Cooking for Picky Eaters
by Karen Raterman

Get your toddlers to eat healthy meals.

"Well, it's obvious you're not ready for the White House." That's the food-for-thought my husband and I offer when our daughters use poor table manners and/or don't eat their dinners. It's meant to have maximum impact, as if they, at the tender ages of 2 1/2 and 4 1/2, should worry about an invitation to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

OK, so desperate parents take drastic measures. But anyone who has small children knows that the dinner hour can be one of the most frustrating times of the day. Getting my girls to actually sit down and eat food is my supreme challenge in life. Even a sure thing like spaghetti often elicits nothing more than a finger-painting session with the sauce. So it was with great anticipation that I took this assignment to find healthful recipes that my picky eaters would actually eat. It was a challenge that quickly humbled me. In the end, however, I learned several valuable lessons.

The first, and perhaps most important rule, is to relax. Your kids aren't going to starve. Most healthy children actually have a pretty good instinct as to what they need nutritionally. One day my girls will eat melon like it's the most delicious thing in the world; a day or two later they'll turn it down flat. Another day they might go for broccoli, tomatoes or even grilled fish. Their food intake tends to balance out over a week rather than daily. So my new strategy is to put out a variety of tasty and nutritious foods and let nature take its course.

My second strategy is to make food fun and interesting. My daughters love to go grocery shopping, and if they have picked something out at the store, they are much more likely to try it at home. They also like to help prepare the food. It's a little messy at times, but well worth the effort.

And my third rule comes from experts and other learned mothers alike: Go ahead and be sneaky. Especially when children are young, their appetites are small and every bite counts. It is absolutely fair game to chop, purée and otherwise hide those undesirables and add them to homemade breads, smoothies, pancake batter or whatever you can think of. What they don't know won't hurt them.

The following recipes are just a few of the many we tried. I'll be honest — they weren't all met with rave reviews by my food critics, but they weren't greeted with nose wrinkling either. Give them a try, and take heart in the fact that you won't be reduced to the dreaded White House threat.

Sleeping Cannelloni

Serves 8

This Italian classic adds a few decorative touches to give instant child appeal, and it cleverly disguises the spinach inside. Great for special occasions, as it does take a little longer to prepare and cook.

Prep time: 35 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes

1/2 pound frozen spinach
2 teaspoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, crushed
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 tablespoon flour
1/3 cup low-fat milk
2 tablespoons evaporated skim milk
Salt and pepper to taste
8 cannelloni tubes

Cheese Sauce:

2 teaspoons butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups low-fat milk
1/2 cup part-skim cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Salt and pepper to taste

To Garnish:

Ready-made tomato sauce
8 sautéed mushrooms
Handful of grated cheddar cheese
8 black olives
Tiny green pepper bows and squares
Red pepper strips

1. Place the spinach in a pot without water. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, or according to package instructions. Squeeze out any excess water.

2. Melt the butter in a skillet, add the onion and garlic, and sauté until softened. Add the mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes. Add flour and cook for 1 minute. Add the cooked spinach, stir in the milk and cook for 2 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, stir in the evaporated skim milk, and season to taste.

3. Lightly grease an 8x10 ovenproof dish. Use a teaspoon to fill the cannelloni tubes with the stuffing, then arrange them in the dish in a single layer.

4. To make the sauce, melt the butter in a pan over low heat, add the flour and stir to make a paste. Cook gently for 2 minutes, then whisk in the milk and cook, stirring, until thickened. Remove from heat. Stir in the cheese until melted. Add the mustard and season to taste.

5. Pour the sauce over the cannelloni. Transfer to the oven and bake at 350º for 30 minutes.

6. To decorate, use the tomato sauce to make a turned-down sheet and arrange the olives as feet (see photo). Make slits in the mushrooms, push in green pepper eyes and red pepper mouths, and use the grated cheese as hair, adding the green pepper bows.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 220 Fat: 5g % fat calories: 22 Cholesterol: 19mg Carbohydrate: 33g Protein: 10g

Sweet Potato Oven Fries

Serves 4

As infants, my girls both loved sweet potatoes, but when they reached the toddler stage this nutritious source of vitamin A became completely unappealing. It took some coaxing to get past that first bite, but with the help of a little ketchup, the verdict was an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes

3 large sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 425º. Spray cookie sheet with nonstick cooking oil.

2. Clean sweet potatoes. Cut into 1/2-inch-thick strips, and place in a mixing bowl. Add oil and salt, stirring to coat.

3. Spread strips in a single layer on cookie sheet. Stirring often, bake 30 minutes, or until potatoes are a light crispy brown.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 265 Fat: 4g % fat calories: 12 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 55g Protein: 4g

Baked Fish Sticks or Chunky Chicken Bits

Serves 4

This recipe is much more healthful than most commercially-made versions. I used fresh cod and free-range organic chicken, and my food critics loved 'em.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 12-15 minutes

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 pound white fish fillets (flounder, cod, etc.) or 1 pound chicken breast fillets
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Shake-it-Up Breading Mix (recipe below)
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1 egg
1 egg white
1/2 cup 2-percent low-fat milk

1. Preheat oven to 400º. Spray baking dish with nonstick cooking oil, then coat with canola oil.

2. Rinse fish or chicken fillets. Pat dry with a paper towel. Lightly sprinkle salt on both sides of fillets.

3. For fish sticks, carefully cut fillets into long strips. For chicken bits, cut fillets into 1-inch squares.

4. Place breading mix and grated lemon rind into a small paper bag. On a pie plate, combine egg, egg white and milk, then beat with a whisk or fork until well blended.

5. Dip fish or chicken pieces into the egg and milk mixture. Place fish or chicken pieces, a few at a time, into bag with breading mix and grated lemon rind, hold bag closed and shake well.

6. Place coated fish sticks or chicken bits on baking dish. Bake until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Shake-it-Up Breading Mix

Breading for 2 cups veggies or 1 pound chicken or fish fillets

1 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Combine ingredients in a bag; shake well.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 293 Fat: 10g % fat calories: 29 Cholesterol: 116mg Carbohydrate: 20g Protein: 30g

Pear Gingersnap Delight

Serves 4

This recipe is fast, easy and fancy enough for a party. My kids, however, were thrown by the fact that their favorite foods — pears, cookies, whipped cream — were mixed together, and it dampened their enthusiasm. My husband and I loved it.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: none

4 canned pear halves
10 gingersnap cookies, crushed
1/2 cup low-fat whipped topping

1. Drain pears in strainer; save the juice.

2. Pour the cookie crumbs into a small bowl. Roll pear halves in the crumbs until they are covered completely.

3. Place each pear half in a dessert dish and top with whipped topping.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 124 Fat: 2g % fat calories: 15 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 24g Protein: 3g

Crispy Baked Vegetables

Serves 4

When making this recipe, my girls helped with the dipping and shaking of their favorite veggies.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes

2 cups any fresh veggies (carrot, zucchini, red or green sweet pepper, broccoli or cauliflower)
1 egg
1/4 cup 2-percent low-fat milk
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 Shake-it-Up Breading Mix
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 450º. Spray cookie sheet with nonstick cooking oil.

2. Cut carrot, zucchini and sweet pepper into 1/4-inch strips. Chop broccoli and cauliflower into florets.

3. Beat egg, milk and oil with a fork in a shallow dish. Place Shake-it-Up Breading Mix in a separate dish.

4. Dip vegetables into egg mixture, then into breading mixture. Make sure to coat them well. Place on cookie sheet.

5. Repeat step 4 until all vegetables are coated. Bake 5 minutes.

6. Remove pan from oven and turn vegetables over with tongs or spatula. Return vegetables to oven and bake for another 5 minutes until vegetables are crisp and tender and the coating is golden brown. Remove and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 201 Fat: 9g % fat calories: 38 Cholesterol: 62mg Carbohydrate: 22g Protein: 9g

Recipes excerpted from Hey Kids! You're Cooking Now! (Harvest Hill Press) by Dianne Pratt and First Meals (OK Publishing) by Annabel Karmel.

Karen Raterman is the executive editor of Delicious! magazine.

Photography by Rita Maas