I’ve told you all about what a picky eater JR is, right? We like to joke that he eats five things. That may be underselling him, but not by much. Here are the things JR eats: macaroni & cheese, pizza, spaghetti & meatballs, buttered noodles, cheeseburgers, grilled cheese, chicken nuggets, and rice. Breakfast options include scrambled eggs, yogurt, pancakes, bagels and cereal. For fruits and vegetables, his universe is limited to apples, grapes, melon and peas. I would be more worried about it except that he is thriving and growing like a weed.

JR’s picky eating seems to come from a very genuine place. He is a kid who is sensitive to stimuli. He is very particular about how his clothes and shoes feel. He hates loud noises. I have always been of the opinion that his picky eating is mostly about textures. Notice that many of his preferred foods have similar textures: noodles, rice, cheese, eggs, chicken nuggets, peas. He doesn’t want any food that is too crunchy or aggressive in his mouth.

I know that parents have lots of different approaches to deal with picky eating. Mine is not to make meal time a battleground. I always make JR one of his approved foods even when I am making something else for the rest of the family. Luckily, it’s not that hard to whip up a grilled cheese or buttered noodles. And the extra work is worth it to me to avoid a fight and to make sure that JR actually eats something. We insist that he eat plenty of the fruits and vegetables — okay, the one vegetable — that he likes, and I think his diet is well-balanced over all.

As you might imagine,  JR has an equally short list of approved restaurants. Pizzerias work. We sometimes can persuade him to go to an Asian restaurant, where we order him plain noodles “like for a baby.” Places that  serve pub grub will usually have a burger or chicken nuggets for him. He is doing the definitive study on restaurant macaroni & cheese for the greater Chicago area.

But JR’s favorite restaurant has to be the casual dining chain Noodles & Company. The name alone sums up JR’s approach to life: Why eat something besides noodles? Since Noodles & Company opened in our town a few years ago, we have become regulars. There are several reasons why Noodles & Company is such a family favorite. First, the menu is surprisingly diverse. JR can have spaghetti and meatballs or macaroni & cheese — I mean, that’s all he ever has — but Zuzu can get a meatball sub and I can get one of the Asian-inspired dishes, like Thai Curry Soup. I appreciate the fact that I can find something healthy and reasonably low-calorie to eat while my kids are also getting exactly what they want. There are not too many casual restaurants that make both parents and kids happy, but Noodles & Company fits that bill. The service is also extremely friendly and they staff have always been very accommodating of Zuzu’s food allergies.

This past weekend, we had about 45 minutes for lunch between the end of Hebrew school and the start of soccer games, so we popped into the Noodles & Company in the heart of our town. JR naturally had spaghetti and meatballs, which was a great choice right before an afternoon of soccer. Zuzu had the chicken noodle soup. My husband had the Penne Rosa — penne in a spicy tomato cream sauce with spinach and mushrooms — which is also one of my favorites.

I was all set to order one of my favorites when I noticed some new, limited-time spring menu items featuring one of my favorite vegetables, asparagus. I couldn’t resist trying the Garden Pesto Saute – fresh asparagus in a lemon pesto sauce tossed with red bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, pecans, feta and spinach. This dish is offered with gluten-free noodles, which is so considerate for all those who avoid gluten, but since I don’t fall into that category, I chose to substitute regular noodles. I loved the pesto sauce, the fresh vegetables and the extra crunch from the pecans. There are two additional spring menu items featuring asparagus as well: a Springtime Flatbread and the Asparagus Stack.  Noodles & Company will also add asparagus to any dish (for a $1.50 charge), or even substitute asparagus for a less-liked vegetable in your order — who knew? But these special dishes are only available through early June, so if you want to try them, you will have to act quickly.

For our family, Noodles & Company is a place where everyone can get a nutritious meal that they will enjoy, even JR, and even when we are pressed for time. I know many other parents out there feel the same way.

Full disclosure time: Noodles & Company provided me with coupons for two free entrees for review purposes. My family paid for the rest of our meal on our own and I have not received any compensation for this review. All opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.

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Emily Paster is a freelance writer and mother of two living in River Forest. She writes about food and parenting on her website, West of the Loop. Emily's print work appears frequently in Chicago Parent...

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