Mom and dad have their own food goals. They may be trying to lose weight, control blood sugar, lower blood pressure or just eat healthy for energy, long term health and prevention of illnesses. Their children, on the other hand, want to eat their favorite foods that may not be in line with what mom and dad need or want. Enter the never-ending family dilemma: what to prepare for dinner that makes everyone happy? Something delicious and nutritious for everyone that doesn’t feel like you’re trying to run a restaurant?
Nowadays, we tend to think that all packaged products are bad for us. And while the intentions are good around this recommendation to minimize/avoid processed and packaged food, it often leaves parents feeling guilty when it comes to meal time and trying to meet everyone’s needs and preferences.
Here are 5 of my favorite family friendly meals that can be made nutritious and delicious for everyone:
Tex Mex Night
A quick, easy and go-to dinner for many families. It’s great for kids to get involved and build their own burrito, quesadilla, tacos or bowls, but it’s often lacking in veggies and is relatively carb-heavy.
Pick a lean protein like shrimp, fish, chicken, extra lean ground beef or ground turkey breast. You can keep it vegetarian by using beans and lentils.
Store bought seasonings are relatively high in sodium, but for ease try to select the reduced sodium packets if you can’t make time to prepare your own seasoning mixture.
Pick one source of fiber-rich carb, whether it’s whole grain corn tortillas or tortilla chips for something like nachos. Consider skipping the added step of preparing rice (along with the additional source of carbs if already opting for a tortilla).
Veggies tend to be on the lighter side unless you make a taco salad or really layer on the lettuce on a taco, although there’s only so much you can squeeze into one taco. Making cauliflower rice is a great vegetable option to offer! The bonus is it also acts like the rice component that most want!
Key makeover ingredient: any brand of fresh, frozen or DIY version of cauliflower rice!
Pizza night is a favorite by all, but carb-heavy and often veggie lacking – like with most meals. It’s a great opportunity for parents of even the pickiest of eaters to be able to have a favorite meal on the table but feel their children are getting some nutrition.
Start with a crust. Whether you make your own dough and can add in some whole wheat pastry flour or buy a pre-made one, there are lots of 100% whole grain versions. If feeling adventurous there’s even cauliflower pizza crust. Homemade versions can consist of nothing but cauliflower, eggs, parmesan cheese and seasoning and while some store-bought versions add in some carbs – like brown rice flour – it’s still a decent option and a great way to get kids to eat some veggies. 100% whole wheat mini bagels are also a fun homemade version compared to the enriched Annie’s bagel pizzas.
Store bought marinara sauces are mostly tomatoes with seasoning and spices and are fine to use. Sal & Judy’s Heart Smart sauce is a nice one to keep on hand when in a pinch. You can also make your own or even doctor up your favorite brand by sautéing some veggies your kids don’t normally eat and blending them into the premade jar. Zucchini, squash, mushrooms all work well here.
Go easy on the cheese, you may even consider at 2% variety. It’s heavy in animal-based saturated fats, so sprinkling a little all over can really go a long way.
Toppings: let the kids pick their own toppings. Place a variety of veggies in small bowls and let the kids build their own pizza. Proteins work well too, use shredded chicken, shrimp and ham slices. You can really get creative and keep it healthy for all!
Key makeover ingredients: Outer Aisle Gourmet or Caulipower cauliflower pizza crusts
Whole grain pasta is always preferable but are not always the desired texture and flavor. Not to mention it is then a calorie and carb-heavy meal.
Veggies like spiralized zucchini and spaghetti squash make great pasta swaps for the parents, but kids may be more inclined to try legume pastas like red or green lentil pasta. They have a subtler flavor and can blend into pasta sauce like regular pasta. It’s a great meal to serve on meatless Monday but still get in enough protein to stay full and satisfied after the meal.
Key makeover ingredient: Tolerant, POW, or Lensi lentil pasta
Chicken nuggets are a classic meal requested by kids that parents will often utilize as a family go-to. You can rest assured these days that there are actually some wholesome 100% whole grain options available that you can feel good about giving your kids at home! Pair it with a veggie, even something like the cauliflower or broccoli tots, found in the frozen section of most stores, is a relatively nutritious option. They are a mix of cauliflower or broccoli with potato, but they are better than just all white potato with high starchiness, and lower nutritional value. Mac and cheese is another go-to meal pairing, but there are even chickpea-based pasta mac & cheese boxes which makes it convenient for parents, tasty for kids, and bumps up the fiber, protein and nutrients more than traditional boxes of the kid-approved favorite.
Key makeover ingredient: Banza Mac & Cheese and Tyson Naturals 100% Whole Grain Chicken Breast Chunks
Soup & Grilled Cheese
This may not be a crave-able favorite, but for ease it can be convenient, tasty and still pack in the nutrients. Soups often have high sodium contents, enriched flour pastas, little protein and fiber. Grilled cheese helps to increase those lacking nutrients with the protein content in cheese and fiber in whole grain bread. Mixing in plain Greek yogurt with shredded 2% cheese and a dollop of a pureed veggie such as pumpkin, canned squash or even simple baby food (for minimal effort) makes something like a healthier-style pimento cheese. Spread that on the bread before grilling and you have a much more nutrient rich grilled cheese! A lower sodium soup with veggies is also another way to get your kids to try different veggies.
Key makeover ingredient: Amy’s Organic Soups Lentil Vegetable – Light in Sodium
If you have questions about these recommendations and how to put them into a meal plan for you and your family – especially regarding specific portion sizes or needing adjustments to include food intolerances, picky eaters, etc. – feel free to contact Rebecca.
Rebecca Miller, MPH, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist with Ochsner Fitness Center. She also writes a blog called Twisted Nutrition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.842.9551.