As a dad to two young children, Jose Garces is no stranger to the challenges that come with cooking for little eaters, but that doesn’t stop him from serving healthful fruits and veggies at home. This Iron Chef knows how to transform everyday ingredients into flavor-packed meals that are not only kid-approved but packed with nutrition, too. We checked in with Jose to find out his simple strategies for kid-friendly cooking and asked him to share a few simple suggestions to start the school year on a healthy note. Check out his best lunchbox picks, after-school snack solutions and more below, then get his top five healthy-eating tips for kids.
Back-to-school season is officially here, and many moms and dads are wondering how to pack healthful lunchbox meals that their kids will actually enjoy eating. When you’re packing your children’s lunches, what staples do you reach for?
The best thing you can send kids to school with is fruit. My wife, Beatriz, and I like to slice up apples, pears and strawberries for our two children. We’ll also pack their lunches with blackberries, blueberries and maybe a banana. And our kids love oranges, so we’ll peel and segment them sometimes, too.
In the thermos it’s usually black bean soup with brown rice — have to use the brown rice! To change that up, we’ll fill the thermos with whole-wheat vermicelli made with low-sodium chicken broth, diced carrots and shredded chicken breast or broccoli-potato soup made with vegetable stock. Kids really like something crunchy in there, so we’ll give ours a few crackers or homemade croutons on the side to dip or just add in.
Between two slices — always whole-wheat or multi-grain slices — Beatriz and I will make them one of these simple and delicious sandwiches: natural peanut butter with homemade preserves or plain cheese, usually cheddar or mozzarella. Once in a while, for a treat, we’ll make Nutella and banana sandwiches for them.
Speaking of back-to-school, so many kids come home ravenous after a long day and ask for pre-dinner snacks. Can you recommend any good-for-you munchies to satisfy their after-school snack cravings?
I think natural granola bars with yogurt (Wallaby’s Australian peach, blackberry and strawberry are favorites), or even just plain, are a great choice for an after-school bite. It’s just enough to hold them over until dinner without ruining their appetites.
What advice can you give parents whose children are picky eaters? Have you discovered any tried-and-true techniques for introducing more fruits and vegetables to your kids’ diets?
This is a big lesson in professional kitchens, but it really applies at home, too: a monochromatic plate of food is never exciting. We want to get kids excited about trying new foods, and color can be a great gateway to that. Making a colorful plate is very appealing to kids and studies show that it can be an excellent nutritional move, and the visual appeal is undeniable as well.
Setting a good example is always a great start. Most kids are interested in what their parents are eating, and if you are eating a wide variety of healthful foods, there’s a good chance your kids will follow suit.
Since the fall season is just a few weeks away, can you share any tips for turning autumn produce, like cauliflower, squash and sweet potatoes, into kid-approved dishes?
The fall harvest is filled with excellent nutrition and incredible natural flavor, so produce is best prepared simply. Roasting is an excellent technique for retaining nutrition and bringing out the natural sweetness of many autumn fruits and vegetables. Hold the butter and add a sprinkle of kid-friendly autumn spices like cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg to sweet treats like sweet potatoes for a kid-friendly favorite.
Healthy Eating Tips for Kids:
- Finding ways to work healthy elements into classically unhealthy dishes is a great way to up their nutritional content — and keep kids full of good stuff instead of bad. Quesadillas are a great example: all that cheese seems like a poor choice, but if you replace half the cheese with healthy goodies like veggies or greens (my kids love roasted red peppers and pea greens), you’re adding vegetables into a crave-able snack food.
- Roasted red peppers are great for more than just punching up a quesadilla. Roasted vegetables in general take on a sweetness that their raw counterparts can lack, and that appeals to kids. Plus, roasting is a simple cooking method that doesn’t add extra fat or calories.
- Kids tend to love creamy textures. Instead of always relying on dairy, look to avocados: On their own, they may be unappealing, but as a dip, especially with other full-flavored ingredients, they’re perfect (and loaded with vitamins and healthy fats). Who doesn’t love guacamole?
- Cooking in season is a great way to avoid adding unhealthy fats and calories to your dishes. Fresh vegetables and fruits are loaded with flavor. Fewer ingredients can help satisfy pickier eaters, and a simple drizzle of olive oil, plus salt and pepper, is usually enough for just about any fresh veggie. Fruit is even easier: Just choose those that look most ripe and enjoy!