When it comes to family meals, quickly creating nutrition-packed meals that satisfy the varying palates of many mouths can often feel like a heroic effort. It doesn’t have to. The Choose Your Own Adventure Meal is a fantastic low-pressure family mealtime solution that doesn’t require extra hours in the kitchen. All you need is a small spread of ingredients linked with a common theme and each family member can customize their DIY dinner. It’s win-win all around.
Beyond the ease it brings to family mealtime, this style of dinner has many other hidden benefits:
- It follows Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibilities theory that fosters intuitive eating within children, whereby adults set out a variety of nutritious foods from which children can decide what they eat and how much.
- It offers multiple exposures to new ingredients without pressure and therefore gives children the chance to explore new foods at their own pace.
The whole family can get involved in mealtime, which provides valuable skills and knowledge for their own meal planning and preparations as they mature.
- It creates a positive environment around food and provides opportunities to talk about different ingredients as a family, in a fun way.
Getting Started: 5 Quick Steps to Setting Up Choose Your Own Adventure family Meals
Step 1: Pick a base for toppings.
This can be rice, quinoa, noodles, potatoes, pizza dough, tortillas, soup broth, lettuce cups, and many others. Choosing from what you already have is the best place to start to reduce food waste and make use of your leftovers.
Step 2: Pick a theme to guide the flavours.
A quick scan of your fridge and pantry will give you an idea of which direction to take. An easy trick is to think in terms of regions of the world such as Latin American, Italian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Southeast Asian, etc. to guide your seasoning choices.
Step 3: Set up your toppings.
Grab a sheet pan, muffin tin, or series of little bowls and set out your toppings.
Step 4: Provide a delicious sauce.
A yummy sauce or salad dressing always adds a punch of flavour and really brings the adventure together. Think of a simple salsa or hummus, perhaps a lemon tahini dressing, a Thai peanut style sauce made with almond butter, or a curry infused coconut kefir. Get in the habit of having a few prepped in the fridge and freezer to save time.
Step 5: The fun begins!
Start building your family meals, adding toppings and adventure chatting.
10 Fun Themes for Choose Your Own Adventure family Meals
Your themes will depend on your household tastes, but these are some flavourful and easy ideas for family meals to start with!
Taco or Tostada Night
Get adventurous with tacos or tostadas. Optional toppings include:
- black beans
- avocados or guacamole
- sweet potatoes
- bell peppers
- hot peppers
- fresh summer corn
- purple cabbage
- cherry tomatoes
- shredded chicken
- grilled fish
- roasted cauliflower
- spice rubs
- dairy-free cheese
Find more inspiration here.
Build A Rice Bowl
Rice or quinoa works great as the base, or you can have fun with other gluten-free grains like millet, buckwheat, wild rice, or sorghum. And don’t forget about cauliflower rice! From there the themes are endless, including:
- Rainbow rice bowls
- Buddha bowls
- Burrito bowls
- Sushi rice bowls
- Mediterranean quinoa and lentil bowls
- Falafel or kofta bowls
- Hawaiian poke bowls
Roast and halve sweet potatoes and set them on the table for topping. Any build-a-bowl theme from above can double up as a tater topper theme. Some yummy topping ideas include:
- black beans
- fresh herbs
- crispy seaweed
- pickled ginger
- toasted cashews
- crunchy chickpeas
- kale chips
- lemon tahini
- spiced nuts
You can also top your sweet potatoes with leftover chili, curry, or other types of stews. There isn’t much that doesn’t play along with sweet potatoes!
Dressed Up Toast
Cozy up in the winter to a nourishing and warm soba noodle bowl or freshen up in the summer with your own gluten-free pasta primavera bar with gorgeous summer veggies.
Photo: That Clean Life
Seriously, how much fun did the salad bar used to be when you were a kid? Now you can set one up at home with even better ingredients and a homemade vinaigrette or two.
A good salad has a mix of flavours and textures. Try combining fresh vegetables with cooked elements like roasted sweet potato, squash, beets (or any root vegetable or winter squash), beans and grains, cooked tofu, tempeh, or other vegan meat substitutes, or chicken, fish, or eggs. Add toasted nuts or seeds for crunch, and dried fruit for a pop of sweetness.
More salad ideas:
- Roasted Sweet Potato and Brussels Sprouts Salad with Maple Tahini Dressing
- Wild Rice Protein Power Salad
- Quinoa Kale Salad with Cilantro Balsamic Vinaigrette
Breakfast for Dinner
Top your own gluten-free waffles, pancakes, or savory crepes with either sweet or savory toppings. Or, create a smoothie bowl bar with homemade coconut kefir, frozen berries, homemade granola, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and whatever else you like.
You can find loads of breakfast for dinner family meals below:
- 25 Sweet and Savory Gluten-Free Galettes
- 20 Best Savory Breakfast Ideas
- 12 Vegan Breakfast Ideas (that aren’t cereal or toast)
- Dairy-Free Egg Frittata
- 3 Anti-Inflammatory Breakfast Ideas
- 20 Best Smoothie Recipes
Go grain-free with this taco/wrap type vessel. Lettuce is happy to wrap its way around so many flavours. Try setting out falafels or kofta with an assortment of grated raw veggies, hummuses, lemon tahini dressing, or a coconut kefir raita. Toast some nuts and get wrapping!
This is a handy, no-cook summer meal. Like sweet potatoes, avocados work with many of the same flavours for building a bowl or tater toppers. Simply halve, pit, and serve each member their avocado base and get topping for a delicious midsummer dinner.
Hot Pot Night
Start with a soothing homemade broth and watch in delight as your family adds their own pre-cooked noodles, tofu, seaweed, perhaps some miso, and a rainbow of veggies for their individual bowls. Or, go rustic Italian style and create personal minestrone bowls using a spread vegetables, stewed tomatoes from a jar, fresh herbs, lentils or legumes, and your favourite gluten-free pasta. Use a Crock-Pot to set the broth on the table and set your toppings around it.
You can grab 22 noodle recipes right here.
Tips for Success and Fun With Choose Your Own Adventure Family Meals
Photo: Found Her Productions
- Ensure you always include a couple of items each family member likes. Kids are put at ease by familiarity and their confidence to try some of the newer ingredients will grow with time.
- Get your family involved with choosing the theme and selecting the toppings. The more children get to participate in the kitchen, the less apprehensive they are to try new things.
- For more selective and cautious eaters, a breakfast for dinner theme can be a winning place to start. Homemade waffles or pancakes can be made ahead, frozen, and then easily thawed for a last-minute spread of nourishing delights.
- Talk about food in ways that appeal not just to taste but to all your senses. What colours do you see? What smells do you notice? What happens when you add these two flavours together? What sauce will you choose? What are you going to name your dish? This can facilitate curiosity without a feeling of pressure to taste immediately.
- Be patient and don’t pressure. If you find kids selecting only one or two items, that’s okay. The whole idea of the Choose Your Own Adventure meal is experimenting and having fun. Their palates will broaden in time with trust.
- Watch your quantities. A little goes a long way here. No need to spend too much time creating toppings or setting out too much of each. The magic is in how quick and low fuss these types of family meals are designed to be.
- Choose toppings that you personally like. Repurpose any topping leftovers into a lunchtime salad, soup, or omelet the following day, which also saves on prep work for your following meals.
- There is no right or wrong. It is all about what each person enjoys. Get creative and have fun!
Take some of the pressure off of family dinners by trying the Choose Your Own Adventure-style of family meals. There are endless possibilities to explore – and it’s never too late to get started!