Mommy Makeovers: Lighten Kids' Favorite Foods

Try these healthier versions of family favorites

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

The good news is that the healthy-eating movement in America is gaining momentum. Shucks, even cereal giants have launched reduced-sugar versions of their tried-and-true cereals like Frosted Flakes and Cocoa Puffs. I never thought I would see the day when Tony the Tiger would say that a less-sugar frosted flake was still Gr-r-reat!

Even so, we're still bombarded with information from every direction reminding us that large numbers of our children are "overweight" or "obese." This always scares me, because I fear that some well-intentioned parents will react by doing harmful things like putting their children on fad diets.

I'm not alone, either. Connie Liakos Evers, RD, author of How to Teach Nutrition to Kids, worries that there will be a backlash of eating disorders because the media is constantly telling kids they are fat.

So don't worry -- I'm not going to try the "shock and awe" approach and cite countless statistics on child obesity in America. I'm guessing you've already heard plenty of them before, and, frankly, they're not going to help matters anyway.

What we can do as families is to:

  • Make sitting down to dinner a happy, relaxed, and special time as many times a week as possible.
  • Have the whole family focus on healthy eating behaviors (like eating more fruits and vegetables, switching to whole grains, exercising more, and eating fewer high-fat foods) because it's a great thing to do for preventing diseases tomorrow and for feeling great today.
  • Get into exercise as many ways as possible. When the whole family gets moving, no one feels singled out, and it sends the message that exercising is good for everyone (which it is).

Do as I Say, Not as I Did

Our children can actually learn from our mistakes. If fad dieting didn't work for us, why should we think it will work for them? If being criticized or having our food intake scrutinized by friends and family was hurtful and counterproductive for us, wouldn't it work the same way (or maybe be even worse) for children?

A recent study took a close look at the dieting experiences of 149 women who had BMIs of 30 to 70 (the standard classification for obesity is a BMI, or body mass index, of 30 or higher). The researchers found that women with higher BMIs tended to have started dieting before age 14, and had dieted more frequently than women with lower BMIs.

Here are some other interesting tidbits from this study:

  • 62% of the women in the survey were put on their first diet before age 14.
  • 40% were put on a diet by their parents.
  • 83% of the women with BMIs of 55 or higher had dieted more than 11 times.

Other studies have found consistently that youths' attempts at weight control tend to do exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to do. In fact, the higher the level of dietary restraint, concern about weight, and body dissatisfaction among young girls at risk of being overweight, the more weight they gained between ages 5 to 9, according to a recent study.

Focusing your family on eating and exercising for the health of it is a healthier way to go, both mentally and physically.

Transforming Kids Favorite Foods

What do macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and pizza have in common? They're "kid foods," of course. I don't know how it happens, but somewhere between making them their first peanut-butter-and jelly sandwich and taking them to their first play date where they're introduced to macaroni and cheese (from the box), we find ourselves fixing "kid foods" for the family meals at least some of the time.

To get your family started on the road to healthy eating, I did a few "mommy makeovers" to lighten dishes that moms go out of their way to make because our kids love them. By making a few ingredient adjustments, you can transform them into healthier options for kids and grownups alike.

I had my suspicions about what these foods were, but I wanted some professional advice. So I asked a few editors of food or parenting publications what they thought. Then I did a "mommy makeover" on one dish/recipe from each editor's list. (I noted these with an *; see the recipes below.)

Andrea Messina, lifestyle director for Parenting magazine, is convinced that kids like things buttery, cheesy, or fried. She puts pizza*, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, and French fries at the top of the popularity chart.

According to Syd Carter, an editor with, parents who visit the recipe web site have noted that their kids loved:

  • Fajitas
  • Kabobs
  • Smoothies
  • Pot roast
  • Banana bread*
  • All things Mexican

Jessica Hastereiter, associate editor for American Girl magazine, encourages parents to turn food preparation into a craft, where kids get to put the finishing touches on themselves. Some kid-friendly foods she mentioned were pizza, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, hamburgers*, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets.

5 Quick Makeovers

Just by making a few ingredient adjustments, we can make many of these favorite kid foods lower in calories and fat and higher in fiber and nutrients. Here are five quick examples:

1. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich

  • Use 1 tablespoon of natural-style peanut butter.
  • Use 1 tablespoon of less-sugar grape jelly (such as Smucker's Low Sugar).
  • Use whole-wheat or whole-grain bread, or fiber-enriched white bread.

BEFORE: 335 calories, 10.9 g fat, 2.1 g saturated fat, 2.5 g fiber
AFTER: 290 calories, 10.9 g fat, 1.7 g saturated fat, 5.5 g fiber
SAVINGS: 45 calories saved, plus 3 grams of fiber added!

2. Macaroni and cheese from the box

  • Use 2 tablespoons of no-trans-fat margarine (choose one with 8 grams of fat per tablespoon) instead of 4 tablespoons of butter.
  • Use low-fat milk instead of whole milk.
  • Add a tablespoon or two of fat-free or light sour cream, if needed for creaminess.
  • Add veggies on the side or in the macaroni (such as 1/2 cup of steamed broccoli per serving).

SAVINGS: 72 calories and 8 g fat per serving (if four servings per box), plus 2.3 g fiber added!

3. Hot dogs

  • Choose a reduced-fat hot dog. (Ball Park Lite, Louis Rich Turkey Franks, and Hebrew National Reduced Fat are great options.)
  • Look for whole-wheat or higher-fiber buns.
  • Add onions and tomato, if desired, for added nutrition.
  • Choose lower-fat and lower-calorie condiments such as ketchup or mustard.

BEFORE: 366 calories, 22 g fat, 9.1 g saturated fat, 1.2 g fiber
AFTER: 325 calories, 11 g fat, 3.2 g saturated fat, 5.8 g fiber
SAVINGS: 41 calories, 11 g fat, and 5.9 g saturated fat, plus 4.6 g fiber added!

4. French fries

  • Choose lower-fat frozen French fries.
  • Bake them instead of frying.
  • Complement this side dish with a fruit and a vegetable, so the kids don't overdo the fries.

BEFORE: 245 calories, 12 g fat, 5.6 g saturated fat, 0.8 g fiber per 3-ounce serving
AFTER: 122 calories, 4 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 1 g fiber per 3-ounce serving
SAVINGS: 23 calories, 8 g fat, 5.1 g saturated fat, plus 0.2 g fiber added!

5. Mexican dishes

  • Use reduced-fat Jack and/or cheddar cheese,
  • Work in beans every chance you get.
  • Use extra-lean meat when the recipe calls for it (super-lean ground beef or ground sirloin, skinless chicken breast, lean pork trimmed of visible fat).
  • Use fat-free or light sour cream instead of regular.
  • Work in whole grains and vegetables when possible (such as brown rice, whole-wheat tortillas, tomatoes, green peppers, etc.).

And now for the Mommy Makeovers recipes!

Easy French Bread Pizza

Journal as: 1 1/2 slices bread + 1 ounce regular or low-fat cheese + 1/4 cup vegetables without added fat

This is a quick alternative to frozen pizza. They're easy for kids to assemble; then Mom or Dad can broil them.

2 French-bread sandwich rolls, split in half
Olive oil or canola cooking spray
1 teaspoon Italian herb seasoning
1/2 cup bottled pizza sauce (or substitute marinara sauce)
3/4 cup shredded, reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese
3/4 cup shredded, part-skim mozzarella cheese
Assorted vegetable toppings:
      Chopped green onions
      Tomato slices
      Zucchini slices
      Mushroom slices
      Artichoke hearts
      Sliced olives

  • Preheat broiler.
  • Spray the tops of the French-bread roll halves with canola or olive oil cooking spray, then sprinkle the Italian seasoning over the top of each.
  • Broil bread halves until lightly brown on top (watch carefully).
  • Spread 1/8 cup pizza sauce over each half, then sprinkle 1/4 of the cheddar cheese and 1/4 of the mozzarella over each bread half.
  • Arrange any vegetables you choose on top of the cheese.
  • Broil until the cheese is melted and bubbly (about 2 minutes).

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving (without the vegetable toppings): 189 calories, 12 g protein, 20 g carbohydrate, 6.5 g fat, 4.3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 430 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 36%.

Kids' Banana Bread

Journal as: 1 small muffin OR 2 slices bread

This is a mild-flavored banana bread without nuts, to please the younger palates in the family. It's great toasted, too!

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup no-trans-fat margarine (choose one with 8 grams of fat per tablespoon)
1/4 vanilla low-fat yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup Splenda sweetener
1 egg
1/4 cup egg substitute or 2 egg whites
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups mashed overripe bananas (about four bananas)

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Coat a 9x5-inch loaf pan with canola cooking spray and lightly dust with flour.
  • In a large bowl, combine flours, baking soda, and salt. In large mixing bowl, cream together margarine, yogurt, vanilla extract, brown sugar, and Splenda.
  • On low speed, beat in egg and egg substitute and mashed bananas until well blended. Add flour mixture to banana mixture and blend just to moisten. Pour batter into prepared loaf pan.
  • Bake 65-75 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into center of the loaf comes out clean. Let bread cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack.

Yield: One 9x5-inch loaf (12 servings).

Per serving: 198 calories, 5 g protein, 36.5 g carbohydrate, 4.3 g fat, 0.7 g saturated fat, 21 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 232 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 29%.

The Perfect Cheeseburger

Journal as: sandwich and burger with moderate-fat meat OR 2 slices of whole grain bread + 1 ounce of cheese + 1 serving lean meat without added fat

1 pound super-lean ground beef (or fresh ground sirloin)
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
Canola cooking spray
4 slices reduced-fat cheese
4 whole-wheat hamburger buns
Lettuce leaves (optional)
Tomato and onion slices (optional)
Mustard and catsup (optional)
Barbecue sauce (optional)

  • Divide the beef into 4 equal portions. Use a patty press (or your hands) to make four burgers. Sprinkle them with the pepper and garlic salt.
  • Pan-fry, broil, or grill the burgers, using canola cooking spray to keep them from sticking to the pan or grill. When the burgers are almost cooked through, place the cheese slices on top and finish cooking (30 to 60 seconds). Remove the burgers to the serving plate. If desired, cover the plate with foil to keep burgers warm and moist.
  • Dress your burger on the bun with the lettuce, sliced tomato and onion, mustard, barbecue sauce, and ketchup as desired.

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 397 calories, 35.5 g protein, 34.5 g carbohydrate, 13 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 86 mg cholesterol, 2.5 g fiber, 767 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 29%.

Originally published Sept. 10, 2004.

Medically updated Aug. 24, 2005.

SOURCES: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, June 2004 and July 2004.

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