Save money and feel good about mealtime by preparing some favorite dishes from typical kids’ restaurant menus and prepare them at home.
October 26, 2010
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Picky Eaters and Culinary Adventurers Welcome
A night out to a favorite local restaurant is fun, and children usually go crazy for some of the items on the kids’ menus. But so often those kids’ meals pack more calories, fat, and sodium than our kids need. We’ve selected some typical dishes found on mainstream kids meals and put our spin on them—a healthy, delicious spin that is—so you can prepare them at home.
We offer two options for each dish. The first is a more traditional presentation your kids will be familiar with. And second is for older kids, or those who are bolder and braver in their culinary repertoire. If you have a picky eater on your hands, start with the traditional version and then try to broaden their palettes with a new twist on a classic. Your children are never too young to start exploring new flavors and textures.
2 of 17Photo: John Autry
Ah. The chicken finger. A child’s best friend and so often a parent’s nutritional nightmare. Not any more. We did a number on this kid favorite and made it over in our Pan-Fried Chicken Fingers with Spicy Dipping Sauce. Instead of batter-coated, deep-fried chicken drowning in fatty sauce, our chicken gets a crunchy exterior from cereal.
Our recipe calls for a spicy dipping sauce made with mayo, hot chile sauce, lime juice, and soy. Try reducing or eliminating the hot sauce for kids, or feel free to serve with ketchup or homemade honey mustard by combining ¼ cup honey with ¼ cup mustard.
Up the flavor profile of chicken fingers by offering fried chicken (a kid favorite) with a combo of non-traditional flavors. The technique here still skips deep frying, but the double coating of flour creates a golden crust. A sweet glaze infused with ginger and lemon is admittedly not what the kids are expecting, but is a delicious surprise.
4 of 17Photo: Bob Esparza
Mac & Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is a kid's favorite at home and when dining out, but the options, whether from a menu or the box, don’t always score nutritional points. Our version has all the creamy goodness you expect without powder packets and loads of sodium, fat, and calories. Prepare with whole-wheat macaroni to up the fiber and serve with a side of veggies for a complete meal.
This isn’t such a stretch from traditional mac and cheese, but the addition of green peas is a great way to get some veggies into mealtime. A few slices of bacon add smoky richness, but feel free to omit it if you want to keep this a meatless dish.
Mini-burgers are all the rage at many restaurants, so prepare them at home for a fun family meal. We start with extra lean ground beef and season simply with salt and pepper. This recipe dresses up the burgers with refrigerated pesto and Parmesan cheese, but a traditional topping of ketchup, mustard, and cheddar cheese will do the trick for the kids.
7 of 17Photo: Randy Mayor
Mini Turkey Burgers
Another take on popular sliders, these small bundles are great to control portion size. Challenge your kids’ palettes by introducing blue cheese in these juicy mini burgers. And our “special sauce” combines sweet pickles and mayo for a perfect balance. If blue cheese is too far of a stretch, try feta or mild queso fresco mixed into the turkey burger mixture.
8 of 17Photo: Randy Mayor
Quesadillas are a favorite kids’ menu option, but they often consist of two ingredients: a flour tortilla and cheese (followed by a slathering of butter or oil). Introduce veggies into this kid-favorite to up its nutritional profile. Here we add corn, mushrooms, and green onions, but any combo of your child's favorite veggies will work. This recipe also calls for fresh Anaheim chiles, but ¼ cup canned mild green chiles make a good substitute. A side of mild salsa in a little container makes it seem like you’re at the restaurant.
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Fruit In My Quesadilla?
That may be a question you get from your kids, but encourage them to try Peach and Brie Quesadillas. The sweet-salty combination is a decidedly different twist on the cheesy favorite, combining fresh peach with mild and creamy brie. As is, it's an appetizer, but add cooked pork (which pairs excellently with peaches) to make it a meal, or serve alongside some tasty rice and beans.
10 of 17Photo: John Autry
Chunky Fish Fingers
Flaky breaded fish sticks get a makeover in the oven (rather than the deep-fryer) for a delicious kid-friendly entrée. Pair with mashed peas for a hit of color, or opt for your child’s favorite veggie side. After you master this recipe, you won’t be tempted by that frozen box of fish sticks anymore.
11 of 17Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner
Take the illustrious fish stick and turn up the culinary temperature by serving your family fish tacos. Have the kids help mix a homemade salsa of mango, green tomato, cilantro, and lemon juice, tasting every ingredient before they add to their bowl. If you make the rule “you can’t say you don’t like it until you try it,” you may add some interesting foods to your kids’ favorites.
12 of 17Photo: Randy Mayor
Classic Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese
You can’t go wrong with tomato soup and grilled cheese, and by making your own (and skipping the can or the restaurant version), you’ll save on sodium and other vital nutrition stats as well. Here open-faced broiled cheese toasts pair with a quick tomato soup for comfort food at its best.
A new take on a familiar favorite pairs grilled cheese with a BLT for a luscious veggie-packed sandwich that is a far cry from any kids’ menu selection. Pair with apple slices or grapes for a satisfying meal the grown-ups and kids will enjoy.
14 of 17Photo: Randy Mayor
Our Quick Pizza Margherita takes less than 30 minutes to make, which is less time than it would take a pizza place to deliver to your doorstep. As a bonus, it uses many pantry ingredients you probably have on hand. Let the kids help in the kitchen and you’re sure to have a tableful of eager eaters.
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Turkey Alfredo Pizza
For the day after Thanksgiving, put the house-crazed kids to work making pizza from leftovers. Start with shredded turkey from the day before and add any leftover greens (creamed spinach or collards will work). They could even go crazy and top with cranberry sauce. If it's not Thanksgiving, leftover chicken works just as well as turkey.
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Lady and the Tramp Spaghetti and Meatballs
What’s not to love with this classic pasta dish? Most of the effort goes into forming the meatballs, but they're as easy as meat loaf, but quicker cooking: 6 minutes in a skillet is all it takes. Then add a jar of pasta sauce, serve over spaghetti, and sprinkle with fresh basil and shaved Parmesan.
17 of 17Photo: Gentl & Hyers
Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato Sauce
Shifting from spaghetti with jarred sauce to a lighter sauce made from fresh tomatoes is a good step in helping your little ones appreciate the flavors of fresh vegetables. In this dish, summer-ripe tomatoes are best, but grape tomatoes will do the trick year-round. Roasting tomatoes at a high temperature brings out their natural sweetness, and a topping of salty goat cheese (or parmesan cheese for pickier eaters) adds the perfect balance.