Some kids prefer sandwiches without crusts, while others only like plain hamburgers. Kids can be picky eaters, but there are several meals that always seem to be winners.
Yet, these meals are not always filled with the nutrition that kids need. The United States Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines for Americans lays out specific calorie counts and food group amounts for kids based on age, gender and exercise levels. For example, an 8-year-old female with less than 30 minutes of exercise should have about 1,400 calories per day made up of 5 ounces of grains, 1.5 cups of vegetables, 1.5 cups of fruit, 2 cups of milk and 4 ounces of protein [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture].
In this article, we will explore the top 10 kids' meals along with tips for making them a bit healthier.
Did You Know? In 2007, husband-wife families with before-tax income of between $45,800-$77,100 spent an estimated $1,880 per year on food for a child between the ages of 6 and 8 years old, while that amount grew to $2,210 for a child between the ages of 9 and 11 years old [source: United States Department of Agriculture, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion].
A doughy crust with a tomato-based sauce, cheese and toppings has made pizza a favorite with kids and adults. One slice of thin-crust cheese pizza from a medium pizza is about 215 calories [source: U.S Department of Agriculture].
For those delivery nights, Sarah Krieger, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, recommends adding at least one veggie topping to your pizza and going with a thin-crust version. Let your kids choose which veggie they'd like to include.
Ordering pizza can be convenient, but if you make your own, you can have a lot more control over your ingredients [source: Krieger]. Don't worry; you don't have to knead your own dough. Many grocery stores have fresh or frozen varieties. Kids can even help make their own on whole-wheat pita breads.
Chicken nuggets or chicken tenders are great finger foods and also top the list of kid favorites. Easy to eat, chicken tenders are good sources of protein. Yet, some chicken nuggets are fried, making them full of fat and calories. One way to make this meal more nutritious is to add veggies.
"Instead of kids having six to seven tenders, give them two or three chicken tenders with vegetables such as stemmed green beans, broccoli or salad," said Krieger. "The more variety, the better."
If you're buying nuggets or making them yourself, white meat chicken is the best choice [source: Zied]. Making your own allows you to bake the nuggets instead of frying them.
The classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich has been a lunchbox staple for years. This popular sandwich is actually a good meal choice in moderation. According to Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, registered dietitian with Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and American Dietetic Association spokesperson, peanut butter is filled with protein, which helps to fill kids up, and monounsaturated fats, a healthier form of fat. Elisa Zied, registered dietitian, author of "Feed Your Family Right!" and American Dietetic Association spokesperson, recommends going with natural peanut butter or reduced-fat peanut butter for a healthier sandwich and whole-wheat bread to add some fiber.
For the sweetness factor, add jelly. Just keep it to 100 percent fruit spread for a healthier twist [source: Krieger].
Made famous by the marketers of fast food franchises, hamburgers are another favorite with kids. Hamburgers are high in protein, but they can also be high in fat, calories and sodium. Krieger recommends that hamburgers be an occasional food, like once a week. Even if you're going to try to lighten them up by making your own turkey or veggie variety, they can still contain a lot of sodium.
Condiments can be a great way to add nutrition to a burger. "If parents start putting lots of different types of lettuces like arugula, spinach or romaine, on their burgers, the children are most likely going to want to try what their parents are putting on," says Krieger.
Did You Know? According to the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, around 19 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are overweight in the United States [source: U.S. DOH, CDC].
Pasta and cheese seem to make the perfect combination for a quick, hot meal that kids love. One cup of macaroni and cheese from a packaged mix packs an estimated 260 calories and counts for two grains and one-half milk portion [source: U.S Department of Agriculture]. Many store-bought macaroni and cheese brands do offer a healthier alternative preparation. Brands are also offering whole-wheat pasta options.
If you want to take it a step further and make your own at home, use whole-wheat pasta, but vary the shapes -- elbow, bow tie or corkscrew -- for a different look [source: Zied]. For a creamy, at-home macaroni and cheese, Zied recommends mixing low-fat American cheese or mozzarella and skim milk into the hot noodles.
A ballpark favorite, hot dogs are also popular with kids for lunch and dinner. These processed meat products can have around 150 calories and more than 10 grams of fat per serving [source: Ball Park Products, Kraft Foods, Vienna Beef]. Krieger recommends that, much like hamburgers, hot dogs should be only occasional foods, around once a week or less, because even the low-fat or veggie versions can be very high in sodium.
For a more balanced meal, skip the usual side of fries. Instead, Zied recommends pairing the hot dog with a fruit or vegetable that is high in vitamin C, such as an orange, to help the kids absorb the iron in the hot dog. Low-fat coleslaw or pineapple chunks are also good options [source: Zied].
Whether made at home or eaten at an Italian restaurant, spaghetti is usually a crowd pleaser. The tomato-based sauce has a lot of potassium and lycopene, making it a healthy choice [source: Tanner-Blasiar]. Since spaghetti sauce is basically a vegetable sauce, it can be lower in fat and calories than a cream-based sauce, such as Alfredo [Tanner-Blasiar]. To add even more nutrients, try pureeing additional vegetables, such as green peppers, and throwing them into the sauce [source: Zied].
If adding meat to the mix, use lean cuts. "Drain and rinse your ground beef; even if it was a higher fat, a lot of that cooks off, but you don't want to pour the rest into the sauce," says Tanner-Blasiar.
For the pasta portion, whole-wheat pastas are a better choice than white ones [source: Zied].
Simple and easy to make, grilled cheese is a hot, kid-friendly sandwich. According to Tanner-Blasiar, cheese is a good source of both calcium and protein, but she recommends choosing a low-fat variety. A great way to add fiber to the meal is by adding whole-wheat or whole-grain bread [sources: Tanner-Blasiar, Krieger]. Instead of using butter that can add calories and fat to a grilled cheese, Krieger recommends going with a butter spray or a cooking spray.
For a well-balanced meal, add vegetables and fruits to the mix. "As a parent, encourage a variety of colors when making a meal," says Tanner-Blasiar. "These different colors bring with them different vitamins and minerals."
A treat from south of the border, tacos usually contain a type of meat, cheese, tomatoes and lettuce all wrapped in either a hard or a soft shell. Tacos can be personalized to fit different taste buds, so they're perfect for kid palates. Hard taco shells are usually deep-fried, so a 100 percent corn or whole-wheat tortilla is a healthier choice [source: Krieger]. Due to the taco seasonings, lean ground beef, turkey or ground veggie crumbles will have a similar taste to higher fat versions, without the fat [source: Krieger].
For individualization, you can add different sauces. Salsa lovers can pile it on because it counts as a vegetable [source: Krieger]. For kids that like green guacamole, it's a good choice because of the healthier monounsaturated fats, but it's high in calories, so it should be used in moderation [source: Krieger]. Finally, if your kids like sour cream, keep it to the low-fat version.
A perfect dinner for a cold day, chicken-noodle soup is another kid favorite. This classic soup can be homemade or from a can and usually includes chicken, noodles, carrots, celery and onions. Soups can be high in sodium, so look for reduced sodium varieties; encourage your children to have a glass of water with lunch or dinner to quench their thirst [source: Tanner-Blasiar].
Even though chicken is in the name of this meal, make sure that your soup actually has large chicken chunks. "Often times the protein is minimal because it is a little bit of chicken and a lot of broth," says Tanner-Blasiar. "If that is the case, think of a protein source to add with it." Protein-filled options include peanut butter with crackers or yogurt [source: Tanner-Blasiar].
While many kid favorites may not be very healthy, a few subtle changes can help to infuse those meals with the healthful qualities they were lacking.
Kids are more likely to eat food they've helped to prepare. Here are 5 Italian dishes kids can make from HowStuffWorks.
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