The Art of the Pile-On: Family-Style at It’s Finest

I learned about the “pile-on” from friends at work many years ago—the modern version of a pot-luck, where everyone brings 1-2 ingredients to put together a meal. We usually enjoyed the Mexican Pile-On, with tortillas, chips, ground beef, shredded chicken, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream, cheese, olives, etc. The “pile-on” is the fun part: everyone gets to choose from all the separate items to build their own taco, burrito, or nachos.

With my own kids, the pile-on dinner has become an easy way for me to serve family-style in a manner that suits the very different feeding temperaments of my children. I have expanded this to the “Potato Pile-On”, “Pasta Pile-On”, and “Pancake Pile-On”. I get out lots of toppings and put them all on the table, and am continuously surprised at the “inventions” that my boys make from the offerings. The pasta night includes spaghetti, tortellini, or some other pasta, pesto and tomato sauce, cut up tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and avocados, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese, and diced chicken or ground turkey. Pancake pile-on is made up of sweet potato or apple pancakes (I add sweet potato puree or applesauce), various fruit cut up in bowls, yogurt, turkey bacon or apple-cinnamon sausage, gouda or goat cheese, and scrambled eggs.

The other night, we had baked potatoes, and my oldest came up with this:

Potato, butter, cheese, sour cream (dairy trifecta!) turkey bacon, sunflower seeds, and pineapple.

Potato, butter, cheese, sour cream (dairy trifecta!) turkey bacon, sunflower seeds, and pineapple.

My younger son went a completely different way (no surprise there) but ended up with quite the food sculpture!

Cucumbers, potato (without peel), cheese, avocado, and tomatoes.  He ate the pineapple last for dessert.

Cucumbers, potato (without peel), cheese, avocado, and tomatoes. He ate the pineapple last for dessert.

Mine was a more traditional stuffed baked potato with cheese, sour cream, broccoli, and turkey bacon, with the tomatoes and avocados on the side as a salad. They had such a great time comparing their structures, and both ate all of the food that they put on their plate, the oldest scarfing it down in typical fashion, and the younger taking his time with the building process and then slowly making his way through the cucumber stacks.

Serving family-style can seem daunting at times—it can feel like lots of extra work. But it is so worth it when you see the Division of Responsibility in action. Having a plan for your week so that you can pull dinner together quickly helps any parent’s sanity. When I get home from work, the last thing I want is to anxiously scrounge for something to make for dinner. I have about 20 quick and easy dinners that I rotate on weekdays, with ingredients that I keep on hand all the time. I also depend on recipes that don’t take lots of preparation and that have five or less ingredients that I can throw together quickly.

Whatever you end up serving, remember that how you feed your family is at least as important as what goes on the table. Letting your children explore and “pile-on” the foods they are interested in gives them the chance to try it (or not) on their own terms, at their own pace, and with no pressure from you. You will end up with much more pleasant mealtimes and less stress piled on to your plate.

Happy Piling!

-Jenny

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