How to Cook a Gourmet Meal for Kids

Cooking a gourmet meal for children may introduce them to a wider range of foods. See more parenting pictures.

Kids' nutrition has been a hot topic in the news, from Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity to reassessing the nutrition of school lunches [sources: Hall and Hellmich, Eng]. Widening your child's food experiences can open him up to a variety of nutritious foods and help him set a trend for healthier eating throughout life.

"There's nothing sadder for me to see than an adult who only is eating the same five foods over and over again," says Sarah Krieger, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "You are missing out on nutrients when you do that."

While there's no way to be sure that your child will be an adventurous eater, giving him the chance to try new foods and new food combinations offers him the opportunity to go beyond typical kids' fare.

"Picky eaters come from not being exposed and not being encouraged," says Bethany Thayer, M.S., registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "It's the parent's job to expose and make sure that they've seen the food and know that these foods exist; it's the child's job to try the food and decide if he likes it or not."

Parents have the opportunity to teach their children about a range of foods, including those that might be gourmet. Yet, you want to be careful how you approach these new foods with your kids. Presenting foie gras with a side of wilted spinach might not be the best way to encourage new food choices.

In this article, we'll look at some tips for incorporating gourmet ingredients into meals for your kids. We'll also look at some ways to transform classic kid favorites into more gourmet meals.

Kid-Friendly Gourmet Ingredients

Gradually exposing kids to new ingredients can get them excited about trying new foods. 
Gradually exposing kids to new ingredients can get them excited about trying new foods. 
Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

Definitions of "gourmet meal" differ. What one person considers a gourmet meal may be a very regular food in another person's diet. This is especially true with today's kids. According to analysis of the U.S. Census of 2000, the population of the United States has become more ethnically and racially diverse over the last half of the century, particularly in recent decades [source: Hobbs and Stopps]. This growing trend has caused some shifts in American food preferences that reflect this ethnic and racial diversity [source: Ballenger and Blaylock].

But getting kids to venture outside of the foods they're used to, even though choices might be more diverse, can still prove a challenge for parents.

"Kids like what is familiar to them," says Thayer. Since kids like what they know, you have to work at exposing kids to new foods over time. "You really have to be careful with introducing those foods gradually."

But don't think that exposure is just having the food appear at the dinner table -- or at least on the kid's plate. Seeing trusted adults eating the new food can encourage kids to want to try it. Taking your kids to the grocery store with you or encouraging them to pick out gourmet recipes with new ingredients can get your children excited about new foods. Another parenting tip for incorporating gourmet items is to grow them yourselves or pick them at a pick-your-own facility near your house [source: Krieger, Thayer].

Obviously, getting kids to try gourmet ingredients that you enjoy would be a great place to start, since the family can enjoy the items together. Some other great ideas include unique fruits and vegetables, such as kumquats, purple potatoes or even lychees, a fruit native to southern China. New grain ideas might be quinoa or tabouli [source: Krieger]. Parents can try "'clean' flavors, such as genuine maple syrup or real vanilla," says Nancy Berkoff, Ed.D., registered dietitian and member of the American Culinary Federation. "Stay away from complex or strong flavors" [source: Berkoff].

So how can you turn a Friday night fast-food staple into a gourmet meal?

Gourmet Pizza for Kids

If your kids already love pizza, then making it gourmet can be a perfect way to get your kids eating more adventurously and nutritiously. A slice of medium thin-crust pizza with cheese has about 215 calories and limited nutritional value [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture]. Without missing out on convenience, you can add nutrition and interest by adding fresh vegetables to an ordinary frozen cheese pizza. You might also want to try a whole-wheat crust instead of the traditional crust.

Making your own pizza gives you a wealth of choices while also allowing you to regulate the choices you offer your child. "Doing it at home you can control the amount and what you add; kids are probably less likely to try it in a pizza restaurant where they know their old favorites are," says Krieger.

Make your own dough, or pick up one of the refrigerated versions at your local grocery. Let your kids decorate their sections of the pizza with the toppings that you've cut and placed out. You might also try using more fresh ingredients instead of processed pizza sauce. "Do some 'salsa fresca' -- chop fresh tomatoes, a smidge of onion, fresh basil and a small amount of olive oil to use instead of sauce or as an additional topping," says Berkoff.

Another great twist on pizza might be serving it as a dessert instead of an entree. "Top a baked pizza crust with fruited yogurt sauce or a thin layer of yogurt, and then use diced dried fruit, thinly sliced melon, apples, pears, grapes, sliced ripe bananas, etc.," says Berkoff.

How can you turn another classic kids' meal -- macaroni and cheese -- into a healthy gourmet dinner?

Gourmet Macaroni and Cheese

Slight variations in the classic macaroni and cheese recipe can turn it into a gourmet meal kids will love.
Slight variations in the classic macaroni and cheese recipe can turn it into a gourmet meal kids will love.
Sang An/Getty Images

Macaroni and cheese can be transformed into a more nutritious and gourmet meal with a few clever variations. A 1-cup serving of from-the-box macaroni and cheese contains about 260 calories, a bit of the grain group and the dairy group, but not much more nutritional value [sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kraft].

An obvious way to go a bit more gourmet is to make your own macaroni and cheese from scratch. This allows you to add a variety of different ingredients. Switch up the cheeses, or do a blend of multiple cheeses, such as Colby, Parmesan or Swiss, instead of just cheddar [source: Cooking Light]. If you want to go even further, try Mascarpone, Parmigiano-Reggiano or Gruyere [source: Artisanal Premium Cheese]. For creamy sauces, some recipes incorporate whole cream or sour cream instead of milk. Spicier varieties can include jalapeños or Dijon mustard.

"Macaroni and cheese is sacred," says Berkoff. "However, depending on how adventuresome your kids are, you could add diced Niçoise olives -- tell them they're pieces of 'dirt' -- 7-year-aged cheddar or a Greek-style yogurt in the sauce."

For those that might be a bit less adventurous, making a small tweak to their already familiar box brand might be the best route. Try switching out the plain old tube noodles for a version that uses whole-grain noodles or a different shape of noodle. Another idea is mixing frozen butternut squash into the sauce; it's the same color as the cheese sauce and will add some nutrition and variety to the dish. For those that like a bit of meat, add some small pieces of ham or bacon to the mix.

Next, we'll look at another kid favorite popular at fast-food restaurants -- the cheeseburger.

Gourmet Cheeseburgers

Simply switching up the type of bread you use for a bun can make a cheeseburger into a gourmet meal.
Simply switching up the type of bread you use for a bun can make a cheeseburger into a gourmet meal.
Dennis Gottlieb/Getty Images

Whether from the drive-through, the grill or simply the skillet, cheeseburgers are a favorite with many kids. Making cheeseburgers gourmet can be done by a switch to the meat, cheese, bun or toppings.

Traditionally created with ground beef, cheeseburgers can also be done with other varieties of meat. For a slight change, try adding in pureed carrots, minced mushrooms or softened onions to the meat patty before cooking. For more flavor with an Italian flair, try mixing a mild Italian seasoning with tomato paste, or pizza seasoning into your choice of meat [source: Krieger, Berkoff].

Make a burger from ground turkey, chicken or pork instead of just beef. Kobe beef might not always be appreciated by kids, but if you're looking for leaner meat, you can even try buffalo [source: Krieger, Berkoff].

Meatless cheeseburgers can also easily be created. You could try going vegetarian with a black-bean burger or soy burger [source: Thayer]. "Consider a homemade veggie burger with seven types of beans, quinoa and carrots to add sweetness," says Berkoff.

For your cheese, instead of a cheddar or American cheese, try white cheddar a great compromise with kids, or even Swiss with a few mushrooms.

The outside of the burger can be just as important as the interior. For the bun, switch out that white bun for something a little more gourmet. Artisanal breads such as sourdough, seven-grain or a Kaiser roll make a gourmet platform for your burger.

Toppings can also make a plain cheeseburger stand out. Instead of ketchup or mustard, try fresh spinach, salsa or pizza sauce. Add carmelized onions or another roasted vegetable to the burger for a different twist [source: Berkoff, Krieger].

On the next page, learn how to turn grilled cheese into something a bit more extravagant than bread and a slice of cheese.

Gourmet Grilled Cheese

The traditional grilled cheese of white bread with American cheese might seem dull though kid-friendly. To branch out from this all-American meal, try a new version of bread, cheese or side.

The bread is the foundation of the grilled cheese and a great place to upgrade the meal. Bread options are endless -- but remember to keep with versions that will be firm to stand up to the butter and cheese. Try whole-grain breads such as rye, seven-grain or pumpernickel. A more exotic twist might be to use tandoori naan, a traditional Indian flatbread, as the base for your grilled cheese [source: Berkoff].

Cheese, of course, is integral to the grilled cheese. You want to make sure that you choose a cheese that will melt well. Some great options are provolone, Swiss, Monterey Jack and even Havarti, but remember that it might be a good idea to have the kids try the new cheese a couple times before you serve it within a grilled cheese [source: Land o' Lakes, Inc., Thayer]. Soy cheeses are also a great option with lower calories and saturated fat [source: Krieger].

Instead of regular butter to cook your grilled cheese, you might want to try an herbed butter for a bit more flavor [source: Better Than Bakery].

Pairing the grilled cheese with tomato soup can be a nice winter meal, but other pairings can also work. Switch plain tomato soup with a roasted tomato soup, or a tomato and roasted red pepper soup. Try grilled cheese with fresh tomato slices and basil.

While getting your kids to eat more gourmet might be a challenge, the nutritional benefits might be well worth the work of cleverly incorporating new ingredients into your kids' meals. For lots more information on cooking for kids, see the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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