- Whole-wheat or blended spaghetti with organic marinara sauce. You’ll find excellent whole-grain pasta and milder whole-grain blends at natural foods stores. “Taste develops based on what we’re exposed to,” says nutritionist Lisa High, MS, RD. “So if [your kids] don’t like whole-wheat pasta at first, just keep re-exposing them to it. It’s going to give them more fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and will help develop tastes for healthier foods.” Blended varieties tend to be an easier sell, and you still get twice the fiber of regular pasta.
- For a change, “go to the health food store and get those precooked tubes of polenta; it’s made from corn, so it contains protein, alpha-carotene, chromium, and thiamin,” says High. Topped with sauce, polenta offers a nice diversion from pasta or bread. (See recipe below.)
- Canned or bottled tomatoes and sauce provide more lycopene than fresh tomatoes. Toss in minced fresh herbs, such as basil, rosemary, oregano, and garlic. “We don’t think of herbs and spices as nutritional powerhouses, but things like basil, thyme, and oregano offer antioxidants, fiber, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and magnesium,” says High. “Raw garlic helps lower blood cholesterol and is a potent yeast fighter, great for people susceptible to yeast infections.”
- Mixed-grain bread. Try a wheat-blend bread—look for the words whole, 100 percent whole, and bran on the label, says High. Offer olive oil for dipping instead of butter.
- Salad bar with all-natural dressing. Use your food processor to grate or slice carrots, zucchini, cabbage, or red onion; put them on the table in little bowls and encourage everyone to mix-and-match. “Kids can pick whatever they like: cherry or grape tomatoes, dried fruit, raisins, grated cheese or feta cheese, or dried cranberries or dates—anything that is whole food-based and that increases the palatability so they’ll actually eat the salad,” says High.
To top it off, offer a few different types of bottled salad dressing. “Natural foods stores sell brands that actually have really healthy ingredients, and they’ve only added natural vitamin E to preserve it instead of chemical preservatives,” says High. “Just look for one where you can read the ingredient list and know what everything in there is.”
- Organic roast turkey. Switching to organic meat allows you to avoid the antibiotics and added hormones found in conventionally raised poultry. “All-natural, as defined by the USDA, refers to meat and poultry that are minimally processed, with no artificial additives or preservatives,” says High. Organic goes further; these animals are given no antibiotics or growth hormones and eat organically grown feed.
Compared with chicken, white turkey meat is lower in saturated fat, and the dark meat contains iron, often deficient in kids’ diets. Just remember that a bigger bird means a longer cooking time, so start earlier. For added flavor, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and herbs, or stuff the cavity with lemon or onion wedges.
- Colorful root vegetables. Try offering baked sweet potatoes or roasted beets. “Think color! Think variety!” urges High. “The more you expose yourself to the different colors of fruits and vegetables, the wider the variety of antioxidants you will ingest.” Unlike white potatoes, sweet potatoes contain carotenoids, antioxidants that give these spuds their orange and yellow pigments, indicating the presence of beta-carotene, a crucial nutrient for immune function, eye health, and healthy skin. Orange beets also boast carotenoids, and purple beets contain the antioxidants betaine and anthocyanins, good for heart health. Mash sweet potatoes with a little chicken stock and agave nectar, a lower glycemic-index sweetener. Cut red, purple, and orange beets into small cubes, toss with olive oil, and roast to bring out their natural sweetness.
- Carrots steamed in orange juice. “Orange juice is loaded with potassium and folic acid,” says High. Excessive heat destroys its valuable vitamin C, so cook at a low temperature for as little time as possible. (See recipe below.)
- Organic buffalo. “Buffalo can be lower in fat than traditional hamburger,” says High. Because lean meats don’t stick together well, you can use a high-fiber binder, such as oatmeal. (See recipe below.)
- Whole grains with beans and herbs. High recommends whole-wheat couscous or Inca red quinoa, often available in bulk. To that, she adds protein- and fiber-rich kidney beans and a fresh herb or two (“use a little basil or oregano, common seasonings most kids like”), or maybe a dollop of sweet red chili sauce, such as Thai Kitchen brand, which is sweet and not too spicy (“I’ve tried it on a few kids during cooking demos, and they always love it,” says High). Or simply cook grains in broth for extra flavor; top with a peanut sauce to wow your children.
- Steamed fresh or frozen peas with sesame oil. Gentle cooking methods help preserve nutrients. After steaming, drizzle peas with toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds instead of butter (this also works well with asparagus, green beans, carrots, and broccoli). Or toss with citrus zest and toasted sliced almonds.
Elisa Bosley is Delicious Living’s senior food editor.