Genius Ways to Make Your Toddler's Favorite Junk Foods Healthier

toddler eating macaroni and cheese

If you're the parent of a preschooler, your weekly menus probably feel like they're trapped on a proverbial hamster wheel. The exact same items pop up again and again because they're the only foods your child will eat ... and they're not exactly winning any major nutritional awards.


If you just can't stand the thought of serving another plate of pterodactyl-shaped chicken nuggets, we feel your pain. We talked to some nutritional experts for healthier (some even just ever so slightly) food swaps that won't put your kids on a hunger strike and will set your mind at ease. No, we're not trying to tell you your kiddo will go from hot dogs to cauliflower "steaks" in a pinch. These swaps are the real deal. So go ahead, cruise past those fish crackers on your next grocery trip and try one of these subsitutes for standard kid fare.

More from CafeMom: 8 Things to Know About Picky Eating

If your child loves: Fish Crackers

"Certain varieties of [these crackers] can contain artificial colors and GMOs," says Andrea Donsky, registered holistic nutritionist (RHN) and editor-in-chief of "How about creating a little mix instead with organic pretzels and animal cookies so you get a bit of both salty and sweet? There are some yummy cookies on the market made with organic grains, that are cholesterol-free, kosher, low sodium, Non-GMO Project Verified, and contain no artificial colors." We kind of want to whip up a batch of this mix for ourselves!

If your child loves: Chicken Nuggets

Weeknight dinners can be particularly harrowing in any household, and sometimes those dinosaur-shaped nuggets you have tucked away in your freezer are the path of least resistance when it comes to feeding the kids. But there are ways to replicate the meal in a fairly easy and healthier way. "I recommend making your own," advises Donsky. "I take organic white meat (chicken), coat it in non-GMO mayonnaise, then dip it in gluten-free bread crumbs and fry it in coconut oil or avocado oil (they are soooo yummy). The mayo gives it a delicious taste, and you avoid frying it in unhealthy or even rancid oil by using coconut oil or avocado oil. Just don't put the heat too high."

Another great idea? Ditch the chicken entirely. "Swap chicken strips for lightly breaded and baked popcorn shrimp," says Dr. Rima Kleiner, MS, RD, a mom of two. "Low in calories and fat, but still bite-sized, delicious, and perfect for little hands."

If your child loves: Mac & Cheese

Even as adults, there's little not to like about good old-fashioned macaroni and cheese, but there are ways to improve upon the packaged variety you have stashed in your pantry. "Make your own. Skip the powdered, processed version," says Dr. Susan Albers, clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and New York Times bestselling author. "Kids love noodles. Let them pick out their favorite shape and shred some cheese on top or sprinkle Parmesan. Even better, mix in some peas or broccoli for fun color. Or, if your kids refuse to let go of their favorite mac and cheese, make a healthier version by replacing the butter and milk with Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or ricotta cheese. They will never know." 

More from CafeMom: 5 Essential Nutritents Your Toddler May Not Be Getting Enough Of

If your child loves: Fruit Juice

Even if you're offering your child 100 percent fruit juices, these beverages don't include the fiber benefits that the actual fruit offers. Christen Cupples Cooper, MS, RD, a doctoral candidate in nutrition education at Teachers College, Columbia University, shares a trick that works with her own kids: "You can offer sliced whole fruit, explaining that when we drink water and eat a whole fruit, we get more of the good stuff from the fruit without wasting everything but the juice," she says. "You can also let kids make their own fruit-infused water. I did this with my kids by getting a large pitcher of water and several different kinds of fruit, including strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. I let the kids put as much of each of type of fruit as they wanted in the pitcher. Then we waited several hours and voilà -- our own great-tasting water with a fruit surprise at the bottom of the glass!"

If your child loves: Pizza

There are several super easy ways to up the health factor of your weekly pie, like opting for whole wheat dough, thinner crust, and adding veggies (if the sight of anything green won't throw your child into a panic). But if you're feeling some ingenuity, try making your own flourless version, says Sarah Adler, founder of Simply Real Health and author of The Simply Real Health Cookbook. "It's super easy, especially with pre-riced cauliflower now more readily available in stores, or you can use a frozen brown rice pizza crust. Have your kids get involved in building their own with bowls of natural pepperoni, cheese, veggies, chicken, and tomato or pesto sauce."


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