Cooking for Kids: A Survival Guide
Not being a parent myself, this issue only arises for me from time to time. Like when a close friend in the middle of a “trying to accommodate my new boyfriend and his teens” meltdown recently asked me for some fun and frugal suggestions that would accommodate the masses and not leave her feeling financially drained or put upon. When I asked her why she couldn't expect them to respectfully partake of whatever she prepared, she looked at me like I'd sprouted a second head. This article is a result of the discussion and research session that followed.
Since I admittedly lean towards the old school on this issue, and my friend is willing to accommodate children in ways I consider equivalent to standing on her head and whistling custom-seasoned versions of home cooked Dixie, I remain unconvinced we'll ever come to a precise middle ground. While I expect respect for my efforts, particularly for unexpected company, I have to admit there are some frequent allowances I am willing to make, and indeed have made in the past. And, since we are so similar in other areas however, her shock and horror at my response prompted me to delve further into this issue.
One of my first stops? The Wise Bread forums. Lynnae from Being Frugal was here, answering questions for our readers. While I was glad to have my belief in structure and expectations agreed with, the fact that Lynnae's philosophy was very similar to mine wasn't exactly giving my friend what she felt she needed, although including at least one healthy side dish that all enjoy was a help. So I asked around some more. The sister of a close friend of mine is seeing a man with a young son. Her solution? Serving a separate food option altogether. While I respect the devotion to blended family harmony and relationship balance this has to take, it just didn't seem practical to me. Wasn't exactly ringing my friend's bell either.
But I was starting to notice a pattern: Mealtime child accommodation issues with people who may not technically be family. Then I remembered a long forgotten relationship with a man during my early twenties (which ended badly by the way, with this mealtime madness being one of the recurring nightmares of our brief time together) where I struggled to find balance with this very situation. Reflecting further, one critical difference I see with how most moms (or dads who cook) may handle this scene and the strategies that significant others and cooks in blended families have available to them is authority. Until a relationship has progressed to the point where these issues have been thoroughly hammered out between partners, which depending on the couple can take years, mealtimes can be delicate diplomatic affairs. Without getting too far off topic, it was clear to me that a large group of people are also in a similar situation, and do not necessarily feel they are in a position to lay down the law, so to speak. Others may simply be willing to go a bit further in letting the children have some flexibility at the dinner table. Whatever your situation or reasons for needing kid friendly meal strategies, this article's for you. Here we go!
Tips and Hacks
Focus on the fun factor.
I'm not saying you need to spend every afternoon building Eiffel Tower models out of string beans or creating Mount Rushmore from your mashed potatoes. Quite frankly, who has the time? While I don't personally feel the obligation to put on a show every single time, here are a few things I'm willing to do when the mood strikes me:
- Poke a stick in it. Toothpicks for cheese cubes and chicken nuggets, pineapple chunk and red seedless grape fruit kabobs, and terriyaki skewers all come to mind.
- Dunking is delightful. Veggies or fruits with dip, bread sticks with soup and family fondue night are all suitably fun filled and affordable.
- Hot dog rolls. Not only are these great for travel sandwiches in general, but kids really dig anything put into these. So pick them up at the bread thrift store if you have to, toast 'em up in the oven and consider using them for tuna salad, sloppy Joes, pulled pork and more. Here are even more sandwich ideas to help you take hot dog rolls to the next level on a regular basis.
Simple substitutions for sides.
While I am by no means willing to custom cook an additional side dish once menu plans have already commenced and prep work begun, I could be persuaded to allow the following no fuss substitutions if available: mixed salad greens with French dressing, apple wedges or raw carrots. Got another idea? I'm sure others struggling with this issue would appreciate your suggestions.
Dressings as dips.
This is one of my all time favorite food hacks because I know I can pick them up cheap with coupons and easily store them in bulk without a freezer or refrigerator. Since dunking is popular with kids of all ages, and many children I know will eat nearly anything if properly sauced, this is one of those affordable no-brainers I'm more than willing to incorporate. It even came in handy for us when we were living more remotely. We had a barbie fridge when we first moved in, and larger sizes of everything were harder to accommodate. My favorite three? Ranch, blue cheese and honey mustard. The blue cheese and honey mustard are great for appetizer night, and ranch always comes in handy for veggie stick trays. Just open a single jar when needed and you will only have that smaller container to refrigerate afterwards. There are many dressings I prefer to make from scratch, but these ones are so multi purpose and affordable, I don't mind stocking them in the pantry. Some ideas?
- Buffalo chicken nuggets with celery sticks served with the blue cheese dressing and a side of rice.
- Sauteed sliced kielbasa with toothpicks and honey mustard for dipping served with a broccoli mac and cheese casserole.
- Hot oven sandwich night with carrot sticks and ranch for crunch factor. Quick and kid-friendly. Gotta love that.
I love this idea because it incorporates some individual choice into a nutritionally balanced dinner plan while still landing on the side of parental respect regarding the efforts put into preparing a meal. One of the healthiest kid-friendly dinner parties my husband and I ever attended was an Indian curry themed self serve bar served family style. Everyone had bowls of rice with the tomato-based spicy curry spooned over the top and there was a selection of topping bowls with spoons in the middle of the table. It was a long table with people seated across from each other, so all toppings were in easy reach. The hostess arranged things with two sets of topping bowls in one long row separated by a centerpiece. Toppings included chopped nuts, coconut, chopped apple, sliced scallions, etc. Youngsters and adults alike enjoyed this ethnic, grown up, restaurant quality meal. Other ways to enjoy this strategy?
- Ice cream buffets. You can provide a fair amount of choice here without breaking the bank. Chocolate and caramel sauce, chopped nuts, a sprinkle option or two, crushed Oreos and whipped cream are all things that you could try out. This is one I'd only go through the effort for when a special event or party rolled around, but that's just me.
- Potato topping bars. While there of loads of things you can do with potatoes, topping bar night is a super affordable way to feed not just your children, but a crowd as well. Low carb tip? Since chili is an excellent potato topper and low carb to boot, consider picking up a large supply at the warehouse store. Many of the topping ideas that work for potatoes work for chili as well, so you can easily score a two-fer with no extra planning.
- Create your own gourmet pizza night featuring a choice between traditional sauce and toppings or a Thai peanut sauce with chopped chicken and scallions. Pinching pennies? Here's a recipe for DIY bulk pizza crust mix.
- Salad bar night where everyone starts with a basic mixed green and grape tomato base and selects from a selection of various add-ins.
- Try a soup topper buffet, featuring for example turkey sausage and noodles in a healthy tomato based broth with some veggie purees snuck in on the sly and served with a selection of shredded cheese, chopped onions, green peppers, bacon flavored TVP bits, low fat sour cream, etc.
A radical concept to some, I'm sure. I'm not saying let them spoil their dinner. The trick here is to go super light and healthy to eliminate crankiness prior to sitting down to the main event. They'll also be more inclined to help cook, a strategy that works well for adults too. Think celery sticks, apple wedges to share, raisins, or perhaps a tiny bit of DIY string cheese. Not only will the mood be better when you all sit down to share the main meal, but if you are serving creamed spinach as a side and cajoling them to take more than two bites isn't something you see happening in the immediate future, you'll know they've consumed something besides buttered noodles.
Allow yourself a few conveniences.
My absolute favorite affordable convenience food is Stouffer's large family size meat lasagna. Even at full price in a higher end grocery store, it comes out to a price I would have a hard time making it for. But when I recently saw them at Save-A-Lot for just under seven bucks, I nearly went nuclear with excitement. Jazzed up with a decent homemade salad and some garlic bread, this makes a nice sit down dinner that doesn't feel at all like it came out of a box. Bonus? Most kids dig it. Find an affordable kid-friendly convenience item that works for you and round it out with a few simple sides. As for me, I'm going to be stocking my freezer with my newfound Stouffer's source as soon as I can get it delivered.
Get 'em in the game.
In addition to having them help with even the simplest things like pouring ice water for everyone, setting the table, picking out the napkin fold, etc, consider incorporating conversation starters to get things rolling before everyone sits down. This takes the focus away from “what might be on my plate that I don't want to eat” to what's going on in the family discussion. Some ideas? Pre-assigned fun topics such as slime versus silly putty, current events, or using some of the question cards from conversational–style board games to get you started.
Books and Links
- Deceptively Delicious, by Jessica Seinfeld. I only recently had a chance to check out this book while visiting a friend, and admit to being pleasantly surprised. I had expected an outrageous list of ingredient suggestions that only the super rich could afford. And while avacado puree (while something I love as a sandwich spread ) may be a bit out of anyone's reach to incorporate more than once a week, many of Jessica's puree suggestions were for super affordable vegetables such as cauliflower and squash. Another surprise was how similarly her pantry stocking strategies and chosen ingredients were to mine. For those that think this book doesn't include any “grown up” recipes, I encourage you to check out the baked doughnuts sprinkled with powdered sugar, and the amped up couscous with lower calories and more nutritional punch.
- The Complete Tightwad Gazette, by Amy Dacyczyn. While not normally considered a food book, there are several recipes in this title that in my humble opinion fall firmly within the category of extreme thrift. And remember, Amy pulled off some minor to moderate financial miracles with several kids along for the ride. The countless additional ideas and strategies in this book also make it an excellent overall budget resource and addition to anyone's personal library of thrift.
- As for links, I found several of note including these from CD Kitchen, Meals Matter and VegKitchen.Com. For those who may be working with public assistance resources, here's a link featuring child-friendly recipe ideas using foods provided by the WIC program. Additionally, Wise Bread's own Julie Rains wrote this nifty little clean eating article over on Parenting Squad.
Themes and Menu Suggestions
Meatball subs with veggie sticks and baked chips , customizable alfredo, affordable carbonara with leftover sale ham, angel hair with pesto and grissini, and bread sticks with multi purpose marinara are all simple and affordable ways to go with this theme night. Many tasty Italian dishes can be created inexpensively, and the cuisine is hugely popular with children, making it a sure winner.
This theme allows for tremendous diversity in the planning stage, which honors their likes and dislikes as well as yours. Bonus? The fun factor is huge, setting up a high probability for trying new things. Mozzarella sticks, healthy chicken nuggets, healthy rectangular pizza cut into smaller bars, spinach pinwheels, potato skins, fruit kabobs, stuffed mushrooms and anti-pasta skewers are all suggestions that would fit in with this type of theme.
Try a Tex-Mex theme.
Fire up your money saving crock pot and toss in a roast with taco seasoning. Have some tortillas and a toppings selection available. Other ideas? Bean burrito wraps, chicken filled quesadillas, or a corn and black bean dinner salad with salsa for dressing. This is another type of cuisine with loads of kid-approved menu options.
While some of the more exotic dishes might not fly with the toddler crowd, there are plenty of simplified versions of Asian inspired menus out there to keep the kids happy. A few ideas would be fried rice, lo mein, grilled chicken skewers with rice and peanut sauce, simple stir fry, etc.
Breakfast for dinner.
Not only is breakfast a dirt cheap way to get dinner on the table fast, it's also a theme category with loads of ways to keep things running smoothly on the kid front. ( Think waffles with fruit, whole grain pancakes, breakfast casseroles, oatmeal with toppings bar and breakfast burritos with homemade tortillas. ) What I love about this theme is that it takes a yummy meal that most folks have no time to enjoy on a daily basis and brings it center stage for family time.
This is as much detail as I can think of to put into this post. I'm not a parent (unless you count canines), but my husband and I did have a teenager live with us for nearly a year during a time of transition for her family. I've also spent years observing lunch and snack sessions from a teacher's perspective and noticing how other parents I respect handle this on the home front. Any other folks who have some ideas on how to walk the discipline line while providing meals your whole family can enjoy, as always . . . share the love in the comment section below.