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How to Cook Healthy Meals for Children

Updated on August 6, 2020
VirginiaLynne profile image

Having lost 50 pounds and kept the weight off for over 10 years, VirginiaLynne seeks to help others reach and maintain a healthy weight.

What is a Healthy Meal?

The first step in cooking healthy for kids is setting your goals. There are lots of different ways to do healthy cooking. Some people want to cook with all organic produce, or avoid sugars altogether, or get their kids to eat vegetarian meals. As a practical, busy mom, my goal has been to make gradual changes to add:

  • More whole grains.
  • More vegetables and fruits.
  • Less fat.
  • Less sugar.
  • Fewer processed foods.

However, I don't want a rebellion at home over food. So I also decided to:

  • Try to alter familiar recipes my family likes to make them more healthy.
  • Make healthy substitutions my family wouldn't notice.
  • Involve my kids in making choices and cooking healthy foods.

What is Healthy Eating for Kids?

Average Calories Needed
Milk/Dairy daily
lean meat/beans
percentage of calories from fat
2 cups
1.5 oz.
1 cup
3/4 cup
2 oz.
2 cups
2 oz.
1 cup
1 cup
3 oz.
4-8 Boys
2 cups
4 oz.
1.5 cups
1.5 cup
5 oz.
4-8 Girls
2 cups
3 oz.
1.5 cups
1 cup
4 oz.
9-13 Boys
3 cups
5 oz.
1.5 cups
2.5 cups
6 oz.
9-13 Girls
3 cups
5 oz.
1.5 cups
2 cups
5 oz.
14-18 Boys
3 cups
6 oz.
2 cups
3 cups
7 oz.
14-18 Girls
3 cups
5 oz.
1.5 cups
2.5 cups
6 oz.

American Heart Association dietary recommendations for children

Mom's Guide to Healthy Kids

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Our family of 5 kids. Healthy easy meals for kids is my priority as the mom of 5! Family Hiking.  Exercise and good eating habits go together. Biking together is great exercise too. Dancing kids.  They can burn off lots of calories and energy inside if you turn on the music!
Our family of 5 kids.
Our family of 5 kids. | Source
Healthy easy meals for kids is my priority as the mom of 5!
Healthy easy meals for kids is my priority as the mom of 5! | Source
Family Hiking.  Exercise and good eating habits go together.
Family Hiking. Exercise and good eating habits go together. | Source
Biking together is great exercise too.
Biking together is great exercise too. | Source
Dancing kids.  They can burn off lots of calories and energy inside if you turn on the music!
Dancing kids. They can burn off lots of calories and energy inside if you turn on the music! | Source

Tip #1: Healthy Meals Start at the Grocery Store

What you buy is what you eat. So the first step in preparing more healthy meals for kids is to:

  • Avoid eating out.
  • Read nutrition labels.
  • Know the brands with the lowest fats and sugars, and highest fiber and good nutrients.
  • Change to the healthiest brand of food.
  • Buy lots of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables.

How can you avoid eating out?

Have a lot of fast healthy meals ready ahead in your cupboard and refrigerator.

How can you buy the best brands?

Like me, you probably regularly buy either the cheapest brand, or your family's favorite. When I got serious about making healthy meals for my family, I made a plan for a grocery shopping detective trip. I spent about 2 hours in the grocery store just investigating the labels of the foods I buy most often. I was astounded to find that there were products that seemed identical to what I was already buying, but had significantly:

  • less fat and/or sugar
  • fewer calories
  • more nutritional value
  • more fiber

Some of my favorite healthy food finds:

Nature's Own 100% whole wheat bread: Full of fiber and nutrition, this bread is only 50 calories a slice (compared to up to 100 calories for slices which are almost identical in other brands).

Butter spray and non-fat butter substitutes: One of my best secrets has been to use these sprays instead of oil or margarine in cooking and eating. Now we can make non-fat french fries by using butter spray and broiling, or have non-fat garlic toast (a favorite treat).

Turkey Bacon, sausage and hot dogs: Check the various brands because the fat content and calories vary a lot. We like Butterball Turkey bacon and Jimmy Dean Turkey Sausage. I use these for breakfast, and also in many dinner recipes to add flavor without fat.

Very lean hamburger, or ground chicken and ground turkey: By getting 97% lean hamburger meat (or substitutes) and using whole wheat pasta and buns, we can cook American family favorites like hamburgers, or spaghetti as healthy family meals.

Low or no-fat cheese: We love cheese, and the additional calcium is important for kids, but the high fat content of a lot of cheese is not. Switching to lower or no-fat cheeses, lowering the amount of cheese in recipes, or even substituting 1/2 of the cheese as no-fat can make your recipe healthier.

Healthy Cooking for Kids: Substitute Ingredients

Click thumbnail to view full-size
No fat butter. High fiber, low calorie and low fat wraps. Low fat and no sugar substitutes make even treats more healthy.
No fat butter.
No fat butter. | Source
High fiber, low calorie and low fat wraps.
High fiber, low calorie and low fat wraps. | Source
Low fat and no sugar substitutes make even treats more healthy.
Low fat and no sugar substitutes make even treats more healthy. | Source

Your Healthy Cooking Goals

What is your reason for wanting to cook healthy for your kids?

See results

Prevalence of Childhood Overweight and Obesity

percent overweight
percent obese

Source: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2009-2010)

Healthy Recipes

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Navy Bean Soup Green Beans with Turkey Bacon Pumpkin Muffins
Navy Bean Soup
Navy Bean Soup | Source
Green Beans with Turkey Bacon
Green Beans with Turkey Bacon | Source
Pumpkin Muffins
Pumpkin Muffins | Source

Easy, Quick Cooking for Kids

We've been hearing a lot in the news about childhood obesity and heath problems from kids who don't eat a healthy diet plan. Yet parents have so much to do with work, school and activities that you may have had a hard time fitting healthy cooking into your schedule. Me too! I'm mom of 5 busy kids ranging in age from 17 to 8. Too many days, I've found myself caving in to the pressure of serving fast unhealthy meals rather than more time consuming healthy meal plans. Lately, I've decided it is time to change, and here is how I've done it.

Tip #2: Add Healthy Recipes to Your Cooking

Along with using better, healthier ingredients, you can revise your old recipes and add new healthier ones to make your cooking better for you and your kids. Here are some of my favorite tricks:

  • Add pureed vegetables to recipes.
  • Substitute applesauce for all or most of the oil in baking.
  • Use sugar substitute for all or most of the sugar in recipes.
  • Use fat-free cream cheese, fat-free sour cream and non-fat milk in creamy sauces or as toppings.
  • Substitute all-fruit jam as a sweetener or topping.
  • Use low-granola for crunch in sweet recipes.
  • Substitute wheat flour, multi-grain flour or cereal or oatmeal for all-purpose flour.
  • Try my Honey Chicken method of cornstarch and no-fat butter spray to pan fry meat as a substitute for deep fat frying.

Healthy Snack Ideas

Tip #3: Involve Children in Healthy Cooking

Along with changing what I bought, I decided to change what recipes I prepared. What I especially wanted to do was to introduce my children to more vegetables and fruits. However, I knew that in order to get my kids to eat healthy food, I needed to be sure they had:

  • Choices in foods.
  • Involvement in preparing food.

Here is how I've done this:

Take Your Kids Shopping. My first step was to take my kids with me after my stealth shopping trip. We focused on buying fruits and vegetables. Another friend of mine takes her daughter to our local Farmer's Market. I plan to do that soon. My kids loved making their own fruit and vegetable choices, and also loved weighing their choices and printing out labels.

Let Kids Choose Their Own Healthy Foods. Actually, I was often surprised at their choices of things like winter squash, cucumbers and broccoli. They don't always like what they choose, but they will always try something they picked out themselves, which they won't always do if I bring something new home. Best of all, they've each begun liking some new fruits and vegetables which I now buy for them on a regular basis. My youngest loves acorn squash, another daughter loves dried seaweed.

Let Kids Cook Healthy Recipes. Although it takes more time, it is worth it to allow your children to cook healthy meals with you. My daughter Sophie enjoys making her own sushi, cooking green beans for the family, and inventing her own healthy snacks to share with her siblings and friends. The more you involve your children in planning and cooking healthy recipes, the more likely they are to eat them.

Consider Growing Your Own Food: We don't have an extensive garden, but we do grow figs, blackberries, onions, potatoes, asparagus and many herbs. My kids enjoy everything we grow and like being able to go out and pick things themselves. You don't have to have a big garden to grow herbs, onions, carrots and tomatoes. In fact, many vegetables and herbs can be grown in pots. Or if you can't grow your own food, you might be able to take your children to a place where you can pick foods, or even a Farmer's Market.

Easy Healthy Meals for Kids

Skillet pizza is easy, fast and healthy with low fat multigrain wraps, tomato sauce, chicken and no-fat cheese.
Skillet pizza is easy, fast and healthy with low fat multigrain wraps, tomato sauce, chicken and no-fat cheese. | Source

Tips for Your Own Healthy Cooking Shopping Trip

Plan your own stealth shopping trip to start cooking healthier by following these simple steps:

  • Plan a 1-2 hour period with no kids.
  • Try to go early in the morning or at night when there aren't many other shoppers to distract you.
  • Go to the sections of your most frequently purchased foods.
  • Check different brands for healthy ingredients, fat content, sugar content, calories and anything else you want to add to your family's diet.
  • Write down the best choices to help you remember.
  • Purchase a few of your new choices to try at home.


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