11 Healthy, Quick Meals Kids Can't Resist
Photo Credit: Una Shimpraga/Shutterstock
As we get back to normal normal and not just “the new normal,” the struggles we faced two years ago are back. Namely: how to whip up a minimal effort, convenient, nutritious but kid-friendly meal fast. Now that many have returned to the office and in-person learning, leisurely breakfasts and lunches during class and prepping and cooking throughout the day is off the table. We’re squeezing in dinner duty between school drop-offs and pickups, laundry, and chores again. On top of this, more and more people, including kids, are exhibiting food sensitivities, such as with gluten or dairy, which makes it extra hard to get that quick dish together.
Fortunately, since the last time we did this, there are a lot of new or revamped grocery items we can now use to start off a good, nutrient-rich, and filling meal. Best of all, many are better-for-them swaps that can subtly elevate your child’s palate and get more nutritional value in their growing bodies, setting up a healthier foundation for the rest of their lives by developing a taste and preference for healthy food.
… And all while saving you time.
Here are 11 minutes-to-the-table, upgraded, relatively healthy meal starters to pair together in any pinch.
Three Wishes Protein Cereal + Fairlife Ultra-Pasteurized Milk
Kids cereals are … tough. They’re known for being sugar-laden and ultra-processed, and just generally devoid of nutritional value. Their virtues are pretty limited to being tasty and well-marketed. But with the surge in popularity of low-carb diets, rise of gluten sensitivity, and high-protein trend, the cereal industry has had to reinvent itself. And the good news? It’s doing it in the flavors that kids love.
Three Wishes is one of those innovators, offering grain- and gluten-free cereal with only 3 grams of sugar and 8 grams of plant-based protein per serving. They’re made primarily from chickpeas, a creamy, neutral pulse that offers protein as well as fiber, and supplemented with tapioca and pea protein. The results are O-shaped cereal pieces that have a solid, sustained crunch (goodbye, soggy cereal!) that don’t feel like a sacrifice, especially in the kid-friendly flavors they offer. The Frosted (think Flakes), Fruity (think Loops), Cinnamon, and Cocoa will probably go over the best.
To go with it, we recommend Fairlife ultra-filtered, ultra-pasteurized milk, which has less sugar than regular milk and no lactose, which actually gives the impression of more sweetness even though there’s less. It’s extra creamy, too, which will make the cereal even more palatable, and also lasts longer in the fridge — perfect for kids’ quickly changing tastes. Combine the two in a CrunchCup, a spoon-free solution that keeps your milk and cereal separate until you pour your bite out, and an instant, healthy, walk-to-the-bus-stop breakfast couldn’t be easier.
Kodiak Cakes Whole-Grain Pancake Mixes + Crofter’s Organic Spreads or RxSugar Pancake Syrup
A killer combination of whole grains, fiber, and protein have made Kodiak Cakes a cult hit that’s spawned many imitators, but with its in-brand variety and stellar macros, it’s been tough to stray enough to even try another brand. It may take the kiddos some getting used to since these pancakes are a rougher texture and come out flat, but this can be customized with ground oats and the addition of more baking powder, which are my go-to hacks. To make them more palatable still, add fresh blueberries, bananas, or chocolate chips. You can keep it healthy by using Lily’s Sweets chips, which have no added sugar, using stevia instead in its gluten-free, fair-trade, non-GMO chocolate.
Then, instead of the thick, chemical-laden corn syrup-based breakfast blends we grew up with, top it off with even more flavor. Crofter’s Organic Spreads are always a treat and are great on top of pancakes and waffles. They’re made with more fruit and less cane sugar than typical preserves, and they now come in fun, superfruit flavors like Blueberry Blast and Pomegranate Power in addition to the standards. The new organic peach or strawberry banana are perfect for the summer, too.
But if the kids can’t live without their syrup, RxSugar Organic Pancake Syrup is honestly my latest obsession. It’s uber-sweet — too sweet, in fact — by itself, but once it’s on a pancake, the warmth of its base opens it right up. Unlike other zero-calorie syrups, this doesn’t have a lot of chemical additives. It’s just allulose, which is a natural sugar, has no sugar alcohol, which can upset some sensitive tummies, and is FODMAP-friendly certified to further support that. It’s also gluten- and grain-free, blood sugar-friendly, keto-certified, and diabetes-safe. Bonus: It also comes in a chocolate syrup.
Icelandic Provisions Oatmilk Skyr + Purely Elizabeth Granola
A lot of kids have dairy and gluten sensitivities these days, which can make it tough to give them something that’s good for them that they actually want to eat. Because with the invincibility of childhood, they’re not afraid of consequences and it makes them hard to convince. This combination will make them feel like they’re eating the same yogurt parfait treat their friends are, while secretly fueling them up with protein, fiber, ancient grains, and superfoods.
Oatmilk is the latest line launched by Icelandic Provisions, a skyr maker that uses an original native recipe and heirloom cultures that make it extra thick and creamy. It’s smoother and less tangy than its competitor siggi’s (which is also excellent), and its new oat version – made with rainwater irrigated Nordic oats – is creamy and subtly sweet, with real fruit pieces in the blends. It has 10 grams of protein and only 8 of sugar, and adding some extra sweetness from granola can bring it up to child-friendly levels. We like Purely Elizabeth granolas for that purpose because they’re at least made with coconut sugar. More importantly, flavors like Chocolate Sea Salt and Honey Almond also ratchet up the probiotic support while they’re at it. All of them add ancient grains to the standard oat foundation.
NUGGS + Litehouse Garden Ranch Greek Yogurt Dressing
What kid doesn’t like chicken nuggets? (We’ll wait.) Chicken nuggets are one of the most iconic childhood foods of the past several generations. They’re salty, crunchy, and no child cares nor thinks about how they’re made, so there’s no ick factor there. But as a parent, you might be concerned with the processing, saturated fat, and quality of the protein, which is why NUGGS has taken off.
These are plant-based nuggets that use soy protein concentrate, wheat protein isolate, and textured wheat protein to re-create that familiar crunchy, spongy texture kids and — admit it — adults love so much. They’re not gluten-free, but they’re actually higher in protein and lower in fat than their chicken counterparts, and faster to prepare at home than running to McDonald’s, the fast-food chain these feel closest to. The spicy version is not actually very hot but more impactful, and my personal preference.
For dipping, ketchup lovers have a whole host of lower-sugar options now. I love hyper-affordable Lidl’s Organic Ketchup personally; Primal Kitchen’s unsweetened is particularly virtuous; and True Made Foods No Added Sugar Vegetable Ketchup marginally boosts their veggie intake. But see if you can get the kids to switch over from ketchup or honey mustard to ranch. Litehouse makes a Greek yogurt-based Garden Ranch flavor in its Purely Balanced lineup with lots of exciting zest to it and a thick enough texture to dip. What the young’uns don’t need to know is that they do it with a minimal amount of sugar and calories.
Porter Road Dry Aged Beef Hot Dogs + Cleveland Kitchen Kraut
Hot dogs are so, so easy and generally more palatable to kids than to adults. But these from online butcher Porter Road will have you ready to join in with the little ones, whether you’re throwing them on a roll or slicing them up into some mac and cheese. They’re made with dry-aged beef that was pasture-raised with no hormones or antibiotics, and you can absolutely taste the difference. The cherry smoking is an added bonus. Plus, Porter Road hot dogs feel significantly less processed than the usual spongey tubes — firm but more in a dense sausage kind of way with a proud flavor.
It’s because of these strong, bold flavors that our suggestion is to pair them with the clean, sharp ones of Cleveland Kitchen’s Kraut. This brand’s sauerkraut is particularly chunky and crunchy, and it’s chock-full of probiotics to help maintain your child’s gut health. They may not be ready for the assertive flavors like peppery Gnar Gnar, Roasted Garlic, or Curry, but Classic Caraway is an elevation of the familiar topping, and Beet Red adds some festive color and some natural sweetness.
Typically, you do need a bun, too, so this is technically a three-ingredient meal, but we’re letting it slide if you will! You’ll want one that’s structurally sound to hold everything together and one that will resist getting soggy. We recommend brioche, potato, Hawaiian, or hearty farmhouse white rolls to balance out the savory, smoky, and tart flavors.
Snow Days + Fresh Express Salad Kits
Pizza bites might be devoid of much nutritional value, higher on flour and imitative ingredients than actual pizza, but they were fun to eat, weren’t they? Now you can pass that love on to the next generation, but in a better, healthier, version with Snow Days. These little grain- and gluten-free pockets offer that same addictive flavor but swap out the fake cheese for real grass-fed mozzarella and sneak in some (not a lot — they are just little bites, after all — but some) organic vegetables. There’s no sugar added, but with the carrots, sweet potatoes, and onions in the sauce, it won’t be missed. In fact, it’s a much bolder bite with a better texture and tomatoey taste. And the cassava wrapper — a root vegetable — of the Snow Days bites is honestly a tremendous improvement on the old-school childhood snack. The glutinous, chewy, doughy texture is addicting.
And for those who could do without the acid of a red sauce, great news: Snow Days just launched a Veggie White Pizza version, adding ricotta in place of the sauce, and filled with spinach, onions, mushrooms, basil, cauliflower, garlic, and sun-dried tomatoes for good measure.
Make a quick salad to go with it as a palate cleanser or just top the salad with the bites and it’s an easy-peasy big lunch or light dinner … and all of the vegetables you’d want your child to eat. Fresh Express salad kits put everything you need in a bag so that all you have to do is match the cuisine. Their new Italian Balsamic kit is perfect with these bites. This recently launched flavor is delicious, and easy for children to enjoy with its airy iceberg and green leaf base, shredded cheese, crunchy focaccia, and a light, sweet white balsamic vinaigrette.
This nationally available brand also makes a huge variety of Caesar salads, too, in regular, supreme, Lite, a Greek yogurt dressing version, and one enhanced with bacon. Go ahead and spring for the family size when it’s available. There’s a freshness guarantee, so no worries there.
SeaPak Popcorn Shrimp + Little Potato Company Lemon Herb Potatoes
If you have a microwave and a toaster oven, you’ve got dinner on the table. Fried shrimp can be a messy and expensive affair, but SeaPak makes it easy and affordable. Its popcorn shrimp takes it easy on the breading without sacrificing any crunch, and the kid-friendly size of each bite keeps it fun for them.
Keep the cute factor going with Little Potato Company’s new line of microwave-ready potatoes in the Lemon & Garden Herb flavor — the light lemon accent in the seasoning is a great complement to seafood. These bite-size, delicious creamer potatoes are a healthier option than the usual fries or tots, oven-baked or not, and are ready in the five minutes it takes for you to get the toaster oven started for the popcorn shrimp and have it all plated and done.
Real Good Foods Chicken Enchiladas + BeanVivo Refried Pinto Beans
Enchiladas are delicious. However, they’re also a lot of work when made from scratch, and not that healthy when you don’t. Real Good Foods has just recently launched tortilla-free chicken enchiladas in delicious and mild green or red sauces that takes those cons out of the picture. What’s different about these is that instead of using unhealthy flour tortillas to wrap the enchilada fillings, slices of whole, real chicken are used as the exterior. And to make it even more palatable for the little ones, they’re chock-full of cheese. And to make it easy for you, they’re maintenance-free cooking, requiring you do nothing but peel back the foil and toaster-oven bake the trays.
As soon as those are done, all you need is a minute or two to prep the side. BeanVivo makes it easy and cuts down on the dishes. Its refried pinto beans are organic, shelf-stable, and come in a microwaveable pouch, which means dinner is complete in the time it takes to plate both components. A Baja Black Bean flavor is also available if the kids prefer whole over mashed beans, and both options make sure they’re getting plenty of fiber, too, in this protein-heavy meal.
Ancient Harvest Protein Pasta + Rao’s Homemade Pasta Sauce
Many kids don’t want a fancy pasta dinner. They don’t want your meat- and vegetable-enhanced sauces. They just want fun shapes smothered in sweet, ripe, crushed tomatoes. That’s where Ancient Harvest’s protein pasta helps you out by sneaking plant-based protein and fiber into a “plain” red sauce pasta dinner. It’s gluten-free naturally, and you can get a variety of shapes in red lentil, green lentil, or smooth chickpea. Or, if you can convince the little one to just go ahead and eat those meatballs, they also make grain-free veggie pastas, which hide a full serving of greens into them. Just cover it up with sauce before the kiddos realize their pasta is a deep forest hue.
The strong, indulgent flavors of Rao’s Homemade sauces can help with that. These award-winning recipes are really rich, thanks to the generous use of olive oil, and live up to their reputation. If anything will make non-wheat pasta more palatable and introduce kids to the value of slow-cooked, quality ingredients, it’s this upgrade to a classic easy dinner.
RightRice Risotto + Gilbert’s Chicken Sausages
Risotto is often time-consuming, carb-heavy, and overly rich for young palates. For adults, it’s typically a treat with little nutritional value. But not RightRice. This vegetable-based rice substitute just came out with a line of risottos that take less than 12 minutes to cook (if you don’t count boiling the water), and serves up 10 grams of complete protein per service and 5 grams of all-important fiber. It comes in four flavors, but kids will likely more easily take to the Creamy Parmesan Style.
To make it a complete and just as instantly ready-to-go healthy meal, heat up some chicken Gilbert’s Craft Sausages. They’re made with antibiotic-free chicken, are sold in boxes with vacuum-sealed individually wrapped links so there’s no pressure about dealing with leftovers, and come in a huge range of flavors for the pickiest of kids. With risotto, Smoked Gouda or the new Tuscan Recipe would be a great pair, or Caprese, which would go great with the RightRice Basil Pesto.