eat any toppings on their pizza do this, and it’s possible that your pepperoni-only types might start in on sliced olives or even rings of bell pepper (the better to fashion faces with).

Around my house, I try to make dinner a DIY experience as often as I can.

When their pizzas emerge from the oven, they’re more likely to eat these pizzas and taste these toppings. They are trying new things. No one asked them to do it. They know exactly what will be arriving on their plates at dinner, so there are no negative reactions. Some kids even end up snacking on the veggies while they make their pizzas. Is it a wonder we’re not going DIY every night?

Around my house, I try to make dinner a DIY experience as often as I can. Why? Because grown-ups get to eat something complex, fit for a grown-up palate, while the kids can customize their dishes as simply as they want. Take ramen noodle soup. Adults can recreate the noodle-shop experience with slices of leftover roasted meat or cooked ground meat, hard boiled eggs, chopped scallions, seaweed, and a dollop of miso, while skittish kids can stick to broth and noodles. Soon, kids start yearning to put more in their bowls because they learn that ramen is more fun with more stuff. At this point, my oldest is proud that he likes to add meat, egg, and hot sauce, and has a much more interesting bowl than the younger two.

Mexican stews and soups also make great DIY dinners, with the array of raw and crunchy things that can be piled on top—sliced radishes, shaved cabbage, tortilla chips, or avocado. One meal that has become a bi-monthly favorite in my house is an easy tortilla soup, which can go from idea to the table in about 20 minutes. I only recently brought it back into our regular rotation, and at first, I didn’t know quite how it would go. Though my older two generally like a bowl of soup, my youngest is pretty wound up by dinner, and often rejects the first thing put in front of her just on principle (and often shamelessly asks for it later in the meal).

That’s what she did that night—she wanted no part of the soup. I sighed, thinking that she’d make a meal of tortilla chips and milk—not ideal, but it would do. But to my surprise, she saw the black beans on the table and said, “You made the beans that I like!” and proceeded to have three helpings. So the moral of the story is that a DIY dinner might not go exactly how you imagine—but it is very likely that everyone will find something to enjoy.

Scroll down for Lesley’s tortilla soup recipe!

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Build-Your-Own Tortilla Soup

Perfect for a weeknight dinner, this simple, nourishing soup allows diners of all ages to customize their toppings to their hearts’ content.

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  • Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients:

For the soup
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 (32-ounce) boxes chicken broth
  • 2 cups tomato passato or crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cups chopped, cooked chicken
Garnishes
  • Warmed black beans or black-eyed peas
  • Chopped bell pepper
  • Chopped jalapeño (warn the kids!)
  • Chopped avocado
  • Cooked corn kernels
  • Sour cream
  • Hot sauce
  • Lime wedges
  • Tortilla chips

Steps:

  1. Step 1

    Briefly sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil in a soup pot. Add the broth, tomato passato or crushed tomatoes, and chicken, then bring to a simmer (don’t boil, or the meat will toughen). Simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.

  2. Step 2

    Serve in deep bowls with room to spare so everyone can add as many of the garnishes as desired. Finish each bowl with a squeeze of lime and some tortilla chips.