You'd think that toddlers come equipped with a chicken nugget gene—it's like they can spot one from a mile away. And they waaaaaant it. "Once a baby becomes a toddler, he starts craving independence, and that includes the desire to choose whatever he wants to eat," notes Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, a dietitian at Washington University in St. Louis and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the mother of three. "Introducing your toddler to healthier foods now is important because it helps set the stage for future eating habits." So think outside the (macaraoni and cheese) box and try these nutritionist-approved choices. They taste so good, your toddler won't even realize they're healthed up.
Instead of: Fast-food chicken nuggets, which are fried and fatty
Try this: Make your own chicken fingers, the easy way.
What to do: Slice slim strips of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and dip them in plain yogurt (it cuts down on fat and adds a shot of calcium). Roll in whole-grain bread crumbs, place on a baking sheet spritzed with cooking spray, and bake in the oven for 15 minutes at 375 degrees. You can make enough in one shot for the entire week.
Instead of: Store-bought macaroni and cheese, which can be filled with sodium and chemical additives
Try this: DIY mac 'n' cheese. "I treat it like baked ziti!" says Tanner-Blasiar.
What to do: Boil whole grain pasta, drain it, top with mozzarella cheese (which is as rich in calcium as cheddar but lower in fat), and put it into the oven for about 15 minutes at 350 degrees. "The kids get all the taste of mac and cheese, plus the benefits of whole grains and fiber," Tanner-Blasiar says. Stir in baby broccoli florets or peas for extra vitamins and color.
Instead of: Hot dogs, which can be filled with saturated fat and sodium
Try this: All-natural franks made with chicken or turkey, which pack all the flavor of regular wiener but are lower in fat. Because hot dogs of any kind are a choking hazard for toddlers, be sure to slice them lengthwise and then dice them.
Instead of: Pepperoni pizza, which is high in saturated fat
Try this: Homemade veggie pizza on whole-wheat crust. Lots of supermarkets sell premixed balls of whole-grain dough; bring one home and let your toddler help press it into circles. "Add some tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and veggies, veggies, veggies!" Tanner-Blasiar says. "Mushrooms, green peppers, red peppers, and tomatoes are great choices. You can also add boneless, skinless chicken breast or lean hamburger on top for good protein."
Instead of: Grilled cheese, which can be high in fat
Try this: A lower-fat, veggie-packed version on whole-grain bread (instead of empty-nutrient white toast). Made with shredded mozzarella, it'll still be ooey-gooey; chop up a few spinach leaves and tomato slices and pop them in for extra vitamins and minerals. Instead of buttering the bread before cooking it in a skillet, brush lightly with olive oil, or use a toaster oven and bake until golden brown.
Instead of: French fries, which can be fat bombs
Try this: Baked sweet potato fries—full of fiber and vitamins, and low-fat because they're baked. Plus, they're bright orange and slightly sweet; what toddler can resist?
What to do: Slice sweet potatoes with the skin still on, and coat with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Lay on a baking sheet spritzed with cooking spray and put in the oven at 475 degrees for about 30 minutes, turning a few times to brown. Yum!