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Picky Eater Special: Make-Your-Own Taco Salad

When I moderated a panel on dealing with picky eaters at the BlogHer Food conference in May, I snagged a handful of good ideas for experimentation. The biggest one: Taco Night. All three of my co-panelists proclaimed it a can’t-miss way to make everyone happy, even if—as Caroline of Devil and Egg said—your kid’s idea of a taco is, basically, tortillas.

Naturally, I tried it as soon as got back. But instead of going with straight-on tacos, I upped the veg factor and declared a Make-Your-Own Taco Salad night. Harry’s actually pretty OK with salad these days, thanks to a wee bit of bribery earlier this year. Carrots, cucumber, and salad greens are all welcome on his plate (I know, right?!), and olives are a life-long favorite. Oh, and tortilla chips? Salty + crunchy = no-brainer.

I make my own taco meat, but you can absolutely use one of those packets—the processed stuff isn’t my first choice, but if it means a homemade dinner, I’m all in. The rice, too, can be from scratch, or go with a boil-in bag. Heck, I’ve been known to pick up a carton from the nearby Chinese takeout joint. Doctor the rice with (defrosted) frozen corn kernels and peas to sneak in another vitamin or two. As for the tortilla chips, I made those, too—cutting up tortillas, which I usually keep on-hand, was easier than running to the store—but I’ve got no problem with pre-fab. Just buy a bag with an ingredients list you recognize. If you’re really pressed for time, hit the supermarket salad bar for the carrots, cukes, tomatoes, and greens. Using all those shortcuts, this meal comes together in about 15 minutes.

Turns out, my co-panelists really know their stuff. Make-Your-Own Taco Salad was definitely a success, so much so that we’ve had it several times since. Harry eats his weight in chips, but I can also count on a huge helping of olives, some carrots & cukes, shredded cheese, and even a bit of rice. He won’t touch the taco filling with a ten-foot fork, but you didn’t really expect him to, did you?

So, tell me: What’s your version of Make-Your-Own Taco Salad? What’s the meal that makes every member of your family happy?

Look at that deliciously balanced meal! Guess whose? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not Harry’s.

Um, yeah. This would be Harry’s plate.

Make-Your-Own Taco Salad
Serves 4 to 6
Weight Watchers: There are so many variables here, I can’t give an accurate PointsPlus count. Sorry!

For the tortilla chips:
6 small corn tortillas
Olive oil or cooking spray

For the taco filling:
1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (sub 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne if serving as finger food—a red pepper flake on a baby’s tongue is not fun)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound lean ground beef or turkey
1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

For the salad:
Cooked white or brown rice (stir in some defrosted frozen corn kernels and/or peas)
Shredded carrots
Chopped cucumber
Sliced black olives (not canned, please!)
Chopped tomatoes
Shredded lettuce

Canned black or pinto beans, drained and rinsed
Cubed avocado
Shredded Cheddar and/or Monterey Jack cheese
  1. First, make the tortilla chips: Heat the oven to 350°F and line a rimmed baking sheet. Coat the tortillas lightly with olive oil, by brushing or spraying, then sprinkle with salt. Stack them and cut into sixths, then scatter in a single layer on the baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until crisp and golden brown—check them every few minutes once you begin to smell toasting tortillas.
  2. Now, make the taco filling: Measure all the spices into a small bowl. Put a large nonstick skillet over medium heat and add the meat. Cook, breaking it up with the back of a spoon, until it’s completely browned. Sprinkle with the seasoning mix and add 3/4 cup of water, then lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the mixture is quite moist but no longer has pools of liquid.
  3. Stir in the brown sugar and vinegar and simmer another 2 to 3 minutes.
  4. Put each salad item into its own little serving dish, hand out bowls to your family, and let them all assemble their own meals.

MAKE BABY FOOD: If your baby’s eaten and enjoyed spicy food, I’d serve everything but the chips, which may be difficult to chew. Still on purees? Put some filling, rice, and carrots in the food processor, add a splash of water or broth, and you’re good to go.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Tessa @ CookSewGrow

    We love taco night, too! Other whole'family favorites are: make your own pizzas, beef stew and meatloaf.

  2. debbie koenig

    We're big on pizza here too, Tessa. Harry just reminded me last night that we're due for some. Beef stew & meatloaf are great for me & Stephen, but oy Harry won't go near them! Too much stuff all combined–he really wants to see each individual thing he's eating, I think.

  3. Vera Marie Badertscher

    That's pretty much the way we make tacos–with individual dishes of ingredients to fill your crispy taco shell. Only thing that I don't use is rice–probably beans instead. (And I'm an authentic Southwesterner 🙂

  4. Jesse

    We also love taco night! I usually do soft tacos for the kids and hard shells for the grown ups…we found that the hard shells were just too difficult for the little ones to eat without becoming frustrated. We typically do some beans along with rice (either black or pinto) and we also do guacamole for our littlest avocado lover. We have found that he will eat tomatoes happily if they are mashed in with avocado, whereas he refuses them in any other fashion. Our kids eat their weight in shredded cheese on taco night, but whatever. They also get in lettuce, olives, beans, and avocado, so I'm usually happy.

  5. debbie koenig

    Oh my gosh, I forgot to mention beans and avocado in the post! *turns away in embarrassment*

    Off to edit…

  6. Di

    Awesome – just in time for taco night, I've been looking for a new recipe too.

  7. Di

    Just wanted to add – WOW! These were great, everyone ate them up! (I had rice, tortillas, lettuce and beans on the side.)

    Adding this to the rotation!

  8. debbie koenig

    Woo hoo, Di! Thanks for reporting back!

  9. sarah henry

    You can utilize the "make-your-own" principle in lots of ways (pizza, pasta, fresh spring rolls, baked potatoes, rice bowl, salad etc.) without extra work for the cook, just put out bowls of fixings and eaters — picky or not — can add their preferred toppings.

  10. WizzyTheStick

    Lovely idea. I usually do this with homemade pizzas:-)

  11. jodi

    What a great idea for making your own tortilla chips! I’ve done it with pitas, but what a no-brainer for tortillas!

  12. KellyF

    My MIL does sort of a chinese version of this she calls haystacks. Rice, cream of chicken soup w/ extra chicken, chinese crispy noodles, a variety of chopped up veggies (diff colored peppers, peas, shredded carrots, sm pieces of broccoli, whatever…), marachinno cherries, pineapple, and whatever chinese-style food you can think of that your munchkins might go for. Plus, you can dr this up for grown-up tastes too. I like to serve and store in storage containers – and snack on extras during the week and make up mini-haystacks.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      I’m not a big fan of cream of chicken (well, cream of anything) soup, but the rest of this sounds terrific! A make-your-own Chinese Chicken Salad.

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