Ask the Dietitian: What Constitutes Catering to a Child?

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on February 8, 2013

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Q: My 8 year old son prefers to keep food separate and doesn’t like sauce on his food. He’s not a bad eater, and he actually likes vegetables (including spinach!). Is allowing him to keep things separate when the adults have them mixed (eg. if we have a pasta dish with meat and veggies and sauce all mixed together and he eats the same things, but separated and sauce on the side), would this be considered “catering” ? Is this something to avoid?

A: Catering is making a separate meal for a child or offering something different when he declares he doesn’t like the mealtime choice. In general, the child is in charge of what he eats a majority of the time, often holding the parent hostage, taking over the parent’s job in feeding. The parents may go as far as bringing alternative meals to outings so the child will have something to eat that she likes. This strategy discourages children from expanding their food repertoire and singles them out as needing special items (AKA the “picky” label).

What you are doing makes sense and is something I do in my own home (Big A doesn’t like red sauce so I make sure some meatballs and spaghetti are sauce-less but she has recently graduated to dipping them in the sauce!).

Kids appreciate it when caregivers keep their preferences in mind — and tend to eat better this way. Sometimes these preferences are simply a matter of normal development like younger children who have the need for things to be “just right,” which means they may not like their food to be mixed or touching, something they eventually outgrow. Parents can help this along by serving meals family style (in separate bowls) allowing children to make their own plate.

Some children are more sensitive to different textures of food. Parents can help this along by putting out raw versions of vegetables next to cooked ones or pureeing soups or stews to get the chunks out. The idea is to work with your child allowing for baby steps to help her move along food acceptance.

What kinds of things do you do at mealtime to please your child without catering?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly February 8, 2013 at 12:34 pm

I do the same thing with my 4 year old…I serve up components of the meal separately if she is averse to eating it together. That way she understands that mealtime is a family affair, and we eat together. She is a really good eater most of the time, and I feel like part of the reason why is because I let her have some control over what and how she eats. I’m also a big fan of taco night because she loves to make her own tacos and readily eats the fresh veggies I serve with them (especially spinach and avocado).


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 8, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Kelly — it really does empower children to make choices at mealtime. We love taco night too!


Tessa Carrel February 8, 2013 at 1:44 pm

I place the individual components of a salad in individual and allow my children (7, 4 and 4) to assemble their own salad. I found that picking out the tomatoes or item of disinterest made the salad “yucky” but making dinner a project makes it appealing. I also allow them to make their own salad dressings while I make dinner. Everyone has their own jar in the refrigerator and they can try combinations of herbs, Greek yogurt, oils and vinegars to determine what their preferences are.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 8, 2013 at 1:58 pm

That’s such a great idea Tessa (about the salad dressings). I also allow my chidlren to choose three items with their salad with one being green (spinach, lettuce etc).


KC @ genxfinance February 11, 2013 at 2:26 am

Preparing a variety of food in the table will give them options and is what I’ve been doing. Because it’s that or they won’t eat at all.


Karen February 24, 2013 at 12:08 am

My son, for years, did not like cheese (or anything made from sour milk — so no yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese…). So, I would set aside a serving or two of something like chicken enchiladas, and make it in a separate small container, with sauce but without cheese. Easy. The only thing I couldn’t figure out how to do this way was lasagne — how do you do lasagne without cheese?!!


Abby November 13, 2014 at 6:48 am

I am guilty of catering to my 4 1/2 year old daughter – she only eats peanut butter sandwiches, hummus sandwiches, grilled cheese (on whole wheat bread) , or pizza- she is good at eating fruits, but will only eat carrots as a vegetable. Any suggestions on how to move toward family dinners/no more catering? I know she’ll be upset when she doesn’t get her usual staples! Thanks for your help!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD November 20, 2014 at 12:34 am

Abby — You can get either of my books: Fearless Feeding or From Picky to Powerful. In them, I detail how to feed children suggestion family style meals. I provide tips in these posts:


Effie February 1, 2015 at 8:07 pm

At what point do you stop catering to a baby? I have an almost 12 month old who eats a mix of table food and food prepared specifically for her. She’s very reluctant to try new things, so although I always offer some of what we’re eating, I usually end up supplementing with other items that I know she’ll eat. At what age is it reasonable to stop doing this and expect them to just make do with what the family is eating?


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