Before I had children of my own, I’d listen to frustrated friends of mine talk about how their kids were such picky eaters. They’d fight with their kids, meal after meal, to get them to put something healthy in their little mouths. As a Mom-Wannabe and an avid eater, this made me nervous about what was to come. Then, my oldest daughter arrived and my fears were calmed. She couldn’t get enough of the healthy stuff, and still can’t. When other kids want to binge on chicken nuggets and French fries, my oldest would prefer tearing apart an artichoke or diving into a bowl of edamame.
Then, the mood changed in my kitchen.
My second daughter was born.
Daughter #2 is a completely different eater. While her sister is munching on that bowl of soy nuts or tofu, she’d rather down a loaf of bread and chase it with a chocolate bar. She is a carb loader and, left to her own devices, would eat nothing but bread, chocolate, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets and maybe some fruit salad on a good day. Getting her to eat vegetables has been trying. It’s been a long journey, but we’re getting there…slowly. As she’s gotten older, she’s getting better about at least trying the green things on her plate. She’s warmed up to broccoli, but has to have ketchup to dunk it in. (The thought makes me gag and makes her sister roll her eyes.) There’s no getting away from the veggies in my house, though. Just because you don’t like them, doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be on your dinner plate. That said, I’m always looking for ways to add veggies into foods that I know she’ll eat. I don’t like having to be sneaky about things, but sometimes, it’s the only way.
One of my daughter’s staples is macaroni and cheese. Who doesn’t love mac and cheese? It’s good stuff. I can’t really blame her! When I ran across this recipe from healthy chef Ellie Krieger, I was intrigued. It did involve macaroni, and four different types of cheeses, but the bulk of the “cheese” sauce is actually butternut squash. I don’t know about you, but I LOVE butternut squash and I like to cook with it as often as possible. I thought this might be one way I could actually get my youngest to eat it. I decided to give it a try. As my girls played in the other room, nowhere near the kitchen (so they couldn’t form an opinion about dinner before I’d even served it), I set to work.
First off, I stirred together two packages of pureed butternut squash and some milk on the stovetop. Two packages! That’s a lot of squash!
It blended together nicely, but I found that after it was all combined, it still had that “stringy” squash texture. Know what I mean? I grabbed my immersion blender and gave it a quick whirl around the pan. When I was done, you’d swear I had a pot of day-glo cheese sauce in front of me and not a pot of squash. So far, so good…and the kids were still playing in the other room.
Once the sauce was heated to simmering, I removed it from the stove and added some cheddar cheese, Monterrey Jack cheese, a bit of ricotta, salt, dry mustard and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
When the sauce came together, it was thick and creamy and just the right Kraft-Mac-and-Cheesy type color. I stirred in my cooked macaroni, poured it in my baking dish and sprinkled the top with some breadcrumbs mixed with a bit of Parmesan cheese and olive oil. It was ready to pop in the oven and my kids (namely, Kid #2) were none the wiser!
After 20 minutes in the oven, I removed a pan full of deliciously cheesy looking Mac & Cheese. I got the girls plates ready, plopped some broccoli on the side, and even squirted some ketchup next to Avery’s, despite my gag reflex kicking in.
This dish was really good! My husband and I enjoyed it and, more importantly, both of the kids did too. Is this the creamiest, cheesiest Mac & Cheese I’ve ever had? No, but it’s not supposed to be. It was a delicious, healthy alternative and it worked! Avery gobbled up her dinner without a complaint!
After dinner, I was going to tell her that she’d just eaten a bunch of squash, willingly, but I decided to let it be. Maybe next time I’ll let her help me make it…or, maybe it will just be our little secret.
SOMEWHAT SNEAKY MAC & CHEESE
Adapted from Ellie Krieger
- 1 lb. elbow macaroni
- 2 (10 oz.) packages frozen pureed butternut squash (or winter squash), thawed
- 2 cups 1% low-fat milk
- 1⅓ cup extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- ⅔ cup Monterrey Jack cheese, grated
- ½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. powdered mustard
- ⅛ tsp. cayenne pepper
- 2 Tbsp. unseasoned bread crumbs
- 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tsp. olive oil
- Preheat oven to 375*. Coat a 9x13 inch pan with cooking spray.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until tender, but still firm, about 5-8 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl.
- Place the squash and milk in a large saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring until well blended. If a creamier texture is desired, blend with an immersion blender in the pot for just a minute until smooth. Turn up the heat and cook until the mixture is almost simmering, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat and add the cheddar cheese, jack cheese, ricotta, salt, mustard and cayenne pepper. Pour the cheese mixture over the macaroni in the bowl and stir to combine. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish.
- Combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese and oil in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top of the mac and cheese. Bake for 20 minutes and then broil for 3 minutes, so the top is crisp and nicely browned.