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Kid-Friendly Dinner Strategies

Preparing a healthy meal for your family at the end of a long day might seem daunting. Factor in fickle taste buds, extreme opinions, and the ice cream fixations of a three-year old eater like my son’s, and I often just want to pour a glass of wine and order take-out around five o’clock.

But I’ve learned a few key strategies to survive that dinnertime panic without calling up the pizza delivery guy or serving yet another box of mac and cheese.

Appetizer Course

It never fails: At 5pm when I start to heat the oil, boil the water, or chop last-minute items, my son says he’s ready for dinner. Yikes.

  • Serve edamame pods. The frozen unshelled pods cook in five minutes, and my son loves them plain. I buy myself some time by serving them whole for my son to pop out of the pods, but if you have a younger eater, opt for the preshelled edamame.
  • Have a homemade veggie tray at the ready. At the beginning of the week, cut up carrots, celery, radishes, cucumbers, cabbage, sweet red bell pepper and broccoli; store them in an air-tight container in the fridge. I pull this box of veggies out when I hear the first whisper of “Is dinner ready yet?”
  • Plain popcorn is amazing: A tiny cup won’t fill up little bellies but will provide a whole grain treat.

Cut Corners

Take it from me — the person who wants to make my own arugula-basil pesto to coat my fresh, homemade whole wheat pasta — it’s okay to buy pre-prepped ingredients to save time. And it makes for a saner cook.

  • Try frozen brown rice to save time at the stove top with a stir-fry.
  • Pick up a rotisserie chicken to make a quick chicken salad. We love Curried Coconut Chicken Salad, and my son helps shred chicken or stirs together the spices for the chicken seasoning.
  • Canned beans are perfect time-savers. This Sweet Corn and Black Bean Salad comes together in a snap with 2 or 3 cans of rinsed and drained black beans. Serve it as a taco filling with shredded rotisserie chicken, cheese and guacamole for an easy dinner.
  • During the week, we take a shortcut and use frozen pizza dough instead of making our own. Little hands can help shape the pizza dough. Load it up with veggies. Broccoli and zucchini on pizza? Yes, please! Try the combo in this Grilled Vegetable Pizza or put your family’s favorite toppings on a Cast Iron Skillet Pizza.  

Quick Cookers

My son loves rice. We’ve been trying to broaden his grain horizons, and it helps to find pastas and whole grains that cook more quickly than rice. I try to always have at least one or two in the pantry to round out a meal in a pinch. Some of our favorites include:

  • Quinoa — Ready in 20 minutes; up the flavor by toasting the grains a minute or two in a dry pan.
  • Couscous — Done in 10 minutes if you’re taking your time.
  • Whole wheat orzo — Acts like rice, but cooks in half the time. We love to sub whole wheat orzo for the wild rice in our versions of this dish with avocado, basil, pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes.

Pizza, Pasta and Potatoes
These are my son’s three food groups. I use this to my advantage, though, and serve new foods (read: vegetables) by using his favorites as the vehicle.

  • For a pizza twist, slather hummus on pizza dough and top with sliced squash and cheese.
  • Toss roasted cauliflower or green beans, canned chickpeas, or sugar snap peas into your pasta to up the nutrition ante and give little eaters something new.
  • Make vegetable “pasta” by slicing long, thin ribbons of zucchini and carrot.
  • Make a potato hash and add broccolini, kale, butternut squash, asparagus, or whatever vegetable you want your kids to try.  Sweet potatoes or frozen shredded potatoes can be great starting points here.

What are some of your strategies for feeding your little ones? I love hearing from other parents about how they encourage their children to try new foods and eat healthfully.

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Wayland63 says …

Our most effective strategy (3 kids) that I also noticed on line are the "theme" dinners that were easy to put together, met all taste bud needs, and we could prep in advance. Mexican night - shred the cheese the night before or task it to a kid if they won't shred fingers as well, cut tomatoes, lettuce, and whatever else you like. We grilled up some ground chicken and heated beans on the stove (they really get heated through and you have time if you put them on right away). I've fallen in love with the totally healthy guac you can get at the store - wish we'd had that! Some taco shells (in our case only if we were feeling flush) and corn/flour tortillas, a bowl of fruit, and voila! Something for everybody. We also loved breakfast for dinner (I pre-mixed batches of the dry for waffles/pancakes/corn break and put them in jars) and would make something special like turkey bacon. Another trick? Heat up the Maple Syrup in a bowl and have everybody use a spoon to put it on their breakfast. Our consumption cut in half. Salad night was fun. I made a green and fruit salad grilling some chicken chopping that up, putting some nuts in a bowl, usually chopped almonds, grating (more) cheese, yogurt for the fruit salad, and the corn bread was a good match. Once in a while I would pick up a legume salad at the store to mix it up. That's all I have! We miss the kids, but don't miss having to plan every dinner and keep all three eating right. When they ask why we don't have an animal, we say, "we just finished raising three!" Okay, our people are a little sarcastic.

jennifer says …

Thanks for these excellant and tasty ideas!!! ~ mother of three :)

Robin says …

I've only got ONE child, and i'm sure it gets exponentially harder with more kids, but I like to cook my own beans and rice and freeze them separately in meal-size portions. It costs only pennies this way, and you know what's in it. With chicken, when you cook some for one meal, cook extra and freeze it. You can also make your own pizza dough, a bunch at a time, and freeze it too. You can even cook and freeze plain pasta! Cookies? Make the dough, use a cookie scoop and freeze the balls on a cookie sheet. Then put them in a container in the freezer and pull only the number you want out and bake! I'm a big believer in freezer cooking! A little work on the weekend, and a good plan and you can have your own convenience food. I love your ideas! I plan to try some of them soon! We're always short on time it seems. My son loves veggies fortunately, and we have a large garden every Summer. We preserve as much as we can so we don't have to buy corn, green beans, tomatoes, ketchup, pickles, etc. We like to roast brussels sprouts, and last year added them to a pizza and it was fantastic!

Rebecca says …

Not really sure how couscous and whole-wheat orzo broaden your child's "grain horizons." Those are exactly the same as pasta!! Just in a different shape! What about bulgar, farroh, etc. etc.

Dawn says …

Love all the ideas but would love to see more that are geared towards families who are stepping into the healthier eating lifestyle and are trying to get their kids to go along with them. These suggestions are great for healthier eating when you start kids on it younger but mine are 10 and 13 and would cringe at eating broccoli on pizza.