Your little one gobbles up his pasta, but leaves his side salad untouched. With healthy pasta recipes for kids, you can add a dose of vitamins and nutrients to your noodle dishes, making it a meal you can both be happy about.
Your tot would eat mac and cheese every night if he could. Who says he shouldn't? With healthy pasta recipes for kids, you can feed your family a nutritious, budget-friendly, fast dinner -- and your picky eater will gobble it up. Sound too good to be true? Here 's what experts think about amping up the nutrition in kid-friendly pasta.
Healthy Pasta Tips
Pasta can absolutely be part of a healthy diet for children, says Rachel Begun, a registered dietitian and board member at the kid's cooking site The Creative Kitchen. It all comes down to the ingredients you choose, and she reminds parents to think beyond the traditional wheat variety and try out different types of pasta. "In the past few years, a plethora of pastas have come to market made from whole grains like corn, brown rice and quinoa -- even beans -- that kids love. Whole-grain and bean-based pastas contain significantly more fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients than those made from refined grains."
Jill Weisenberger, a nutrition expert and author of "The Overworked Person's Guide to Better Nutrition," agrees that pasta can be a nutritious part of a meal -- in moderation. "Pasta can certainly be part of a nutritious diet for kids and every other member of the family, however, I've noticed that people often eat and serve very large portions of pasta without much thought to balancing the meal."
Here's the good news: Pasta is a blank canvas for adding an endless combination of nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, says Begun. "I recommend to parents that they try to get in at least one serving of vegetables into their kids' favorite pasta dishes, and accent with other nutrient-rich foods for adding taste and texture." She suggests using tomato sauce as a "vehicle" for adding other chopped or pureed vegetables. She also makes homemade pesto sauce out of leafy greens or green herbs. "My advice to parents is that they seek out pasta recipes that contain the vegetables they know their kids already love," Begun suggests.
Turn Classics into Nutritional Power Houses
Pasta side dishes and main dishes offer great opportunities to load the plate with vegetables, Weisenberger says. Here are some healthy pasta recipes for kids that follow her good-for-you suggestions.
- Spaghetti sauce. Add diced mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, green beans, eggplant and other vegetables to your sauce. Your kids will get their veggies, but all they'll taste is your flavorful red sauce. Chef Jamie Oliver's homemade tomato sauce recipe is loaded with a whopping eight vegetables. Run the sauce through the blender to hide veggie chunks from picky eaters.
- Pasta salad. Another health-minded tactic? Decrease the pasta and increase the veggies. Try adding steamed or blanched veggies like broccoli, green beans, carrots or spinach to bulk up a scant portion of pasta. Or opt for lean protein, such as grilled chicken, to add staying power to your dish. This lightly dressed kid-friendly pasta salad recipe includes edamame and chicken, and makes for great leftovers for lunch the next day.
- Macaroni and cheese. Yes, cheesy noodles can be good for you. Stir in pureed cauliflower, canned tomatoes that have been drained, spinach or steamed broccoli for a healthy dose of vitamins. Using reduced-fat cheese and low-fat milk keeps the saturated fat down. This recipe for hidden vegetable macaroni and cheese uses pureed squash to reduce the amount of fat and calories, while adding nutrients.
- Zucchini noodles. You don't even need pasta for this meal. Use a spiral veggie cutter to turn zucchini into "noodles" to use in place of pasta. (If you don't have a a spiral cutter, use a vegetable peeler to make thin ribbons, then slice into thin strips.) This recipe for zucchini pasta adds basil and lemon for a fresh take on bland noodles. If you think your tot will balk at the sight of green noodles, mix these in with regular spaghetti for a unique textural twist.
- Shrimp and broccoli bow ties: "Don't forget that each meal should have a good source of protein too," Weisenberger adds. "Think beyond meatballs. Add shrimp, ground meat or veggie crumbles to spaghetti and tomato sauce." Bow ties with shrimp and broccoli are a hit with kids and adults alike.
Do the experts serve pasta to their families? Both Weisenberger and Begun say "yes!" The key to keeping pasta fun and healthy is a little imagination. "Be creative," says Weisenberger. "Even better, invite your kids into the kitchen to show off their creativity."
Want more culinary inspiration? Check out these 28 Healthy Dinner Recipes for Kids.
Rachael Moshman, M.Ed. is a mom who has worked with children and families for decades. She understands the plight of feeding a picky eater who only wants mac and cheese and is thrilled to share healthier options.