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9 Favorite Meals Made Healthier to Please Moms and Kids

The Kiddie Menu Gets a Boost of Nutrition
-- By Sarah Haan, Registered Dietitian, and Stepfanie Romine, Staff Writer

Think about what is offered on a typical children's menu at a sit-down restaurant: burgers, fries, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets. When did these menu standards become "kid food," and why are we still conforming to the norm when we know it's unhealthy to constantly eat these dishes? Manufactured, artificial, added-sugar and packaged are just a few words that describe most of the foods our culture associates with children.

As a parent, it's your job to ensure your children receive adequate nutrition and develop healthy eating habits. This, however, can be tough when battling constant advertising, the media and common requests from the majority of our kids. Exposing your children to healthful meals is one of the most important things you can do to help them develop a healthy lifestyle. As adults, they'll be more likely to consume a variety of foods if new foods are routinely introduced at a young age. Research has shown that it can take 10 tries to get kids to eat a new food, so don't get discouraged. These meals are kids' menu favorites with a nutritious twist. The options are healthier--most have less fat and/or sugar--while packing more vitamins and minerals for your growing munchkins. These ideas should make the cut for both parents and kids. After all, who wants to make two meals every night?

Everyday chicken noodle soup can be transformed into a powerhouse of vitamins by adding a serving or two of vegetables. You're thinking you can already hear the complaints about the soup being "chunky," right? Well, your secret weapon to battle veggie woes is the blender. This handy appliance will be your new best friend when it comes to loading your favorite recipes with nutrients. To give your chicken soup a makeover, saute or steam chopped onions, carrots and celery, then give them a whirl in the blender with a bit of broth before adding it to the pot of chicken, broth and noodles. (You also can use this tactic with canned or boxed chicken soup.) Serve with whole-grain crackers in fun shapes.

The blender method can be used with many other dishes and vegetables. Try cooking cauliflower and broccoli and mixing them into the egg and low fat cottage or ricotta cheese mixture you use in lasagna. Zucchini can be grated, steamed and pureed into a mixture to add to a chicken and broccoli casserole.

In your next batch of macaroni and cheese, add cooked fresh or frozen pureed winter squash--think butternut or acorn squash. The texture and color resemble that of the cheesy dish while adding a serving of veggies. The possibilities are endless!

Aside from adding winter squash--or even cooked carrots--to macaroni, there are plenty of other ways to amp up this dish and make it more nutritious. To begin, making it from scratch with your children is a better alternative to the boxed variety. When cooking at home instead of getting takeout, you can use whole wheat pasta and control the amount of cheese and sodium added. After cooking the noodles and adding your choice of cheese, top the dish with your child's favorite lean meat. Grilled sliced chicken or ground turkey make great combinations. Experiment with finely chopped spinach, stewed tomatoes or chopped broccoli. If your little one is reluctant to try the new variation, make it into a game! It's amazing what a child will eat when it's the last food available on a deserted tropical island and resources are running out. The imagination can be a wonderful tool!

Instead of minced, processed chicken nuggets, patties and tenders, cut skinless chicken breasts into chunks then dip them in flour, egg whites and breadcrumbs. Bake at 400 degrees for 10-12 minutes, until chicken is cooked through. Flavor your breadcrumbs to suit your mood. Add oregano, thyme, paprika, cumin or rosemary depending on your mood. Introducing herbs to children helps them expand their palates early on.

French fries are a commonly requested food among young people. Slicing and baking your own potatoes is a very good alternative to the deep-fried option. Experiment with different spices and potatoes. Russet, redskin, and sweet potatoes will all produce a different taste. Drizzle olive or canola oil over your potato slices once they're spread over a baking sheet and top with any combination of garlic, oregano, dill, rosemary, and pepper. For added vitamins and variety, choose sweet potatoes, butternut squash, even parsnips, turnips and other root vegetables. Roasting adds a sweetness that will make almost any vegetable appealing to kids. Offer ketchup for the kids to dip, and mix in some sweet chili paste or curry powder for some uniquely grown-up ketchup.

Hamburgers to go with the oven baked fries are a must for kids! Make your burgers at home using extra lean ground sirloin, turkey or chicken. These types of ground meat are going to be much lower in saturated fat than hamburger, ground chuck and ground round. If your kids are really adventurous, whip out your food processor and make some quick and easy homemade black bean burgers. It's a Mexican twist on the traditional hamburger and is fun to serve with baked fries or chips and salsa. This patty can be served on a bun, but your kids will enjoy it cut up with salsa, shredded cheese and a dollop of sour cream, too. Mix one 14.5-ounce can of black beans with an egg and a 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs. Add 1/4 cup chopped onion, a teaspoon of garlic powder and 1 1/2 teaspoons of cumin. Pulse in the food processor, then add form into four patties. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes (flipping halfway through) or saute in a skillet over medium-high heat until crispy on the outside.

Grilled cheese and tomato soup is a winning combo, but this standby is usually made with processed cheese and corn syrup-laden canned soup. To save time and calories, make grilled cheese in the toaster oven. Brush whole-wheat or mixed-grain bread with just a bit of butter or spray it with nonstick spray, then swap the pre-wrapped slices for some real cheese. Cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella, havarti, Monterey jack and Colby are all mild enough for children. For grownups, add spinach, mustard, onions or tomatoes to the grilled cheese. You can even try to sneak some pear and apple slices into the sandwiches for the wee ones.

Instead of condensed soup, pick a canned soup with no added sweeteners. Add a can of canned tomatoes to boost the nutrition and cut the richness of a creamy soup. (Grab that handy blender to banish the chunky bits.) Make your own cream of tomato soup by mixing two 15-ounce cans of canned tomatoes and a pint of fat-free half-and-half. Heat until simmering, season with salt and pepper and puree in the blender.

Spaghetti is a favorite among children with many different ways to alter it. One easy way to cut the saturated fat in the dish is to use half the amount of meat and add an equal amount of finely chopped mushrooms. Once the 'shrooms are disguised, your kids will have to be aspiring detectives to notice the veggies in the sauce. The same goes for chopped cooked spinach or broccoli. Even pureed onions, carrots and tomatoes can be added to your sauce. The red tomato base makes it easy to pack it full of veggies. Whole wheat pasta will make everyday spaghetti a bit healthier as well, increasing the amount of fiber, vitamins and minerals in each bite.

My favorite trick is adding shredded carrots and parsnips, and chopped onion to meatloaf. I'm able to use extra lean ground beef, and the veggies help keep the dish moist, along with the fresh bread pieces soaked in skim milk. The result is a protein-packed dish with a dose of vegetables and a quality meatloaf that holds its shape.You can also form this into meatballs or mini meatloaves to appease pint-size palates. Check out this recipe to try in your own kitchen! This serves 12, but the meatloaf makes great leftovers.

What is your favorite kid-friendly food?

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Member Comments About this Article
"I don't have my own child yet (due in January), but I do work with a lot of young children as my job. I have noticed that the eating habits of the child very closely resemble the eating habits of the parents, and picky children often come from homes where the parents also struggle to eat healthy foods. One of the things I have seen that works well is to model good eating habits, but not to make a "big deal" about it. The attitude of, "this is what we eat, and we all eat the same thing togethe..." -- SNASH07
"My kids favorite foods are clams, crab, watermellon and yams. They will not eat the "typical" foods and it makes it hard to go to fast food places. They will pick at it but most the time will wait for "real food"." -- LADYDR
"Great ideas! Also, instead of making your own traditional potato french fries, try zucchini fries. Cut up a few zucchinis to the size and shape of french fries, dip them in egg white, and then dip them in a mixture of bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. Bake in the oven until crispy (google the recipe for exact temps and times). Delicious." -- TWOCPAS
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About The Author
Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics from Michigan State University. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food.

 


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