My mother’s idea of healthy meals was vitamin-fortified, chemical-laced, boxed foods and microwaved meals, with a side serving of an artificially-colored and flavored children’s vitamin. Cooking from scratch and feeding our children a health-giving diet that they will like does not come naturally to many of us because we were not raised this way ourselves. A parent’s greatest challenge in today’s fast-paced, fast-food world is how to prepare nutrient-dense foods that their children will love. Children are faced with so many sugar and “bad fat” choices when they eat away from home that they can acquire a taste for poor food choices despite our best efforts. Making sure that every bite counts when children are at home, as well as getting a wide range of nutrient-dense foods into our children and educating them as to why we make certain food choices in our homes can make long strides towards helping them develop a preference for healthy and nourishing foods.
The easiest way to get a child to enjoy and appreciate a wide variety of foods on a nutrient-dense diet is to raise them that way from preconception - that means you making those healthy food choices from at least 6 months before conceiving your child! However, you might not have learned about traditional foods until they were a little older. Or perhaps you have a spouse or other family member actively sabotaging your best efforts at providing healthy fare. Whether you have to hide certain foods and take the “stealth nutrition” approach with older children or are looking for a way to get even more nutrient density into your meals when the kids help cook, there are many routes you can take.
Tame the Sugar Monster
The first step in helping children to eat more nutrient-dense foods is to tame the sugar monster. Children naturally have a higher need for carbohydrates than adults, but they often strongly express that need in terms of cravings for sugar and refined carbs. To reduce empty carb intake, first switch your children from store-bought foods to homemade ones. Next, switch from table sugar and corn syrup to rapadura and honey or maple syrup, then gradually reduce the amount in the recipe while upping the fat content if the recipe will accommodate it. You can slowly cut the amount of sugar called for in most recipes by half over a period of a few months without children noticing a drastic change. Once the children have adjusted to a lower sugar intake, you can begin switching snacks from high carb choices such as cakes and muffins to higher fat and protein snacks such as coconut oil fudge or a smoothie. If you have to take an intermediate step, move from choices like chocolate cake to carrot cake, then move to high-fat snacks. They still get something slightly sweet and it feels like a treat, but it’s a much healthier choice.
New Tastes and Textures
There are many nutrient-dense foods that children (and some adults) initially reject because the flavor or texture is unfamiliar. For some children, this can change with time, but for others it is a constant battle for the parent facing constant rejection of the food they prepare. Here are some good ideas for getting down nutrient-dense items that aren’t familiar to the modern-day palate.
Cod Liver Oil and Butter Oil
- Mix with an equal amount of fruit juice concentrate or blackstrap molasses. They are so strongly flavored that it covers the taste.
- Offer one jiggler (see recipe below), cracker, or chocolate chip afterwards for taking it without complaint.
- Mix into a smoothie.
- Mix into a small amount of orange juice.
- Sprinkle on top of eggs.
- Mix with a soft-boiled egg yolk and serve in an egg cup.
- Use a flavored cod liver oil. Most children are more accepting of the cinnamon or orange flavored than the plain.
- Butter Oil can be melted on top of toast or in a bowl of hot cereal.
- To help get good fats into your child, make avocado pudding. Mix mashed avocado, banana, stevia or honey and cocoa powder until it has a pudding (custard or blanc-mange) consistency.
- Add sautéed veggies to your spaghetti sauce, marinara, pizza sauce, or other tomato-based sauce and simmer until completely tender. Puree with a food processor, blender, or stick blender until smooth, if you need to hide it entirely.
- Add spaghetti squash to any pasta dish.
- Place finely chopped spinach into lasagna. Thaw, squeeze thoroughly, chop and place in the meat sauce or as a separate layer in the lasagna.
- Green smoothies hide the taste of leafy greens nicely. Using a berry as the fruit hides the green color.
- Also use the smoothie mix to make popsicles or shaved ice for snowcones.
- Put shredded carrot or zucchini into banana breads and other baked goods. This is especially helpful for baked goods that need extra moisture.
- Add shredded and cooked zucchini, carrots, eggplant, and mushrooms into cooked ground (minced) meat dishes such as tacos and sloppy joes.
- Add shredded and cooked carrots or squash to macaroni and cheese.
- Puree greens such as kale into a salad dressing made in your blender.
- Grind (mince) in a ratio of one part organ meat (liver, heart) to three or four parts ground (minced) meat. Great for making strongly-flavored dishes like spaghetti, meatballs, meatloaf, and tacos without a noticeable change in taste or texture. A tomato-based sauce hides liver especially well.
- Make chicken liver pate as a dip for veggies or crackers.
- Briefly soak liver in buttermilk or lemon juice and rinse before using.
- Make warmed chocolate milk by combining any combination of dairy milk/cream or coconut milk/cream, honey or maple syrup, cocoa powder and coconut oil on the stove and heat until warmed through and the coconut oil has melted.
- Use it to fry or scramble eggs.
- Melt on top of any hot drink.
- Make a low-sugar egg custard dessert and add an extra tablespoon or two of coconut oil to the recipe.
- Use it in place of any fat for cooking.
- Make coconut oil candy by combining coconut oil, nut butter, cocoa powder, cacao nibs, raw butter, shredded coconut, raw honey, and anything else you would like. Portion into ice cube trays or pour into a lined 8×8 inch (20×20 cm) pan and place in the fridge to harden.
- When making a fruit- or dairy-based smoothie, mix the coconut oil with the egg yolk before adding any other ingredients. This will emulsify the oil and keep it from clumping.
- Make coconut milk into jigglers.
- Make reduction sauces or dips from pan drippings and a small amount of stock with every meat dish.
- In the winter, heat stock up and serve it as a drink. Melt a little coconut oil on top.
- Cook your grains in stock instead of plain water.
- In the winter, serve a small soup course every night before dinner.
- Pour leftover raw milk smoothie into popsicles or place into ice cube trays and make snowcones.
- Make kefir cheese and use it as cream cheese replacement in dips.
- If your child drinks juice, add a splash of whey to provide minerals.
Novelty and Creativity
Finally, sometimes presenting new dishes in kid-friendly ways will entice them to try new things. Small things such as making meatloaf in muffin tins instead of a loaf shape often gets better reviews from kids. Here are some recipes that get rave reviews from guests at our table who are not familiar with traditional foods:
3 cups coconut milk
4 Tbs plain gelatin
1 tsp vanilla
¼ cup raw honey, or to taste
Place coconut milk into a saucepan and sprinkle gelatin over top. Allow to sit undisturbed for 15 minutes to soften, then bring to a boil, stirring regularly. Turn off the heat, cool for 15 minutes and stir in vanilla and raw honey. Pour into a greased 9×13 inch (23×33 cm) pan and chill until set. Once set, you can cut into squares or shapes with cookie (biscuit) cutters.
Barbeque Glazed Turkey Meatballs
My whole family loves this recipe and this is my husband’s favorite meatball recipe. While it is true that cooking the sauerkraut does kill the probiotics, the vitamins and minerals are still retained. This also makes an awesome appetizer when made into small balls and baked, then put in a crock-pot with the jelly mixture to keep warm until serving. You can include one or two ounces (28-57 g) of grated beef liver in with meatballs if you use minced beef, but I have found that minced turkey is too moist to allow the meatball to hold together with the inclusion of the liver, and the taste of the liver can be more noticeable since turkey is so mild.
1 lb minced beef or turkey
3/4 cup sauerkraut, well-drained and finely chopped
6 Tbs barbecue sauce, recipe below
2 Tbs coconut or red palm oil
3 Tbs – ½ cup grape jelly or plum jam
Heat oven to 375F/190C. Oil a jelly (swiss) roll pan and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the meat, sauerkraut and 3 Tbs of the barbecue sauce. Shape mixture into meatballs about ¾ to 1-inch/1.5-2.5 cm in diameter. Bake about 25 minutes. They will still be pink in the center.
Meanwhile, heat remaining 3 Tbs barbeque sauce, coconut oil and jelly (jam) in a large skillet over low heat until the jelly (jam) melts. Add meatballs, carefully turning and continuing to heat until the meatballs are hot, no longer pink in the middle, and completely glazed.
Mama’s Secret Barbeque Sauce
This is my version of my mother’s recipe. The pickle juice is the secret ingredient.
1 cup ketchup (tomato sauce)
½ cup chicken stock or water
2 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbs rapadura or honey
1 Tbs coconut oil
1 Tbs dill pickle juice
1 Tbs prepared yellow mustard
1 Tbs lemon juice
1½ tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp Kelp with cayenne granules, optional (or kelp powder with a pinch of cayenne)
In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for about 30 minutes. Adjust sweetness to your family’s taste preference. Makes about 2 cups. This freezes well.
My kids love this sloppy joe recipe. And I love that it’s a great way to get veggies into them in a way they love. When I serve this recipe, my kids normally each eat a full adult serving. This freezes beautifully.
2 Tbs coconut oil
1 cup (or more) cabbage, finely shredded
½ onion, diced
1 celery rib (stalk), finely diced
¼ bell pepper (capsicum), finely diced
1 carrot, grated
½ lb/250 g ground (minced) beef
2 ounces/55 g beef liver, finely chopped or grated, optional
½ cup ketchup (tomato sauce)
1 Tbs rapadura, optional
1 Tbs lemon juice
½ Tbs white vinegar
½ Tbs Worcestershire sauce
½ Tbs prepared yellow mustard
1 tsp salt
4 or more sandwich rolls, split, optional
In a large skillet, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. Cook the cabbage, onion, celery and green pepper (capsicum) until it is completely soft, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add beef and liver and brown until meat is no longer pink. Drain if needed. Stir in the ketchup (tomato sauce), rapadura, lemon juice, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for 10-20 minutes or until cabbage is completely tender and the flavors are blended.
If you need to hide the veggies in the sauce, brown the beef and liver in a separate skillet and set it aside until the sauce has cooked for 30-40 minutes and the vegetables are completely tender. Puree the sauce then add in the cooked meat and simmer 15 minutes or until it reaches the desired consistency.
¼ lb/125 g or less beef liver, optional
3 tbs coconut oil
1 large onion, diced
2 medium carrots, chopped or shredded
1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced or diced, optional
1 medium bell pepper, chopped
1 large zucchini, shredded or cubed
2 ribs (stalks) celery, finely chopped
1 lb/500 g ground (minced) beef
2 cans (14 1/2 ounces/400 g each) diced tomatoes, undrained
1 can (15 ounces/425 g) tomato sauce (puree)
1 can (6 ounces/ 175 g) tomato paste
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ - ¾ tsp salt
½ tsp fennel seed, crushed
1/8 tsp pepper
2 tsp Italian Seasoning
In a food processor, pulse the beef liver until finely ground (minced). Set aside. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook veggies in oil, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add beef and liver and cook until no longer pink; drain fat if needed. Stir in remaining ingredients. Cover and cook on lowest heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover and stir well. Cook uncovered on high heat, stirring often, until sauce is desired consistency. This freezes well.
My little girl, who isn’t fond of chicken legs, loves this recipe. It’s the sesame seeds. I fixed this for lunch and accidentally left off the seeds, and that was the first thing she asked for when I brought her plate to the table. I quickly retrieved the seeds from the fridge and made everything right again.
4 chicken breasts, 4 chicken thighs or 8 drumsticks
¾ cup tamari
2 Tbs coconut oil or butter, melted
1 Tbs curry powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1 garlic clove, pressed
2 dashes hot (chilli) sauce, optional
¼ cup sesame seeds
Preheat the oven to 350F/175C degrees. Arrange chicken skin side up in one layer in a baking pan. In a small bowl, whisk together everything but the sesame seeds. Spread the mixture over the chicken and chill for a few hours. Sprinkle sesame seeds over the chicken and bake uncovered for 30-40 minutes for breasts, 35-45 minutes for drumsticks or 40-50 minutes for thighs, until chicken is golden and a thermometer registers 165F/75C in the thickest part of the meat.
About the Author...
KerryAnn Foster lives in Asheville, NC with her husband and two children. She runs Cooking Traditional Foods, a website and forum dedicated to nutrient-dense, family-friendly meals that children will love. KerryAnn’s weekly Menu Mailers are available in both American and Australian versions. KerryAnn homeschools her children and is actively involved in the breastfeeding and attachment parenting community. KerryAnn’s first cookbook on children’s favorite nutrient-dense recipes will be available this summer.