One of the hardest parts of parenting…feeding healthy home-cooked meals every. single. night.

Not only that but how on earth can you make a healthy meal without spending 2 hours cooking and cleaning in the kitchen every night??!

As the owner of Austin’s top-rated childcare center, Austin Kids Retreat, I know a thing or two about making a lot of food and feeding picky hungry kids! We offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the kids who come in for both drop-in childcare and our preschool program. Which means when I’m home, I definitely don’t want to spend hours cooking and cleaning – but like any parent I still want my child to have a healthy and filling meal!

Here are a few easy meals you too can do during the week! They’re easily adjustable for any diet type (paleo, vegan, plant-based, keto, etc).

Not only are the meals easy but we recommend specific ingredients to make the cooking process as easy as possible for you!

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3-Minute Healthy Instant Pot Spaghetti

(with gluten free, dairy free, and even plant-based/vegan options!)

What kid doesn’t like spaghetti?! What if we could show you a way to make spaghetti fast, in one pot, healthy, and modifiable to most any diet?! Not only that but most versions of this recipe allows this meal to be a panty/freezer meal that you can stock up and just have on hand for last minute meals?!

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Check out this easy Instant Pot Spaghetti Recipe!

This meal is easily a freezer/fridge/pantry meal that you can bulk buy and pull out for those “what’s for dinner” nights without much forethought!

First choose your protein…Beef, Turkey, or  Cooked Lentils. Freeze your meat or check out the pre-cook lentils from Trader Joes – they are fridge-friendly for several months – perfect for that meal on the fly!

For pasta sauce you’ll need two jars. We recommend these ones from Trader Joes (they taste great and very inexpensive): 1 Jar Tomato Basil Marinara ($1.79) and 1 Jar of Roasted Garlic Marinara

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Now to make this meal extra healthy! Add some veggies!!

Be sneaky or encourage open food education (check out this article on handling your picky eater).

Easy veggies to add are diced spinach and/or diced mushrooms. Spinach offers lots of iron, especially when eaten with the vitamin c rich tomato sauce. Mushroom is the only food that naturally has vitamin D! Give these a quick sautee in the instant pot (with the meat or solo) before adding the rest of the ingredients in.

When choosing your pasta, we recommend these options as they’re both gluten-free and high in protein: Trader Joes Brown Rice and Quinoa Pasta or Banza Chickpea Pasta.

 

Keto + Paleo Options: switch out pasta for zoodles or spaghetti squash! I haven’t tested this recipe with these options so consider cooking these separately or preparing to test

Note: If that cooking suggestion is 5 minutes, cook for 2 in the instant pot (cut in half and go with the smaller number if it’s uneven) 

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Ingredients (see specific brand/type suggestions above):

  • 2 jars pasta sauce (26 oz each)
  • 26 oz of water (just fill up an empty pasta jar after you’ve dumped the sauce)
  • pasta of choice
  • protein of choice
  • optional: diced veggies of choice (suggest: spinach and mushrooms)

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Instructions:

  1. Defrost meat if necessary (microwave defrost or pull out 24 hours before)
  2. Sautee with a drizzle of olive oil in Instant Pot until cooked. Turn the IP off
  3. If going with meat-free option simply dump in your pre-cooked lentils to the off Instant Pot
  4. Dump bag of pasta
  5. Dump 2 jars of pasta sauce over. DO. NOT. STIR.
  6. Fill up an empty jar of sauce with water.
  7. Pour the water around the edges of the dish so the water sinks down. Move in a circle. Again. DO NOT STIR.
  8. Put the lid on, set the pot to manual for 3 minutes (or half the cook time of the pasta. If the number is odd, set it to the lower number)
  9. Let the timer beep! Open up the lid and that’s it! Often no steam even comes out.

*Sometimes this dish can burn a little on the bottom, but it’s minimal and doesn’t affect the taste.

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Green Protein Pasta

This one can be really any variation of veggies you have at home, beans, pasta, plus pesto and that’s all!

Easily customize this recipe to be gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo and/or vegan. 

Pesto sauce can be regular pesto or I recommend the Trader Joes ‘Kale, Cashew, and Basil Pesto’ as a great way too boost added nutrients from that kale (it’s also dairy-free and $3.79). For those with a nut-allergy keep in mind that making pesto is a really easy process! Here’s a nut-free vegan pesto recipe

By using a protein-packed pasta this dish becomes even more filling!

Make it paleo by using a paleo grain-free pasta. Make it keto by using veggie noodles instead of any carb-based noodles. Or try this dish with cauliflower gnocchi!  (If using the Trader Joes brand, ROAST THEM and ignore the directions on the back of the packaging)

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Ingredients:

  • pasta (chickpea pasta = high in protein, cauliflower gnocchi, zoodles, spaghetti squash, brown rice & quinoa pasta…etc)
  • pesto
  • beans – navy beans, garbanzo beans, or even edamame! A great way to add over 18g of protein to this dish!
  • roasted veggies
  • lemon or lemon pepper seasoning
  • garlic powder
  • optional: add some shredded chicken from prepped chicken or a rotisserie chicken

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Instructions:

  1. Set the oven to 425
  2. Put your garbanzo beans on the baking sheet. Be sure to absorb some of the water on them with a paper towel before cooking.
    • If you want these crispier you’ll need to plan for these to be in the oven longer – around 30 minutes with being tossed around in between.
  3. Prep your veggies by dicing and putting on a roasting pan
    • Some ideas: ‘mushroom and asparagus’, ‘peas and broccoli’, ‘broccoli and tomato’, ‘corn, tomato, and avocado’ – just to name a few!
  4. Give the veggies a quick toss in olive oil and Lemon & Pepper seasoning. Or olive oil, squeeze of lemon, salt & pepper, and some optional but highly recommended garlic power!
  5. Roast for 10-12 minutes
  6. In the meantime get the pasta water boiling and pasta cooking!
  7. Drain the cooked pasta, toss in the veggies, and coat the whole dish in pesto! Add more olive oil if it’s too dry
  8. EAT UP!

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Easy Orange Chicken Asian Dinner

Trader Joe’s strikes again, this time with delicious gluten-free chicken nuggets!

This chicken is actually raw before cooking and antibiotic-free! It’s a great choice for many meals (diced up in salads, in any kind of sauce, etc) but really makes a phenomenal base for homemade orange/teriyaki chicken

Cook according to the package, a minute before serving toss in a gluten-free orange sauce (this sauce is SO good whether gluten-free or not. Whole 30 people can easily make their own orange chicken sauce ) 

Serve over some delicious cauliflower fried rice! Sautee the fried rice in some oil. Add in a medley of mixed frozen vegetables or a bag of frozen edamame. Give it that restaurant flavor by sauteeing up cubes of the frozen ginger or garlic and add a dash of sesame oil. Finish flavoring with coconut aminos or soy sauce. If you have a picky eater, a great way to hide the cauliflower aspect is to mix the fried rice with brown rice.

Pair with your favorite green veggie! I love to add roasted garlic broccoli or teriyaki green beans!

On a plant-based or vegan diet? Substitute the chicken with crispy cauliflower or tofu!

Pssst…Trader Joe’s also sells frozen Tempura Cauliflower. While they do have a sauce that comes with the bag, you can use this tempura cauliflower with any sauce (buffalo? teriyaki? honey ginger!? Go for it!) Or make your own crispy cauliflower!

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Ingredients: 

  • Gluten-Free Chicken Nuggets or Tempura Cauliflower…or try Salmon!
  • Gluten-Free Orange Sauce (or asian sauce of your preference)
  • Cauliflower Fried Rice
  • Veggies for fried rice – frozen mix medley or edamame!
  • Soy Sauce
  • Sesame Oil
  • Optional: Egg or 2 for the Fried Rice
  • Any additional vegetable (like broccoli or green beans)

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Instructions:

  1. Cook nuggets or cauliflower to instruction (the cauliflower you might want to crisp a little longer).
    • Don’t add the sauce just yet!
  2. Prep and roast any veggie of choice (green beans or broccoli…broccoli you might want to only roast for 12-15 minutes)
  3. Cook the cauliflower fried rice in a pan with a bit of oil, sesame oil, and soy sauce.
  4. Add garlic powder and salt/pepper to taste
  5. Add frozen veggies (edamame and/or spring mix)
  6. Optional: prep eggs for a scramble. Create a whole in the middle of the fried rice dish and add the whisked egg(s).
  7. When the chicken or cauliflower is ready, pull out and toss in the orange sauce! For the tempura cauliflower I would recommend lightly drizzling over the whole dish as the sauce can quickly make the cauliflower soggy
  8. Plate together for a delicious veggie-heavy, gluten-free meal that can be made from frozen ingredients and/or fresh!

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Taco Pizza

Is there anything that brings more joy to a child’s face than the word ‘pizza’!? That’s why this Mexican Taco Pizza is a such a hit!

This meal is easily adjustable depending on your diet, ingredients, and time.

Start with a tortilla base. I recommend preheating your tortilla base of choice in the oven to get a crisp foundation!

Add some beans (refried black, pinto, and/or vegan beans are a great pantry staple) – the beans are also a great boost of protein to this dish!

Now let your kids get creative!! Encourage healthy exploration (as described in our ‘Handling a Picky Eater’ tips post) by having a variety of toppings to offer….fajita toppings, olives, mushrooms, lettuce, avocado, corn, tomatoes, cheese, or even shredded chicken…etc. Even adding one of each ingredient is a win. Make it fun by encouraging funny faces with the food. “What color eyes should your pizza face have!? Green like you? Try to put some avocado for the eyes. How silly!”

Make it a true pizza or top their creation with another crisped up tortilla for ‘taco pizza sandwich’! (what a fun name for a kid to play around with).

For tortilla’s, sure you can buy corn tortillas, flour tortillas, corn & flour mixed tortillas, lo-carb tortillas, whole wheat tortillas, brown rice tortillas….etc. But did you know you can also make tortillas at home out of two ingredients..and one of those is an awesome vegetable loaded with nutrients? Sweet potato tortillas are an easy blend of sweet potatoes and flour! That’s it! No oils, no long list of ingredients, etc.

Don’t worry paleo friends, there’s a paleo sweet potato recipe available as well. It does have a couple more ingredients though!

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Ingredients:

  • tortilla (see above for tortilla recs and recipes for all diet types)
  • refried beans (black/pinto/vegan etc)
  • taco toppings! Any veggies you have on hand, sour cream, etc.
  • cheese

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Instructions:

  1. Buy or make your tortilla base of choice
  2. Top with refried beans (lots of protein! I suggest looking for low-sodium options though)
  3. Optional: top how you would like….cheese, veggies, shredded chicken, etc. Encourage your kids to try be creative with making funny faces or a fun rainbow of color – gently encourage trying a little of all veggies as we note as one of the tips in our post How to Handle a Picky Eater
  4. Throw in the oven for a few minutes
  5. Enjoy or top with another crispy tortilla for a Taco Pizza Sandwich! This little trick is helpful if your child was a little hesitant about some of the ingredients they added. Making it a sandwich hides some of the ‘scary’ items and can encourage happy eating!

 

 

We would love to hear your meal creations for fast, healthy, kid-friendly meals!