By Lisa Turner
Small children are eating-machines, and most need to nibble on demand. But few of us have time to play on-call chef for a hungry brood. The trick, then, is to keep your kitchen stocked with simple essentials for whipping up snacks and meals in a jiffy. We sought the advice of five renowned experts about key ingredients to have on hand for kids. Their recommendations follow, along with quick, nutritious recipes featuring these kid-friendly foods.
For Babies: 6 to 24 months
Breast milk (or formula) is the main food for the first six months of life. “After that, introduce a variety of foods one at a time,” says Miriam Vos, MD, pediatric GI and an attending physician at Emory University. The primary focus: easy-to-digest foods with low allergenic potential, says Randall Neustaedter, OMD, author of Child Health Guide: Holistic Pediatrics for Parents (North Atlantic Books, 2005). Avoid wheat, grains, dairy, nuts, corn, eggs and other commonly allergenic foods, and focus on fruits and vegetables. Babies’ tastes are adaptable, so you can train them to love veggies. “Start with vegetables; the sweetness of fruits is so strong that babies are less likely to want vegetables afterward.” Cook hard vegetables and lentils in a steamer or microwave until very soft. And organic foods are critical: “Babies’ livers aren’t developed sufficiently to metabolize petrochemicals,” Neustaedter adds.
Tot-Smart Staples: 6 to 24 months
• sliced bananas
• sweet potatoes (1- to 2-inch dice; steam 10 minutes; mash for babies under 1)
• cooked carrots (1- to 2-inch dice; steam 10 minutes, or buy frozen packaged varieties and keep them in the freezer)
• frozen blueberries, slightly thawed (great for teething relief)
• frozen peas
• butternut squash (steam for 6 minutes; mash for babies under 1)
• rice cereal
• lentils, soft-cooked (cook 1 cup in 1 1/2 cups water or broth until very soft, 25 to 45 minutes, depending on the variety)
• canned cannellini beans
• gluten-free frozen pancakes
• canned beets
• frozen green beans (heat to warm; puree in blender for babies under 1)
• rice pasta
Quick-Fix Recipe: 10 to 24 months
Rice Pasta with Super Sauce
Makes 2 servings
Small, soft rice pasta is the perfect vehicle for delivering this nutrient-packed sauce to the under-2 set. Make twice the amount of sauce and freeze leftovers for fast future meals.
1 small sweet potato, cubed
2 ounces rice pasta shells
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1/2 cup frozen and thawed spinach
1/2 cup frozen and thawed green beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
Place sweet potato cubes in a large stainless steel or bamboo vegetable steamer. Steam over boiling water, covered, until soft, 10 to 15 minutes. (Alternatively, steam sweet potato in 1/2 inch water in a medium covered saucepan, adding more water if needed.)
While sweet potatoes are steaming, prepare rice pasta: Bring 4 cups water to boil in a medium pot. Add pasta, reduce heat to medium and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until pasta is tender.
While sweet potatoes are steaming and pasta is cooking, combine diced tomatoes, tomato paste, spinach and green beans in a food processor, and puree until smooth.
Add cooked sweet potatoes, olive oil, oregano and basil to sweet potato mixture, and puree until smooth.
Drain pasta and return to pan. Stir in enough sauce to lightly coat hot pasta. Remaining pasta sauce may be stored in a tightly sealed container and refrigerated for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 2 months.
NEXT: 2-3 YEARS
For Toddlers: 2 to 3 years
Clean fuel for busy little bodies is key, says Melissa Halas-Liang, RD, CNSD, founder of SuperKidsNutrition.com. Toddlers need to graze all day, so stock up on easy-to-pack snacks, on-the-go foods and quick energy sources. Offer peas, cooked diced carrots, small cubes of pineapple and other finger foods; toddlers love to feed themselves. Soft foods and small bites are important to minimize choking hazards; cut hard or crunchy foods into tiny pieces to avoid choking. Variety is also crucial, says Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006); toddlers may start to shun vegetables around this age, so be clever about sneaking red, orange and green vegetables into every meal.
Tot-Smart Staples: 2 to 3 years
• pumpkin seeds
• sweet potato chips
• precooked frozen brown rice
• sulfite-free dried cranberries
• English muffins
• canned pineapple cubes (packed in juice)
• organic string cheese
• red and yellow pepper strips
• single-serving plain yogurt
• frozen veggie burgers
• grated zucchini
• frozen waffles
• tomato sauce
• rice crackers
• unsweetened kefir
• fresh or canned peaches (packed in juice)
• gluten-free baking mix
Quick-Fix Recipe: 2 to 3 years
Gluten-Free Carrot-Zucchini Muffins
Makes 12 muffins
These delicious muffins taste like treats; toddlers won’t guess they’re getting a serving of fruits and vegetables in each moist nugget.
1 very ripe banana
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup melted coconut oil (find it among cooking oils)
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups grated fresh zucchini
1 cup grated carrots
2 cups quick oats
1 cup rice flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup crushed walnuts*
1/2 cup dried cranberries
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
In a large bowl, mash together banana, applesauce and coconut oil. Stir in egg, maple syrup and vanilla. Stir in zucchini and carrots.
In a separate bowl, combine oats, flour, baking powder and salt. Add wet ingredients to dry ones, mixing just until combined. Stir in walnuts and cranberries.
Spoon batter into paper-lined muffin tins to fill each muffin compartment. Bake at 375 degrees F for 20 to 30 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes before removing from tins. Serve warm.
*Omit walnuts if your child has a family history of nut allergies.
NEXT: 4-5 YEARS
For Preschoolers: 4 to 5 years
Your little one can eat most adult foods now, so emphasize wide variety. “Focus on color diversity and avoid beige,” says Halas-Liang. “Make plates reflect all the colors of the rainbow.” This is also the time to start modeling healthy behavior; kids are old enough now to really pay attention to what you’re eating, so keep your own plate clean. Stay away from added sugar, artificial flavors and processed foods, and minimize refined carbs. “Teach kids to eat whole food, like it comes out of the ground,” Neustaedter says. He also cautions that parents of children with a family history of nut allergies omit walnuts from the staples listed here.
Tot-Smart Staples: 4 to 5 years
• celery sticks
• almond butter
• frozen salmon burgers
• gluten-free penne pasta
• cherry tomatoes
• frozen shrimp
• sulfite-free dried apricots
• prunes (pitted)
• sprouted wheat tortillas
• unsalted pretzel sticks
• frozen broccoli florets
• whole-grain crackers
• black beans
• frozen strawberries
• organic hot dogs
Quick-Fix Recipe: 4 to 5 years
Black Bean, Red Pepper and Pumpkin Burritos With Avocado
Each of these tasty rolls sneaks in a serving of antioxidant-rich pumpkin and red pepper. Make the whole recipe, wrap extras in foil and freeze for fast, last-minute lunches.
2 cups cooked black beans or 1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup mild salsa
1 small red pepper, cored and diced
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
1/2 cup cooked or frozen and thawed broccoli florets, finely chopped
1 small avocado, mashed
8 sprouted wheat tortillas or gluten-free tortillas
1/2 cup sliced black olives
1 cup low-fat shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Combine beans, salsa and red pepper in a medium pot. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until peppers are tender.
Stir in pumpkin puree and broccoli florets into beans and heat through.
Spread 1 to 2 tablespoons of mashed avocado on the center of a tortilla. Spoon about 1/2 cup bean mixture onto bottom half of tortilla, spreading to within 1 inch of sides and bottom. Sprinkle with olives and cheese.
Fold in 1 inch of sides over filling. Roll up from bottom, keeping sides tucked in. Place seam-side down on a plate and repeat with remaining tortillas.
Wrap extra burritos tightly in foil and refrigerate for 4 to 5 days, or freeze for up to 2 months. To reheat frozen burritos, unwrap foil and heat in microwave for 2 to 3 minutes or in a 350-degree F oven for 15 minutes. Carefully unwrap and serve.
Lisa Turner is a food writer and mom in Boulder, Colo., who constantly cooks up ways to make fast, healthy food for her family.
Keep these essential ingredients on hand for whipping up fast and healthy foods for any age.