Short-Order Mom

THE CHALLENGE: Susan Kornick, an exhausted mother of three, needed relief from the nightly routine of making five separate dinners for her family. We helped design one meal with something for everyone.

Robin Spence, the nutritionist for our monthly Make Over My Meal series, wanted to start the new year with a challenge, and we had one for her.


"PLEASE HELP! MOM DESPERATE!" the subject line of the e-mail read.

"I am the food preparer for our family -- me, hubby and 3 kids ages 12, 9 and 6," wrote Susan Kornick of Cockeysville. "I cook EVERY night of the week, and end up making 5 (yes 5) separate dinners for the family. (Yes, I know it's my own fault in part but I just don't want to hear the kids complain and cry). ... Most nights I end up putting 10 to 15 different items on the dinner table (a lot of it ends up being frozen stuff, especially for the kids) and I'm exhausted! I work 5 days a week and am desperate for an easier way to handle dinner that won't have the kids fussing about the food."


"It's not that unusual, unfortunately," said Spence, a registered dietitian at Union Memorial Hospital, when she read the e-mail.

Kornick, a school nurse, is 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 113 pounds. She exercises regularly and describes herself as a "health nut" who tries to eat nutritious, low-fat meals. Her husband, Tom, a painter, is 6 feet 6 inches tall, weighs 240 pounds and works on his feet all day. He needs a substantial meal to fill him up, a meal that includes lots of starch. He will eat vegetables but prefers them with sauces or cheese.

"I don't think a green veggie has crossed the plate of any of my children," said Susan Kornick. "We tried but it just ended up in a crying and fussing disaster."

I asked Kornick to keep track of her dinners for a week and send some typical menus to Spence. Here's what she came up with. Dinner is always followed by dessert, she told us -- cookies, cake, candy or ice cream.

Dinner No. 1: Tom, turkey tetrazzini, pasta salad, yogurt with fruit; Alyssa and Daniel (12 and 9 respectively), frozen waffles, mashed potatoes (from a box), vanilla yogurt; Samantha, known as Sam (6), fries, plain white tortilla filled with cheese; Susan, salad, vegetables, soy burger on whole-wheat English muffin.

Dinner No. 2: Tom, chicken wings, rice from a packet, can of corn; Alyssa, Kraft macaroni and cheese, fries, grapes; Daniel, wings, fries, applesauce; Sam, macaroni, Go-gurt, fries; Susan, South Beach wrap dinner, salad, veggies.

Dinner No. 3: Tom, vegetable lasagna (frozen), garlic bread, rice made from packet; Daniel and Alyssa, chicken nuggets, applesauce, garlic bread; Sam, Oodles of Noodles, Danimals drinkable yogurt; Susan, lasagna, salad, veggies.

"This one's going to be tough," Spence said.


Her first reaction was that most of the food is white; and if dietitians have one catch phrase, it's "Eat the rainbow." Eating a variety of brightly colored foods increases your chances of getting the nutrients you need.

The Kornicks' meals are also low in fiber, vitamins and iron (that last because dairy is their primary source of protein) and probably higher than they should be in sodium (because many of the dishes are frozen or prepared).

Spence's strategy was to start with small steps.

"Personally, I don't think they will eat any of this," she said of her makeover meal, "but the idea is to start presenting food. This family has a long way to go before the children will eat new food."

To keep Kornick from having to make five separate dinners but to retain some elements of the "before" meal preparation, Spence suggested a chicken fajita buffet. Kornick would set out the ingredients on the table and let the family members make their own fajitas.

"Usually by the time I'm ready to sit down," Kornick said, "they are halfway through."


The fajita buffet would, at the very least, mean that the Kornicks would be eating a family dinner together.

Dessert would be fruit kebabs (strawberries, pineapple and melon) with a dipping sauce made of vanilla yogurt flavored with honey and a dash of cinnamon. While the youngest, Sam, wouldn't eat the fruit, Spence suggested she make a kebab for her dad. Again, if children are handling food, they might tempted to try it eventually.

When we arrived at the Kornicks' house, Spence had some reading material for Susan by Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and psychotherapist. (Check out her Web site at Satter is the author of several books on the psychological aspects of getting kids to eat healthfully, including Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense and Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family.

"Stay away from catering and short-order cooking," Satter says on her Web site. And, "Don't try to get food into your child."

Spence had the kids crush a little of the fresh cilantro we had brought between their fingers and smell the herb while she told them a little of its history. (No, none of them ended up putting it on a fajita, but they seemed interested.)

She also suggested getting the children involved with the preparation of the meal itself. When she found out that Daniel liked to garden, she wondered if having the kids grow vegetables might encourage them to try something they had grown.


Kornick, always short of time, streamlined Spence's recipe by substituting a package of fajita mix she had on hand for the spices and garlic in the recipe. (When I tested the original recipe I found it delivered more subtle flavor than the mix, but you do what you can.)

We didn't stay while the family ate, but I called Kornick the next day to see what the family thought. The buffet was surprisingly successful, she reported, although she wasn't able to get the children to eat any vegetables and Sam ate only tortillas with reduced-fat sour cream and cheese. But it was a start: The family enjoyed at least parts of the same meal together, and Kornick sat down with them.

"The little one complained at first, but the other two kids liked being able to pick and choose and not have the food just stuck in front of them," Kornick said. At the beginning they were skeptical of the chicken, she said, but ended up loving it.

As for the kebabs, Kornick wasn't able to sell fruit as a dessert, and family members didn't think the dip went very well with the fruit, but the yogurt flavored with honey and cinnamon they loved. The older kids ate some fruit, and Sam made a kebab for her dad.

"Next time, I would probably add a starch for my husband," Kornick said. "He's a really big starch person."

Spence left with a few other food suggestions for the Kornicks: turkey meatballs that could be made in advance and frozen, pita-bread pizzas and pasta dishes made with high-protein spaghetti.


"The older kids need to take a cooking class, but I don't think we can pull that off," Spence said, still thinking about ways to get them involved with new foods. "I know we wanted a challenge, so I am not going to complain."


Low-fat sour cream is a compromise: Children like it and it's lower in saturated fat and adds some calories, but it's not much of a source of calcium.


Peppers supply vitamin C, and red peppers have vitamin A as well. They add some fiber and are low in calories.



Chicken is a mild-flavored meat, so it's often OK with children. It's a lean source of protein and iron, although not as much as red meat. The marinade adds spark (which can go either way with children). Lime juice in the marinade adds vitamin C and lots of flavor.


Generally flour tortillas, a carbohydrate, don't have fiber and have more calories than people think. This could be useful for the father as well as the children. We would be idealistic to push whole-wheat tortillas with squeamish kids.


Salsa, onions and lettuce add color and crunch to the final product. Salsa is a cooked tomato product and has lycopene and potassium (and sodium). Onions have flavonoids and sulfur compounds.



Cheese provides protein and calcium that children need. You could use a reduced-fat shredded cheddar or Monterey Jack.

Chicken Fajitas

Makes 4 servings

MARINADE: 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce


1 large garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

2 teaspoons chili powder

1 1/4 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts or tenders cut into long strips on the diagonal

1 tablespoon canola oil (divided use)


OTHER INGREDIENTS: 1 large red bell pepper, washed, cored, seeded and cut into strips

1 sweet onion, such as Vidalia, thinly sliced

ten 7-inch flour tortillas

Combine all of the ingredients of the marinade in a small bowl (lime juice through chili powder) and mix well. Or mix into a zip-top bag. Pierce chicken with a fork, place in bag with marinade and refrigerate for 30 minutes to overnight.

Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons of canola oil in large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add the sliced red bell peppers and onion and saute for 10 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl, cover and set aside.

Add the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil to the skillet and heat over medium-high heat until hot. Add the marinated chicken and saute for 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a serving dish and cover to keep warm.


While the chicken is cooking, heat the tortillas wrapped in foil in a warm oven.

Set out the buffet: tortillas, chicken, peppers and onion, reduced-fat sour cream, shredded reduced-fat cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, salsa, shredded lettuce and fresh cilantro.

Adapted from "Eating For Lower Cholesterol," by Catherine Jones and Elaine Trujillo

Per serving: 562 calories, 56 grams protein, 15 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 48 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 134 milligrams cholesterol, 239 milligrams sodium