How Can I Prepare Healthy Meals That My Kids Will Enjoy (Without Breaking the Bank)?

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How Can I Prepare Healthy Meals That My Kids Will Enjoy (Without Breaking the Bank)?

May 2, 2012

Tips to Making Healthy Meals More Appealing

  • Remember to include at least one food your picky eater likes at each meal. This way, you don't have to worry about him refusing to eat everything. He'll be happy and you can avert unpleasant mealtime battles. However, don't hesitate to add a new fresh ingredient to an old favorite to try and help your child be a little more open-minded. For example, add broccoli and canned tuna to macaroni and cheese or tomatoes and spinach to grilled cheese sandwiches.
  • Make it look good. If your meal looks attractive and appealing, it's much more likely family members will eagerly give it a try.
  • Spice it up. Create a cultural masterpiece by mixing a few special spices. For example, create an Italian flavor with garlic, basil, parsley and oregano or a Mexican flavor with cumin, onion, oregano and cilantro.
  • Choose flavorful ingredients that also smell delicious. Onions, garlic, most herbs and spices create a mouth-watering aroma that's sure to encourage kids to give the food a try.

By Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD and Recipes by Mary Saph Tanaka, MD, MS

Parents share many concerns about their kids’ eating habits; the three biggest being not eating enough fruits and vegetables, picky eating and too much junk food1. While most know an ideal eating plan is high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in sugar and salt, getting a kid to actually eat such a nutrient-dense diet is a massive undertaking for anyone.

Mealtimes should be an enjoyable family experience, but too often they become a dreaded food fight with moms and dads pushing healthy foods on kids who blatantly refuse them. Studies show that the most important predictor of whether a child will eat a food is if it tastes good2. But with hectic schedules, jobs and homework to balance, success is often measured by a meal with an assortment of food even making it to the dinner table, regardless of whether it’s healthy or tasty.

The good news is that healthy, balanced and inexpensive meals kids will love are possible using just a few basic cooking guidelines.

First, prepare. Do this by completely cleaning out your pantry and refrigerator and starting fresh. This ensures you have fresh ingredients and food on hand that will actually be eaten, and you’re well aware of the arsenal of ingredients you have at your fingertips

Next, follow a recipe. As you’re getting started, rely on high-quality cookbooks and recipes. At first choose basic recipes with only a few ingredients. Once you feel comfortable, get creative. Try substituting ingredients and experimenting with spices and herbs. For example, instead of ground beef for taco night, try baking mahi-mahi with cumin and lemon for a lighter, healthier and more adventurous version. Or try using thinly sliced eggplant and zucchini as substitutes for pasta in your favorite lasagna recipe.

Finally, remember timing is everything. The temperature, texture and overall taste of food depend largely on timing. Make sure to serve hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Steam vegetables to the point where they still hold a bit of crunch and aren’t soggy.

See the sidebar for a few additional strategies that will help the next meal be one the kids will love.

Put the techniques to use with the recipes below. They’re each set up so that you can save money by purchasing just a few standard low-cost and high-quality ingredients, and making small modifications that will create a whole new meal. Unless otherwise indicated, recipe quantities will serve a family of four.

Breakfast

Quick and nutritious breakfasts can be tough, but make it easy with these tasty ideas!

Green Egg Burritos

  • 6 eggs
  • 1 bag frozen spinach, defrosted (or try kale or swiss chard)
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Olive oil
  • Whole wheat/grain tortillas

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x5 baking pan with olive oil. If using frozen vegetables, remove excess water by placing vegetables in a clean kitchen towel and squeezing. Crack eggs and beat in a large mixing bowl. Add spinach and 1 Tablespoon of olive oil. Mix in 1/2 cup of cheese. Pour into baking pan and sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup of cheese on top. Bake approximately 30-40 minutes, until eggs are firm.

When cool, cut eggs into even squares. Place one square in the middle of a tortilla and roll into a burrito. Make burritos ahead of time and freeze individually with plastic wrap for a quick breakfast on the go.

Breakfast Pizzas

  • 4 whole wheat/grain pitas
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 cup frozen spinach, defrosted
  • 2 links precooked low-fat chicken sausage, cut into 1/8 inch slices

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Squeeze excess water from defrosted spinach using a clean kitchen towel. Place 1/4 cup of spinach on each pita bread, and top with chicken sausage and 1/4 cup of cheese. Place onto baking tray and bake approximately 15 minutes.

While pizzas are in oven, crack eggs into a bowl and beat lightly. Heat a pan over medium-low heat with 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. Pour eggs into pan and stir occasionally until cooked.

Remove pizzas from oven. Top pizzas with scrambled eggs and serve!

Basic Oatmeal

  • 2 cups uncooked oats
  • 3 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Bring milk and salt to boil over medium heat. Add oats and stir. Cook 8 to 10 minutes or until most of the liquid is absorbed.

Spice it up with the following variations:

“Banana Bread” Oatmeal: Add 1 Tablespoon cinnamon and 1 Tablespoon brown sugar or honey to water and bring to boil. Peel 2 ripe bananas, put into a bowl and mash with a fork. After you add oats to milk, add bananas to oatmeal and stir. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Top with chopped toasted walnuts.

Cinnamon Apple Oatmeal: Dice 2 apples into 1/4-inch pieces and place in pot over medium heat. Add 1 Tablespoon cinnamon and 2 Tablespoons brown sugar or honey to water and pour over apples. Bring mixture to a boil and then lower heat. Add oats and stir. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes.

Strawberries and Cream Oatmeal: Cook basic oatmeal as instructed in the previous variation. Add 1/2 cup of nonfat milk to oatmeal and stir. Add 1/4 cup of strawberry jam/preserves and stir. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes and serve with a dollop of strawberry jam on top.

Granola

  • 3 cups rolled oats
  • 2 cups chopped nuts (try almonds, pecans, walnuts)
  • 1 1/2 cups dried fruit (try cranberries, raisins, cherries, blueberries)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix oats, nuts, salt, brown sugar and butter together in a large mixing bowl. Pour evenly onto a baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, remove from oven and stir. Place back into oven and cook for another 15 minutes. Remove and mix in dried fruit.  Let cool to room temperature. Serve with milk or yogurt.

Spice it up with the following variations:

Ginger Almond Cherry Granola (add 2 teaspoons of ground ginger to above recipe)

Cinnamon Apple & Walnut Granola (add 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon to above recipe)

Pecan Pie Granola (use dates as your dried fruit)

Breakfast Banana Splits

  • 4 bananas
  • Low-fat vanilla yogurt
  • 1 cup granola
  • 1 cup frozen or fresh blueberries

Split bananas in half lengthwise. Spoon approximately 1/3 cup yogurt in between bananas. Top with approximately 1/4 cup of blueberries (or other frozen fruit, defrosted) and 1/4 cup of granola.

Blueberry Banana Oat Muffins

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup oats
  • 2 teaspoons of baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 ripe banana
  • 1 cup low- or nonfat yogurt
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup frozen blueberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Place muffin liners into muffin tin.  In a large mixing bowl, mix applesauce, yogurt, butter and brown sugar together. Smash banana with a fork until soft and then mix into applesauce yogurt mixture.  Beat egg into mixture.  In a separate bowl, mix the flour, oats, baking soda and salt.  Slowly add flour mixture into the wet ingredients just until incorporated.  Place blueberries in batter and gently mix.

Pour the batter into each muffin cup until approximately 2/3 full. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Makes 14-16 muffins.

Lunch

Transform whole wheat pita bread into new options for your child’s lunchbox!

Creamy White Bean Hummus with Baked Pita Chips

White Bean Hummus

  • 1 can white beans (also known as cannellini beans)
  • 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons of water
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Juice of half lemon
  • 1 English cucumber

Place beans, olive oil, water, garlic and lemon juice in a blender until smooth.

Baked Pita Chips

  • 4 whole wheat pita bread
  • Olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut each pita bread slice into 4 pieces. Place pita bread on baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and salt.  Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until pita is crisp.

Pita Pizzas

  • 4 whole wheat pita bread
  • 1 cup of tomato sauce
  • 2 cups of assorted chopped vegetables (mushrooms, spinach, onions, peppers, broccoli)
  • 1 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce on pita bread and spread evenly. Top pita bread with vegetables and/or meat of your choice (Encourage your kids to make a smiling face out of the toppings!). Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of cheese on top of vegetables. Place on baking sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until cheese is melted.

Pita Sandwich Rolls

  • 2 whole wheat  pita bread
  • 2 cups baby spinach, washed and dried
  • 6 slices deli-sliced turkey breast
  • 1/2 cup grated carrots
  • 1 red bell pepper, julienned
  • 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella

Split each pita bread lengthwise in half so that you end up with 2 circles. Divide cheese above the 4 pita circles. Place one layer of spinach over cheese and then 3 slices of turkey breast. Next, place carrots and bell pepper in a single layer on one-half of the tortilla. Starting at one end with the carrots and peppers, roll the tortilla into a burrito.

Dinner

Use three ingredients – chicken breasts, frozen vegetables, whole wheat pasta – for many possibilities!

Roasted Chicken Breast

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place chicken breasts on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Bake 30-45 minutes or until thoroughly cooked.

Baked Cheesy Pasta

  • 1 16-oz. package whole wheat pasta
  • 1 jar marinara sauce
  • 2 cups assorted fresh or frozen vegetables
  • 3 roasted chicken breasts
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare pasta according to instructions on box. Drain pasta and return to pot. Cut chicken breasts into small, bite-size pieces and add to pasta. Pour marinara over chicken and add vegetables. Mix well.  Pour into a 9x13 baking pan and sprinkle with mozzarella. Bake for 40 minutes.

Hearty Minestrone Soup

  • 1 16-oz. package whole wheat pasta, cooked
  • 2 cups assorted fresh or frozen vegetables
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 roasted chicken breasts
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 15-oz. can kidney beans, drained
  • 1 15-oz. can chopped tomatoes
  • 5 cups of water

Heat a large pot over medium heat with 2 Tablespoons olive oil. Place diced onions into pot and cook until light brown.  While onion cook, shred chicken breasts into small pieces with your fingers. Once onions are ready, add chicken breasts and frozen vegetables to pot. Add 5-6 cups of water and chopped tomatoes.  Turn the heat to low and simmer.  After 20 minutes, add the cooked pasta and let cook for another 10 minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Chicken Teriyaki with Vegetables

  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons vinegar (any variety, but not balsamic)
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 3 roasted chicken breasts, cut into 1/8 inch slices
  • 3 cups assorted fresh or frozen vegetables
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 package whole wheat spaghetti, cooked

Heat pan over medium heat with 2 Tablespoons olive oil.  If using frozen vegetables, defrost and remove excess water.  Place onions in pan and cook until light brown.  Add vegetables and cook for 7-8 minutes.  Place chicken in pan and stir.  Remove chicken and vegetables and return pan to stove.  Pour soy sauce, sugar, garlic and vinegar into pan over low heat and let simmer for 10 minutes, until slightly thickened.

Divide pasta among plates and top with chicken/vegetables.  Pour teriyaki sauce over the top and serve.

Don't want to break the bank? 30 Ways to Stretch Your Fruit and Vegetable Budget!

Contributing author, Mary Saph Tanaka, MD, MS, developed her love for cooking at a young age, with fond memories of planting and cooking vegetables from the garden with her mother. She regularly utilizes locally grown ingredients and her knowledge of nutrition and herbs to prepare nutritious meals for family and friends. She is completing her pediatrics training at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital as part of the Community Health and Advocacy Training program. She developed the recipes for the soon-to-be-released book “’Eat Your Vegetables’ and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters” (Healthy Learning, 2012)

References

  1. American Dietetic Association. (2006). What's a mom to do? Healthy eating tips for families. Nutrition Fact Sheet. Chicago, IL.
  2. Domel, S.B., W.O. Thompson, H.C. Davis, T. Baranowski, S.B. Leonard, and J. Baranowski. (1996). Psychosocial predictors of fruit and vegetable consumption among elementary school children. Health Education Research. 11: p. 299-308.

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