Feeding Toddlers: Toppings Bar

God, please don’t strike me down for saying this, but recently, I’ve been doing a little happy dance after every single meal at my house. After three agonizing years of meal struggles (and endless self-doubt) and battles to stay at the table, finish dinner, eat the same meal as the family, it feels like we’ve reached the promised land. Our kids are trying (and for the most part eating) every single thing we put in front of them, not complaining, and giving compliments.

I’d like to thank Janet Lansbury for the words, “when you leave the table, you’re telling me you’re done” and my friend Erica for sharing the words “if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.” My own phrase, “if you try one bite and don’t like it, you can spit it out,” has also gotten us really far. But mostly, I credit my dogged determination to only make one meal per night, no matter what. Many children have gone to bed hungry, but we’ve reinforced what is important and tenable for us, and it has worked.

One of the ways I’ve gotten away with that, is what I’m going to coin a “toppings bar.” In How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, the authors suggest that you let a child put their own food on their plate – serve themselves. I tried this starting about a year ago, and it didn’t really work. I wanted it to work, but it didn’t – it resulted in my 3 year old destroying the dish of food with a serving spoon, spilling half of it on the table, putting a too large serving on her plate, and eating it at the same rate she would have if I had served her.

Still, I struggled to find a way to give my kids autonomy over their meals, both portions but also textures and flavors. Hence, the topping bar was born.

So, without ado, here are my top five meals that I serve “toppings bar” style. I hope you can incorporate these into your repertoire, and you have as much success as we have. I’ve learned a lot about my kids this way, and found it also allows us each to have a meal that fits our needs for the day.  I am sure there are tons of other ideas, and I think you can incorporate these tenets into almost every meal by leaving off a few things and letting your kids opt-in or out.

“Taco” Night

You make: salsa chicken. For me, that’s one jar of my favorite Aldi garlic salsa, and 3 lbs of chicken thighs, in the Instant Pot on high for 25 minutes. You can also do this in the slow cooker, or with breasts if you prefer. This is a favorite recipe if you like a spicier flavor profile.

Toppings: you provide some combination of whole wheat tortillas, tortilla chips, brown rice (the frozen trader joes kind), cauliflower rice (same, Trader Joes), shredded lettuce/slaw, chopped avocado, shredded cheese, sour cream, corn (frozen- microwaved for 30 seconds with a few tablespoons of water), chopped tomatoes, canned olives.

Note: this is one of our easiest dinners that we make when we are all getting back from swim lessons and it’s already dinner and we’re all exhausted. I prep the chicken during naptime and just open when it’s time, and I put all the other toppings on a platter earlier that day, so all I have to do is microwave the rice/corn and supper is ready.

Chili night

This is a tried and true way to feed a crowd; it’s my go-to.


You make: your favorite chili. For me, that’s the Skinnytaste Two Bean Chili in Fast and Slow, or this Smitten Kitchen favorite in which you literally just dump everything in the crockpot or IP and walk away.

Toppings: you provide some combination of tortilla chips, cornbread (always Jiffy, always doctored up with some white cheddar and frozen corn), chopped onion, chopped avocado, chopped cucumber, shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped tomatoes, chopped jalapeno, canned olives.

Oatmeal bar

This is a favorite for my kids during the winter months.


You make: steel cut oats in the Instant Pot. I just started using Melissa Clark’s method, where you toast 1 cup of steel cut oats in 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of maple syrup – toasting til fragrant. Add 3 1/4 cups of water and set for 11 minutes and natural release- I think they need about an hour to thicken up. Then you can portion them out or serve them.

Toppings: you provide some combination of chopped fresh fruit, dried fruit or raisins, toasted nuts, brown sugar, maple syrup and/or honey, cinnamon and/or cream or milk.

Greek night

You make: Trader Joe’s chicken schwarma which comes pre-marinated with a stellar blend of yogurt and spices. It’s sold right near the fresh meats.

Toppings: you provide some combination of garlic naan toasted and cut into triangles, chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, marinated chickpeas (evoo, red wine vinegar, herbs and spices) or just rinsed ones from a can, feta cheese, hummus, and lettuce or slaw

Note: I love to eat mine as a huge salad, where my kids love to make pita sandwiches

Steak & Potato night


You make: grilled steaks or the super easy balsamic rosemary Steak Tips from Trader Joe’s and twice-baked potatoes, lightened up with greek yogurt.

Toppings: you provide some combination of cooked crumbled bacon, shredded cheese, chopped chives, sour cream, and salsa.

Note: I love this for a Friday night with kids

Pizza night


You make: your favorite dough- or my favorite, the pre-made Cali’Flour foods crusts.

Toppings: you provide whatever is in your fridge! We love Trader Joes meatballs which are easy to thaw, turkey pepperoni, fresh mozzarella, fresh arugula, olives, mushrooms, red peppers.

Last, my friend Amaree introduced me to this adorable idea years ago of serving snacks in an ice cube tray. I still pack snacks this way for the kids sometimes when I have a bunch of little random things.


Whatever works for you and your family, I hope you’ll enjoy these ideas and modify them and make them your own!

Happy eating with toddlers!