Picture this: a harried two-career household, with limited time between soccer practices, homework, and maybe mom and dad hoping to have some couple time after dinner. And the only thing that needs to happen before that is family dinner. But sometimes, no matter what gets put on the table, a young child will turn up the corners of their face, and announce, “I’m not going to eat that.”
It’s a battle that is as old as the suburbs and it happens again and again on the same battlefield, the family dinner table. But with the explosion of health-conscious markets, websites and even online grocers, it’s getting easier to avoid the fights and make good nutrition a part of everyday eating.
Despite some grim statistics about childhood health, we’ve learned a lot about the benefits of diets low in processed sugars and packed with healthy fats and plenty of fruits and veggies. And where just a few decades ago, canned vegetables were one of the primary healthy options. Today’s improvements in refrigeration and transportation have given grocers a fresh fruit and vegetable season that lasts most of the calendar year. And that means caregivers now can offer youngsters a much wider palette of food choices that taste delicious.
But still, kids often turn up their noses at selections labeled healthy. So at least in our household, we’ve resorted to a time-honored tradition: being sneaky.
Whether it means pureed fruits as a sweetener in baked goods, or incorporated into a popsicle or just some out of the box thinking that helps get fruits and vegetables into even the pickiest eaters, here are some recipes and recipe hacks to help make that dinner table a healthier, and happier place. And with these suggestions, only mom and dad will know about the healthy secrets packed inside.
Here are a few of our favorite choices to make delicious, healthy choices for young eaters, along with some reasons these choices made our list.
Cutting Down on Sugar
With childhood obesity at a record high, many parents work hard to limit sweets but sometimes fail to overlook the high amounts of added sweeteners in everyday staple foods. Even products that come from brands focused on health can pack a punch. A serving of Udi’s Gluten-Free Cinnamon Raisin bread, for example, packs as much sugar as a full-size Almond Joy candy bar.
For many years, the most widely available sugar substitutes were those developed in a lab, like sucralose, regularly sold under the brand name Splenda, and aspartame, marketed under names like Equal and NutraSweet. But there are plenty of all-natural alternatives, each with their own specific benefit.
Most of the all-natural sweeteners produce a lower glycemic response—basically the spike in your body’s response to consuming sugars that results in the production of insulin—than white sugar, making them a better choice for long term nutrition. The glycemic index measures the amount and type of carbohydrate present in sweeteners. It considers the presence of other materials (often including some type of soluble fiber) that slow absorption and lessen the insulin response of the body.
White sugar has a glycemic index of65. But other sweeteners like maple syrup (54), honey(50), molasses(55), brown ricesyrup (25) and agave syrup (15) are ways to make tasty treats that taste sweet without the insulin spike produced by white sugar. You can see the glycemic index for a broad range of sweeteners here.
Now that you know all about sweetener choices, it’s time to figure out which ones taste best for your family. We started with these amazing pumpkin chocolate chip muffins from Weelicious. Based on canned pumpkin and sweetened with your choice of honey, agave or maple syrup, these muffins are flourless and can also be gluten-free using gluten-free old-fashioned oats.
In our household, the challenge first was finding healthy after-school snacks. That’s not an easy choice for parents raised on Ho-Hos and Twinkies. But after some experimenting, we found some nut- and oat-based cookies that managed to be both delicious and relatively guilt-free. These thumbprint cookies use two cups of just about any nut, some oats, and can be filled with your choice of fruit jams. Their only added sweetener?
A cup of maple sugar, which is rich in antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory qualities, and a much lower glycemic index than any mass-produced sugars. For added flavor, try using this Nutiva liquid coconut oil, which offers all the health benefits of coconut oil, including medium-chain triglycerides, all while staying liquid at room temperature.
Many families have decided to reduce or eliminate gluten, but the explosion in the availability of non-wheat flours has made the decision to reduce or even eliminate gluten a lot easier for families with specific dietary concerns. But there’s still the stigma that addressing health issues in a recipe leads to bland, flavorless food.
Just Eat your Vegetable Brownies?
Many families have a recipe floating around for banana bread, or zucchini bread, so the idea of muffins, cakes and other sweet treats based on vegetables isn’t exactly new. But as our understanding of nutrition has evolved, so too has the number of choices found at your local grocery store.
But that’s not an issue at all with Chocolate Covered Katie’s healthy black bean brownies, which replace flour with a combination of oats and black beans. Yes, black beans. The end result is a surprisingly rich, traditional chocolatey brownie, one that packs fiber, lower calories and satisfaction into each bite. As their creator notes on her website, she’s made these brownies for parties dozens of times, and no one has ever guessed the secret ingredient. The website’s investment in healthy treats runs deep; one of its most popular choices is a chickpea-based cookie dough dip that is a certain hit at parties, and can be served with graham crackers or fresh fruit or both.
While many of these recipes focus on taste, some kids have a preference only for foods of a certain texture. And while most fruits can be prepared in a variety of ways, it’s the exotic flavors of fruits like mango that seem to have a special appeal.
Their bright orange-yellow color evokes summertime, both in flavor and in the case of these simple-to-make mango popsicles, might give mom and dad a memory of running after the ice cream man. Made from just three ingredients, they are a simple way to sneak an extra fruit into your kid’s diet. Another mango favorite is mango fruit leather, a great choice for lunchboxes, after school or even as a healthy grown-up version of the fruit roll up.
After School Snacks
If after school in your family means trucking from one activity to the next, these oatmeal peanut butter energy bites are a perfect companion for the ride to swim team or soccer practice or just as fuel for an active afternoon. With both steel cut oats and rolled oats as part of the base dough, these no-bake treats offer the ability to store for weeks in the refrigerator and add a ton of protein and fiber for long-term energy. Plus, the recipe is fairly malleable and can accommodate all sorts of additional ingredients, including dried fruit and crushed nuts.
Another popular choice for those looking for a snack that is more entrée than dessert is the tomato, basil and mozzarella toast, which is deceptively simple. For a more pizza-like experience, try adding some no-sugar marinara sauce and whatever spices your family prefers. We love Rao’s marinara, whose ingredient list consists of tomatoes, olive oil and spices in our house. Rao’s sauce, inspired by the landmark New York City restaurant of the same name, has consistently won national taste tests for the best mass-produced marinara; its smooth flavor lacks both the acidic bite and overly sweet taste of common grocery store brands, and contains no added sugars.
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For sweet treats that pack a surprisingly healthy punch, we depend on ChocolateCovered Katie. She posts new recipes every Monday and Thursday, and like many health-oriented entrepreneurs, started her website as a blog for friends and family. Katie was a photography obsessed food blogger who has also transformed her research and interests into an Instagram account with nearly 400,000 followers and launched a cookbook.You can often find her on the talk show circuit as well.
Former model Catherine McCord’s pet peeve as a new mom lacked healthy and simple recipes for children. Seeing a hole in the marketplace, McCord founded Weelicious with the simple goal of giving parents a resource to prepare healthier meals for their children. Her website’s focus on fast, fresh, and easy has been a massive hit and spawned two bestselling cookbooks. She launched a meal delivery service, One Potato, in 2015 that focuses on helping families deal with many of the same issues.
If your child is interested in helping prepare their own treats, consider a membership in Raddish Kids. Entrepreneur and former middle school teacher Samantha Barnes created the program, which sprang out of her Los Angeles-based classes for children through summer camps, after-school programs, and parties. Raddish Kids uses mealtime as a tool for bringing families together, teaching cooperation skills, teamwork, and fostering creativity through a subscription box plan that allows kids to get hands-on experience in making the meals their family will eat.
Sacramento-based FoodLiteracy Center teaches children of low-income families the skills to make healthy choices in the kitchen by teaching cooking, gardening and many other aspects of market-to-table programming. As a nonprofit focused on preventative health, their website offers a host of recipes organized by meal category for the young person to enjoy.
And once your kids have tried a bunch of recipes, then maybe it’s time for more advanced study, so that they can make family dinner for mom and dad. That’s the idea behind Kids Cook RealFood, combined with a health-centric strategy that believes many of the alarming trends in public health (such as rising rates of obesity and TypeII Diabetes) can be easily prevented with food education. The video courses available for purchase include a curriculum for teaching your children to cook at home, as well as courses designed to get the whole family involved.
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