Cooking is hot. From the glut of cookbooks to the endless food TV shows, there’s no denying it. And while many people find cooking cathartic or just worthwhile, there are many who only see it as a chore. An important one for parents who want to feed their children healthy, wholesome food – but a chore, nonetheless.
If you count yourself among the kitchen haters, fear not. There is a middle ground. There are things you can do – limited tasks, tools and ideas that you can call upon – to make your children a good meal. We won’t call it cooking. It hardly qualifies. But it is meal prepping on the fly that will do just fine!
Start with vegetables
Plain and simple, the best way to feed your family a healthy diet and avoid fast-food, heavily processed, chemical-tainted manufactured meals is to focus on veggies – and expand from there. We’re not talking about eating carrot sticks and celery morning, noon and night. There is a whole world of possibility in the healthy family arena.
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Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, avoid cans, bags and boxes, and focus on what grows in the ground. Southeast Michigan farmers markets provide a plethora of local produce (hint: some are even open year-round). Pick grapes from the yard. Blend veggies and fruit into a smoothie. Make it fun, and the kids will follow along.
“Don’t take anything away,” says Andrea McNinch, a local nutritionist. “At first, slowly add. Make smoothies, and make it simple. Stress will kill you before food will. Don’t ever force your kids to eat healthy. That’s World War III in the family. Lead by example.”
Get your greens in
“I try to have families think about, ‘Where am I going to get my veggies, first?'” says Stacy Goldberg, a registered nurse with a master’s in public health and founder of Savorfull, an allergy-free foods delivery service based in Detroit. “Veggies are high-maintenance, so volumize your meals with vegetables. The easiest shortcut is to buy them already cut up.”
If veggies are the focus, then the other components of a meal don’t take center stage, says Goldberg.
“I’m not opposed to frozen vegetables, either,” she says. “Stock your freezer with frozen organic vegetables because they are usually frozen at their peak, and then there’s no excuse to not have veggies.”
Dark, leafy greens provide a huge health punch, so think of creative ways to add them to your family’s diet. Throw into a soup, saute to add to pastas or layer on top of pizzas, or add raw to a smoothie – they won’t even know they’re in there!
“Smoothies are one of the most nutritionally dense amazing things you can add into your diet,” says McNinch. “Kids love it – they get to grind things up and it’s loud and they can pick out the food. As long as you’re getting greens in that smoothie – it’s so important.”
Amy Pierce, a Sterling Heights mom of three, makes smoothies for snacks or breakfasts when her family is running late. She starts with Arbonne protein powder and lets the kids add fruits and veggies in on their own.
“They’re so versatile and filling,” says Pierce. Try carrot banana flax, half a frozen banana with peanut butter, frozen berries and fresh spinach leaves – and, for the liquid, try water, coconut milk or cow’s milk.
It may sound wacky, but raw foodists reason that they’re satisfied, never hungry and free of many of the illnesses and conditions that plague our society.
The basic premise to raw food is not to heat anything above 118 degrees, explains McNinch. That way, none of the natural enzymes in food disappear. And raw foodists stick mostly to veggies – though there are some that embrace raw milk and raw meat like sashimi.
Patronize local farmers markets for the freshest food around. And consider foraging – McNinch has picked grapes in her yard and seen healthy, nutrient-rich options in fields in Lapeer, Mich. and elsewhere. “There’s so much growing – wild foods are the most nutritionally-dense foods on the planet,” she says. “Eat a little bit of that food raw, and you are satiated for the day.”
An easy way to add raw food into your diet is with smoothies. Another great way is to try a dehydrator – that’s how raw enthusiasts make chips, crackers – even breads. “Raw kale chips are amazing,” McNinch says.
Feel like a short-order cook? In today’s families, one kid goes vegetarian, another is vegan, one loves chicken nuggets and French fries – and inevitably there’s a dieting parent in the mix. How do you cook one meal that serves every family member? Think in terms of themes.
Here are five stellar themes that kids will love:
- Mexican meal. Make-your-own tacos, with either soft or hard shells, can be filled with Mexican-seasoned ground beef, beer-battered baked fish fillets, homemade bean dip or strictly veggies, raw and pre-cut from the store or roasted in the oven. Chop tomatoes, olives, scallions and avocado, and put in small bowls. Buy a couple of good taco sauces or salsas. Grate a good cheese to sprinkle on top. A good side dish is Spanish rice. Use leftovers for a layered bean dip.
- Mediterranean meal. Easy to make quickly and often, sans cooking! Make a big Greek salad or feta fattoush salad, buy whole-wheat pita from any store or restaurant, and arrange a platter of veggies and salads, including baba ghanoush, hummus, tabouli, lentils, brown rice grape leaves and Lebanese pickles. Want meat? Skewer lamb or chicken chunks with thick cut veggies (peppers, onions, tomatoes, eggplant) and grill or roast. Serve with rice pilaf.
- Pizza, pasta or potato bar. For the crab base, get pre-made pizza dough or make your own, boil a big pot of whole-grain pasta or bake potatoes and sweet potatoes. Get creative with toppings. Choose a hearty, good cheese vs. processed varieties. Sauces abound, from canned tomato to creme fraiche, mascarpone or sour cream. Any veggies go: Chopped olives or artichokes, slivered herbs, a sprinkling of nuts and meat or soy substitutes. You could even open a can of salmon or tuna.
- Breakfast for dinner. Pancakes, eggs, toast and more. Try a simple omelet station, says Goldberg. Make eggs, egg whites or scrambled tofu, throw in veggies – “I love chopped kale” – and finish off with goat cheese or a bit of salsa or tomato sauce. For pancakes, make from scratch or buy a whole-grain mix. Fresh fruit is a great side. Maple syrup provides a sweet touch that’s still healthy. Whole-grain freezer waffles can work, too.
- All things Asian. Start with a freezer bag of edamame as an appetizer (boil for a few minutes, sprinkle with salt and serve), which’ll tide the kids over until dinner. That buys you time to chop veggies and throw them into a skillet or wok to stir fry with sesame oil, soy sauce and sesame seeds. Brown rice is an easy side. Choose a lean protein like salmon (a fish that most kids like) and you’re set.
Any of these options provides enough variation to please every family member without sacrificing flavor, taste or creativity. Even better, all of these themes (and others, too) are easy to fill with veggies and don’t have to be elaborate.
Stretch your meals
“My favorite thing is to take one dish and then, the next day, change it up by making it totally different,” says Pierce. “We love to do a fiesta, a big taco bar. We always make Spanish rice, beans, guacamole – and the next day I’ll layer leftovers into a dip.”
Pierce is fond of hearty vegetable-rich soups, which she’ll take the next day, pour into a piecrust and top with biscuit or cornbread topping.
“Even though we know it’s the same chili, the kids think it’s something new,” Pierce says. “That works with any chili – bean, barley, lentil. Indian dishes are great for that too. They pair so well with a piecrust top.”
Use your microwave
If there’s one thing chef Jeff Sharrow does not want to do after a day in the grocery chain’s kitchen, it’s go home and cook for his family. And yet, Sharrow wants to make sure his young child eats healthy foods.
That’s why he turns to the microwave for help steaming vegetables, cooking potatoes or otherwise creating a health-conscious family meal without strain and stress.
“You can steam all kinds of vegetables in the microwave by simply putting the vegetable in there and covering a little bit with water in the bottom – you retain nutrients that way,” he says. Plus, you can use the cooking liquid as a soup base or to saute with.
Baked potatoes take five to nine minutes to soften in the microwave. Sharrow likes to coat with a thin layer of vegetable oil and wrap in plastic to retain moisture.
For BLT night at the Sharrow household, turkey bacon cooks in the microwave in 35 seconds. Sharrow uses individual whole grain rounds instead of bread.
He also uses the microwave to make infused oils to season meat with. Mix together olive oil, fresh garlic and dried herbs and set in the microwave for 20 seconds. Then spread on bread for garlic bread or use to season meats before roasting.
Familiar, but healthy
“You can feed your kids healthy foods that even taste like they’re not healthy by switching up ingredients,” says Annabel Cohen, a Bloomfield Hills caterer.
For example, make a healthier chicken nugget, suggests Cohen. Buy fresh chicken tenders, dip in egg white and roll in whole-wheat flour. Instead of coating in bread crumbs, grind up a whole wheat healthy cereal in the food processor and use that as the top coating, she says. Then arrange on a cookie sheet and drizzle with a little olive oil and bake.
Mac and cheese, a perennial kid favorite, can go healthy, too. Boil whole grain macaroni and make your own sauce. “Any real cheese is better than powdered stuff,” Cohen says. “Processed cheese is not really cheese. I don’t care what the commercials say.”
Make a sauce out of olive oil, flour, skim milk and a hearty cheddar or fontina cheese. And you can mix in a bunch of options to add nutrients and flavor – cottage cheese for added creaminess without the fat of cream, or diced fresh ham (nitrate-free).
“You’re easing kids out of really crappy food, into medium crappy food and eventually into healthy food,” says Cohen. “When we were growing up, they didn’t have all the chemicals that we have today, and they didn’t eat the quantities we eat today.
“Some things are easy – substitute baked chips for fried chips. Are they as good? No. But they’re still chips. It’s important to go in stages – eventually the bad stuff is gone and you don’t notice it’s missing.”
This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2016.