Happy Meals

Cooking up kids’ favorites can be delicious and nutritious

mac n cheeseMacaroni and Cheese. Photos by Dan Kacvinski. Food coordinated by Judy Zeidler

Kids can be picky eaters, but there are several dishes that they always seem to enjoy. Among the dishes that seem to be popular from generation to generation: pizza, pasta, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly and grilled cheese.

Too often, though, these meals are not filled with the nutrition that kids need. Fortunately, I have some recipes for these dishes that are healthy and delicious. Kids also like foods that are colorful and pleasing to the eye.

Pizza: The best-known pizza — Margherita — is usually topped with tomatoes and melted cheese, but if you make your own you have a lot more control over the ingredients. Many grocery stores sell fresh or frozen pizza dough, or you can make the dough yourself. Just roll it out, and fill bowls with different toppings, such as grated cheese, onions, mushrooms, roasted red peppers, zucchini, olives and anchovies, and let the kids create their own fantasy. Then simply bake and serve.

Pasta: I don’t know anyone, especially kids, who would turn down a steaming bowl of pasta tossed with butter or fresh tomato sauce. Pure comfort food for kids and grown-ups alike. Whether made at home or eaten at an Italian restaurant, spaghetti is always a crowd-pleaser. A tomato-based sauce has a lot of potassium, making it a healthy choice. Make it even healthier and different by pureeing additional vegetables, such as sautéed red peppers, zucchini or even eggplant, and blend them into the sauce. Also consider using whole-wheat pasta.

Macaroni and cheese: Penne, bow tie or corkscrew pasta combined with cheese makes the perfect combination for a quick treat that kids love. When our children were small, their favorite dish was mac and cheese made from a store-bought mix, with its powdered “cheese” ingredient. I still remember the Kraft package that I always used, until I found a recipe that was equally delicious, but more nutritious. Add a cup of carrots and peas for added color and flavor.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: The classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich has been the family lunchbox staple for years. This popular sandwich is actually a good meal choice, as peanut butter is filled with protein. Try grinding peanuts in your food processor to make your own, and if anyone is allergic to peanuts, you can use cashews or almonds. For a healthier sandwich, use whole-wheat bread and add jelly, but keep it to 100 percent fruit.

Grilled cheese sandwich: When my husband and I are in Italy, we love the melted cheese panini they serve at the Autogrills. They are the closest to a grilled cheese sandwich you can get. A ridged frying pan or electric panini maker is fun and simple to use, and kids will love making their own hot sandwich.

There are plenty of fleishig favorites, too, for others who are in the mood for a meaty meal instead:

Hamburgers: Made famous by the marketers of fast-food franchises, hamburgers can be an occasional food that is fun to prepare at home. You can make them enticing and creative at the same time, by using turkey or a veggie mixture. Top with tomatoes, lettuce and sautéed onions. Experiment with different types of lettuces like arugula, romaine or spinach.

Oven-fried chicken drumsticks: My family loves my oven-fried chicken legs coated with ground almonds or panko crumbs. Dipping these tasty drumsticks into a delicious array of sauces makes them even more fun to eat. Serve them with mashed potatoes, fried sweet potato chips or peas. Making these finger foods at home allows you to bake the drumsticks instead of frying them.


∗ 2 packages active dry yeast
∗ Pinch sugar
∗ 1 1/4 cups warm water (110-115 F)
∗ 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons
∗ olive oil
∗ 1 teaspoon salt
∗ 3 1/2 cups flour
∗ 1/4 to 1/2 cup cornmeal
∗ Classic Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)
∗ Toppings, such as mushrooms, anchovies, onions, zucchini and roasted peppers
∗ 2 to 3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
∗ 1 1/2 to 2 cups grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 or 450 F.

Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in 1/2 cup of the warm water and set aside until foamy.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining 3/4 cup water, 1/4 cup olive oil and yeast mixture. Stir in salt and flour, 1 cup at a time, until the dough begins to come together into a rough ball. Turn onto a floured board and knead into a large ball, adding enough additional flour until smooth and no longer sticky. Oil the top of dough lightly, and cover with a clean kitchen towel. (You may use the dough at this point or let it rise, kneading every 10 to 15 minutes.)

Divide the dough into 4 or 5 pieces; knead each piece into a ball. Working with one ball at a time, roll it out on a floured board into a thin circle about 8 to 10 inches. Brush a round pizza-baking pan with oil and sprinkle with some of the cornmeal. Place the rolled-out dough on top of the cornmeal.

Spoon a thin coating of the Classic Tomato Sauce onto the pizza dough, spreading it with the back of a spoon to within 1 inch of the edge. Add any other toppings you desire, such as mushrooms, anchovies, onions, zucchini and roasted peppers. Sprinkle generously with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Drizzle with some of the remaining olive oil and bake on the lowest rack of the oven for 10 minutes, or until the crust is crisp and brown and the cheese is hot and bubbling. Serve immediately.

Repeat with remaining balls of dough.

Makes 4 to 5 pizzas, 4 to 6 servings each.


∗ 3 tablespoons olive oil
∗ 3 garlic cloves, minced
∗ 2 onions, finely chopped
∗ 1 red bell pepper, chopped
∗ 2 carrots, finely chopped
∗ 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
∗ 1 can (28 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes
∗ 1 cup dry red wine
∗ 1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
∗ 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried
∗ 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
∗ 1/2 teaspoon sugar
∗ Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic, onions, red pepper, carrots and celery, and sauté until the onions are transparent. Add the tomatoes with their liquid, red wine, oregano, basil, parsley and sugar. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.


∗ Sauce (recipe follows)
∗ 1/2 pound macaroni, shells or other shape pastas
∗ 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
∗ 1 1/2 cups mixed grated hard cheeses, such as aged cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan
∗ 1/2 cup cream
∗ Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Butter a 9-inch square baking dish or 4 to 6 individual baking dishes.

Prepare the Sauce; set aside.

Bring a large pot three-fourth full of salted water to a boil, add the pasta, and cook until al dente, according to the package directions. Drain, transfer to a bowl, and stir in the butter. Add the Sauce, 1 cup of the cheese and the cream, and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the pasta into the prepared baking dish(es) and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup cheese over the top(s). Bake until golden and bubbling, about 30 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.


∗ 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
∗ 1/4 cup flour
∗ 3 cups whole milk
∗ 1 small onion, thinly sliced
∗ 1/2 bay leaf
∗ Pinch grated nutmeg
∗ Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, until the mixture forms a ball, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and whisk in the milk, 1 cup at a time, mixing after each addition, until smooth. Return the pan to medium heat and whisk until the mixture comes to a boil. Add the onion, bay leaf and nutmeg, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl, and cover to keep warm.

Makes about 2 1/2 to 3 cups.


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