Alright, time for the fun stuff! For a lot of us, we already have kids with eating issues, even husbands with eating issues (yes, my love, I am going to keep referencing you, ha!) and there’s no way to backtrack. It’s never too late to improve eating habits, though. And like I said, this doesn’t just apply to children, some of these tricks apply to any adult in your life, including yourself!
Before we get started, let me say that I am a big proponent of getting your children to actually like what they’re eating, to actually see a vegetable and want to eat it, not to see their favorite junk food and not realize it’s filled with nutrition. If they spend their childhoods eating foods that look like their favorite junk foods, then they won’t actually learn to love food and when they leave home, they won’t know how to cook healthily for themselves, they’ll just go straight to what they believed they were eating.
More than that, if you let them engorge themselves on healthy “junk” then they won’t have the skill of self-moderation, which can lead to bad habits later in life. Nutrition is important, but it isn’t the be all and end all of eating. Having a love for food is important, as well! But…just because you’re still working to change your child’s eating habits doesn’t mean you can’t give them some secret nutrients in the meantime, for your own peace of mind. Here’s what I like to do:
Cut food small enough so nothing can be picked out: G loves stew. Just DEVOURS it. But when she was a toddler, I don’t think she would have loved it if I’d left the veggies and meat in large chunks like in my husband’s or mine; she’d probably just eat all the carrots and ignore everything else! So I always finely chopped her portion and she just ate it up without question. And this works for many, many other meals, as well. Think, ingredients to mix into pasta or rice (including risotto). Or what about pureeing cooked vegetables into a creamy soup (sans cream!), pasta sauce, or mixing them with mashed potatoes? It’ll change the color, but that might be fun for your child–carrot and potato is delicious and mashed celery root and potato is a classic.
Smoothies/Milkshakes: A milkshake is just an unhealthy smoothie, is it not? I find most children enjoy smoothies because they’re sweet (in fact, most children enjoy fruit because it’s sweet; vegetables are the problem), so they’re a great way to get hidden nutrients into your child and, if for some crazy reason she won’t drink smoothies, then just call it a milkshake. First, make sure you only use healthy ingredients:
- whole milk (or milk alternative, we love coconut or macadamia nut)
- whole, plain yogurt or whole, plain Greek yogurt (you’re adding fruit, so you don’t need sugar-laden vanilla or fruit flavors)
- plain kefir (you can actually replace both milk and yogurt with this since it’s a yogurt drink, meaning it’s thicker than milk and thinner than yogurt)
- banana (to sweeten)
- frozen fruit (or fresh fruit and ice)
- nuts (the resulting texture is much better than nut butters)
- leafy greens (such as spinach or kale)
- pure vanilla extract
That’s it. Don’t add sugar or juice (which is not healthy, it’s just sugar water with flavor); banana should be enough to add plenty of sweetness and, if for some reason it’s not, use honey or dried dates. If your child won’t drink smoothies, but will drink milkshakes, call it a strawberry milkshake, a mango milkshake, a peach milkshake, even a chocolate milkshake–just add a little unsweetened cocoa powder (or cacao) to the ingredients and, voila, chocolate with no added sugar. To get started on the right track to delicious, healthy smoothies, here are some of my favorites:
- Start-Right Smoothie by Ellie Krieger — I replace the 6 fresh strawberries and cup of ice water with 6-8 frozen strawberries and only use wheat germ if I happen to have it.
- Peach Pie Smoothie by Ellie Krieger
- Mango, Strawberry, and Pineapple Smoothie by Anne Burrell — try replacing orange juice with milk or kefir, adding a banana, and using frozen pineapple (they’re very watery fruit!)
A little side note, if your smoothie recipe contains honey and you’re making it for a child under 12 months, just replace the honey with some fresh banana, a perfect, creamy, healthy sweetener! And don’t forget, if you own a crazy food pulverizing blender of awesomeness (like a Vitamix or Blendtec, even some Ninja models), you can hide vegetables in the smoothies too!
Pasta Sauce: If your child likes pasta (and more than just buttered noodles), you can hide a lot of nutrients. Most traditional pasta sauces are healthy, outside of ones that use a lot of cream, butter, and loads of cheese (skip the Alfredo!), but you can always leave those out! Although, in today’s day and age, it’s believed that those are perfectly fine if they’re from the right sources (read: grass fed cows). Don’t be afraid to play with recipes, adding and subtracting ingredients where you see fit (and doing so will help you learn to be a cook rather than a recipe follower, making last-minute meals so much easier to throw together!).
Pureed Pasta Sauces:
- Simple Tomato Sauce by Giada De Laurentiis — packed with onion, garlic, celery, carrot, and tomatoes.
- Butternut Squash Sauce with Sage by Tyler Florence — It almost looks like traditional mac & cheese!
- The Best Tomato Sauce Ever by Jamie Oliver — LOADED with well-hidden veggies
- Simple Bolognese by Giada De Laurentiis — to get meat in your child’s diet. Anne Burrell’s is delicious, as well, but takes a little more effort: Pasta Bolognese
- Vegetable Bolognese by Giada De Laurentiis — consider substituting ricotta for the mascarpone, if you want a feeling like a lasagna
There are also some great sauces that have larger pieces of vegetables, just puree the finished sauce and add pasta-water to thin it out, as needed. Even better, chop it up really finely, so the veggies aren’t distinguishable or detectable, but it’s not such a smooth, pureed sauce. Then, over time, chop the vegetables less and less fine; your kids won’t even notice it’s happening and, one day, they’ll suddenly be eating chunks of vegetables without minding! Seriously, guys, I did this to my husband with tomatoes :’D
Chunky Vegetable Pasta Sauces:
- Roasted Provencal Vegetable Sauce by Bon Appetit
- Pasta e Fagioli by Rachael Ray — pancetta is like a thick Italian bacon
- Pasta Primavera by Giada De Laurentiis — a spring/summer dish!
- Checca Sauce by Giada De Laurentiis — ingredients stay raw, so you can’t fully puree it or it’ll end up as a thin liquid. If you need to puree it, just cook the tomatoes first!
- Pasta Ponza by Giada De Laurentiis — Consider leaving the breadcrumbs off until the end–mix the roasted tomatoes with the pasta and remaining ingredients in the baking dish, mix the breadcrumbs with a little olive oil until they’re all evenly coated, then sprinkle over everything and put back in the oven until crumbs are toasted and golden. If you’ve never tried it, you have no idea how delicious pasta is topped with breadcrumbs! And let the kids help out by sprinkling breadcrumbs over, themselves.
Don’t forget that you can just as easily make a big batch of pasta sauce as you can a small one, but with the added benefit of having enough to freeze for quick meals later (the same goes for any sauce, soup, or stew)! And you can use these to top meat, fish, rice, vegetables, anything you can think of.
Meatballs, Hamburgers, Meatloaf: If it contains ground meat, you can hide just about anything in it. And, actually, the basis for a lot of meatloaf is vegetables, which bring moisture and flavor to the meat. As long as it’s chopped up finely enough, nobody will know the difference. And if meatloaf is unappetizing to your kids? Well, change the shape! Use a meatloaf recipe, but make meatballs, a hamburger patty, mini loaves, whatever you can think of to make it more appetizing looking. And try topping it with a yummy homemade sauce instead of ketchup. Here are some recipes to try or inspire!
- 9 Mouthwatering Meat Loaf Recipes from Real Simple
- All-Time Favorite Veggie Burgers from Cooking Light — you don’t have to make a veggie burger; you can use some of these recipes to create a beef hamburger that includesveggies 🙂
- 10 Easy Meatball Recipes from Real Simple
If you seem to rely on these types of meat dishes a lot, consider using ground pork, turkey and/or chicken in place of beef–I recommend using dark meat or, at the least, mixing it with white because it’s not as dry. Dark meat is not the enemy! A topic for another time. And remember to top with one of your delicious veggie sauces from above! 😉
Rice and Grains (and Casseroles made with them): Just as with stew, you can chop anything into tiny bits and mix it into rice, though your child may be a little more suspicious being able to see it all mixed into the rice so easily–there’s a big difference between plain rice and rice with little colorful bits in it! And if your child likes rice, try out some other grains that look similar! What I usually do is refer to everything with the same name. My daughter loves rice and pasta, so when I make a different grain, I might call it “barley pasta” or “farro pasta” and I might call risotto “rice soup.” Before she turned three, it didn’t matter what something was called, she’d eat it, but at a more suspicious age, she’s more likely to eat something if only the shape is different, but it appears to be very similar to what she’s used to.
Hiding nutrients can be really easy if you just think creatively. Look over your recipes and think about how you can alter the ingredients to be more appealing to your picky child. I like to use the entire potato in mashed potatoes (the skin has more fiber!), so I use the large-holed grater of my food mill so that it includes the potato skin, but cuts it so small, my daughter (and husband) can’t eat around it. I once made chicken for my husband that had thin slices of zucchini hidden beneath the melted cheese that I topped it with. A friend has hidden tofu by squeezing out the water and making it small enough that it wasn’t noticeable in the dish.
There are a lot of options and you don’t have to resort to buying a special cookbook about hiding food for children (and remember that a muffin is not healthy just because it includes grated carrot). Cooking shouldn’t be a grand effort every night where you make one meal for the adults and a completely different meal (or sets of meals) for the kids. Make one meal for everybody and if you absolutely need to trick your kid into eating it, figure out how to alter her portion (or the whole dish) to fit her needs, but don’t turn yourself into a restaurant sous chef. And remember, loving food and enjoying a proper diet is just as important as getting nutrients, especially as we age and become set in our ways. So don’t skip the efforts to teach your child to love real, healthy food, just use some of these tricks in the meantime.
And lastly, always remember that what your child eats in a week is more important than what she eats in a day. Just ask your doctor!