I recently attended a parent teacher meeting at my daughter's daycare. It was a brown bag lunch where all of the parents of the toddler classes (kids age 18-months to 2.5 years) sat around a big table and learned about what was happening in the classrooms. When it came time for parents to ask questions of the teachers, of course the topic of food and eating came up.
The first mom to ask a question had concerns about her 20-month old daughter taking to only wanting bread and potatoes and nothing else. The teachers and other parents said it was normal and that it would pass. Then another mom piped in agreeing with the others then continued to say that her boy (2 years old) had eaten the same dinner for for the last year.
I think the sound of my jaw hitting the table made the room quiet (either that or my gasp of disbelief had sucked all of the oxygen out of the room), because the entire table of parents turned to me at once. I couldn't help myself but blurt out, "You have GOT to be kidding?! You mean to say that you cook two dinners every night? One for him and another for the rest of the family?" She shrugged her shoulder and said with a defeated smirk, "Yep" as if there was nothing she could so about it.
I took a deep breath, turned to the mother-of-a-bread-eater and said, "It's never too early to say to your child 'This is dinner'." Shock rippled through the crowd of twenty or so parents, but the teachers nodded their heads and openly said, "She's right." I went on to say that kids will not starve if they don't eat dinner one night. Yeah they may be hungry later that evening and yeah you may have a long night, but chances are that they'll remember the harsh lesson.
Remember, this is the age when kids are flexing their independence and testing their boundaries. The act of not eating dinner can be an act of defiance for defiance's sake; they're not doing it because you told them to. If you let them win this battle (like the mom-of-one-dish did) you are setting yourself up for major struggles when it comes to really important things later on down the line. You are the boss. You are the parent. Even if you don't think so, your kids have to learn that you know what's best. Following your lead is one way that your kids will learn to trust you. They may do it reluctantly, but they'll do it and learn from it. Tell them that you love them, give 'em hugs and kisses, but, "this is the way it is."
(In the same swipe, I'm not a believer in making a kid sit in front of a lone broccoli florete until he eats it. When dinner is over for the family, he should clear the table and clean up like usual, but there should be another consequence, something that is immediate and appropriate for the offense; in my house it's no SpongeBob after dinner).
All in all, when it comes to cooking for your kids, yes, of course cook to their tastes... to a point. Introduce something new at least once a week, whether it's a new vegetable, a new protein, a new bread or condiment. In the end, you will both benefit and (hopefully) you will guide your kiddo into being willing to try new things on their dinner plate. And, if their minds are open to new foods, perhaps they'll be open to new ideas, people, art, you name it. That's pretty cool in my book.