When meal preparation involves everyone in the family, they all gain an understanding about the different stages of food: the ingredients, the measurements, and the science. Kids, especially, make connections about where their food comes from and how each meal gets to the table. And when everyone realizes it takes time and work, they’re perhaps less likely to decide they don’t like it before they even try it!
My kids tend to be picky eaters so I often tweak “fast” type food they love with my own healthy spin so that everyone wins. Whether it’s macaroni and cheese or chicken tenders, there are ways to prepare homemade versions that are tasty enough to get thumbs up from even the pickiest eaters. (Plus you’ll save money—pre-processed chicken tenders can cost double what you’d pay for chicken meat itself.)
Chicken tenders and french fries are two favorites that often go together and my kids love to help prepare. These foods aren’t the most healthful when traditionally deep fried. However both can be baked in the oven with great, tasty results.
I prepare chicken tenders using the three-step breading process. Start with fresh chicken cut into strips and patted dry. Then coat them in seasoned flour, dip into an egg wash, and finally in seasoned bread crumbs. The tenders can either be seared in a little hot oil before baking or placed directly on a baking sheet and popped straight into the oven. Searing the tenders first helps make the coating extra crunchy, but you’ll achieve this even without searing. The key is to have a very hot oven and to turn them once during the cooking process.
That cooking process is similar for successful crispy oven fries—a very hot oven and turning over once. To prepare oven fries, it’s important to cut the pieces uniformly for even cooking. For a thinner fry, I’ll even cut the potatoes with a mandolin; I cut thicker fries by hand.
If you can prepare ahead of time, it’s a good idea to soak the potato pieces in cold water for at least one hour to as long as overnight. This pulls out some of the starch and is the secret to a crispier oven fry. If I didn’t plan ahead, I simply par-cook them by either steaming or boiling for a short time.
Toss the potatoes with a bit of oil (a teaspoon or two per serving) and seasoning, and bake. But first, I always preheat the pan and oven. This helps the crisp factor tremendously.
It’s important to arrange the potato pieces in a single layer on the sheet. Fries piled on top of each other even just a little bit results in a soggy mess.
I’ve experimented with all sorts of sneaky health swaps in an effort to make certain picky eaters eat well. For example, béchamel sauce (the sauce in mac and cheese) is a great place to blend in roasted squash.
Ground turkey or veggie patties not only make fine burgers, but also tacos or sloppy joes.
Let’s not forget pizza, another family favorite to prepare together. Mixing, rolling, and even attempting to toss the dough is such a fun process. Or buy premade dough or crusts. Either way, everyone can make their own personal pizza. I offer the traditional toppings of various cheeses, meats, and veggies but I try to think outside the usual pizza box and offer options such as roasted seasonal vegetables or fresh greens.
Even if you have family members who aren’t adventurous with toppings, you can always jazz up the sauce. My homemade sauce has a few secret ingredients. I usually start with a little sautéed onion and garlic. Then add tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, a little tomato paste and some seasonings like oregano and basil (plus a touch of sugar to cut the acidity). Then I add very finely chopped vegetables that I have on hand. I let those simmer in the sauce for 15 minutes or so, then add finely chopped fresh greens such as spinach, kale, or Swiss chard. If you need to, smooth out the veggie-packed sauce with an immersion blender before serving. This way, even the pickiest eaters are still getting plenty of vegetables.
Crispy Oven Fries
This recipe serves 4–6 people, depending on the size of the potatoes. For extra flavor, you can add things such as Italian herbs and grated parmesan to the seasonings.
4 large baking potatoes, scrubbed and cut lengthwise into ¼”-thick sticks
3–4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. paprika
¼ tsp. fresh ground pepper
Soak cut potatoes in cold water for at least one hour or overnight. Preheat oven to 450°. Place baking sheet in oven to heat (approx. 5-7 minutes).
Remove potatoes from water, place on towel and pat dry. In a bowl, toss potatoes with oil, salt, pepper, and seasonings.
Remove baking sheet from oven and spray with cooking spray. Place fries on baking sheet in a single layer, taking care not to crowd. Cook approximately 30 minutes turning potatoes once halfway through. If a little extra crisp is desired, place under the broiler for a minute or two.