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Switch it up: 8 tips for getting children to eat whole-grain pastas

Published May 15, 2014 9:11 am

Strategies • 8 tips for getting children to eat nutritious pasta.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Kids can be so picky.

First they push away the good-for-you peas and carrots and now they're turning up their noses at healthy whole-grain pasta.

Many children have adapted to the healthier whole-grain breads and even pizza crusts that now are served as part of school meals. But nutrition directors across the country say they are having problems getting kids to eat whole-grain pastas.

It's no surprise, as these noodles have a different taste — and color — than pasta made with processed white flour. Even some adults don't appreciate the nuttier taste and texture.

While the food waste is palpable, schools aren't turning back.

Starting next academic year, pasta and other grain products in schools will have to be whole-grain rich, or more than half whole grain. The requirement, part of a government effort to make school lunches and breakfasts healthier, applies to everything from bread and pizza crust to tortillas and even grits.

"Whole-grain pasta is a different experience," said Pleasant Grove resident Cherie Schetselaar, co-author with daughter Britney Rule of the "Grain Crazy" cookbook and blog.

"It's the same when you try to switch from white rice to brown rice," she said, " Whatever you're used to eating is what you want. If all you've been eating is crackers, you're not going to get up one morning and start craving healthy vegetables and fruits. It's a process."

Parents can help their kids — and themselves — by regularly serving whole-grain pastas at home. To make the transition easier for everyone — Utah cooks and health experts shared these tips:

Experiment • Try different brands to see what your family likes best, said Schetselaar. If you tried the first-generation of whole-grain pastas a few years ago and didn't like them, it's worth giving them a second look. In recent years, because of the growing demand for whole-grain foods, companies have improved their products, making them more appealing in both taste and color.

Go beyond whole-wheat • Many different grains are used to make pasta, said Schetselaar. "It doesn't have to be just wheat." Pastas made from brown rice, amaranth, kamut, quinoa, buckwheat, corn, spelt and other whole-grain flours are available in most grocery stores. These options are just as high in fiber and nutrition as whole-wheat.

Check cooking times • Texture can change greatly if you undercook whole-grain pastas, said Lydia Martinez, marketing specialist for the new South Valley Whole Foods opening in late May. "A lot of times, whole-wheat pasta is served undercooked and the texture isn't quite right." In Utah, the high elevation can make the pasta cooking times on the package incorrect. Pasta, which might take seven minutes to cook at sea level, could take nine or 10 minutes at an altitude of 3,000 feet. Before draining your pasta, pull out a piece and bite into it to make sure it's cooked properly. "You may want to cook it for a minute or two more," said Martinez.

Have variety • Serving pasta shells, spirals and other shapes will be more interesting to kids — and adults — than spaghetti, which also is more difficult for young children to pick up with a fork. Plus, "those kind of fun shapes hold on to the sauce and give the pasta a little more flavor," said Martinez.

Be a master of disguise • There's no shame in hiding whole-grain pastas in a casserole, lasagna or soup. (See recipes.) What they don't know, won't hurt them. Martinez said mixing cooked pasta into a frittata or quiche, also "is a great way to give pasta a different flavor and texture" as well as "a great way to use leftover pasta." Victoria Topham, chef/owner of Petite Feast in Salt Lake City, agrees. "By creating recipes that had more sauce (or broth), the whole-wheat pasta tastes more like traditional pasta. Of course, don't overload the recipe with a heavy sauce, reducing the nutritional benefits of whole-wheat pasta."

Make a slow introduction • Topham also said that instead of making a complete switch to whole-wheat pasta in a recipe, ease the kids into it by using a mix of regular and whole-wheat. "Start out by substituting 1/4 of the amount of pasta called for in a recipe with whole-wheat pasta," she said. "You could then gradually increase the amount of whole-wheat pasta until you were no longer eating regular pasta."

Bring bold flavors • Whole-wheat pastas are hearty and can stand up to bold flavors, which can help ease the white-to-wheat transition, says Kalyn Denny, author of the popular Kalyn's Kitchen blog. One of her favorite recipes is a whole-wheat spaghetti salad with spicy Italian sausage, olives, tomatoes and a basil vinaigrette. (See recipe.) It's something even the nieces and nephews will eat, she said. "Even if they don't like every ingredient — one of them doesn't like tomatoes — most of them like the sausage and pasta."

Be persistent • It can take as many as 10 exposures to a new food before a child acquires a liking, says Isabel Mejia, a nutritionist and author of the Food is Our Friend blog. "They have to get used to the smell, taste, texture and idea of a food before they begin to become familiarized with it and like it." She suggested that parents involve children in the meal planning and cooking, too. "It's hard for anyone to change their habits," she said. "But when the person changing is more involved, the more successful and long-term the change will be."


Buying real whole grains

Labels can be confusing. Here are 3 things to know when seeking out whole-grain foods:

The name of the whole-grain should be first on the package's list of ingredients. Good grains include: brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, millet, oatmeal, quinoa, rolled oats, whole-grain barley, whole-grain corn, whole-grain sorghum, whole-grain triticale, whole oats, whole rye, whole wheat and wild rice.

Foods labeled "multi-grain," "stone-ground," "100% wheat," "cracked wheat," "seven-grain" or "bran" are usually not whole-grain products.

Color is not an indication of a whole grain. Bread can be brown because of molasses or other added ingredients. Read the ingredient list to see if it is a whole grain. —

Whole wheat spaghetti salad with Italian sausage, tomatoes, olives and basil vinaigrette

4 or 5 (12-ounce) links Italian turkey sausage

2 to 3 teaspoons olive oil

8 ounces whole-wheat spaghetti, broken into pieces about 2 inches long*

Salt, for pasta cooking water

2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half

1 (6-ounce) can black olives, drained and cut in half

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

½ cup sliced green onions

3 tablespoons coarsely grated fresh Parmesan

Salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste


2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

½ teaspoon dried Italian herb blend

½ teaspoon garlic powder

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

10 to 12 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped or 2 tablespoons basil pesto bought or homemade

Heat a small amount of olive oil in a large frying pan and start browning the sausage over medium heat. While sausage browns, bring a large pot of water to a boil, to cook the pasta, adding a generous amount of salt to the water. When the water comes to a boil, add pasta, reduce heat to a low boil. Cook pasta until barely al dente. (Check the package for cooking time; I cooked my spaghetti for exactly 9 minutes.) Drain the pasta into a colander placed in the sink, rinse with cold water, and drain well.

As soon as the sausage is browned on all sides, remove from the pan and cool until you can slice it. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half. Drain the olives and cut in half. Chop the parsley and slice the green onions and finely chop the basil (or measure the pesto if you don't have fresh basil.)

Cut the cooled sausage into thick slices, add a little more olive oil to the frying pan, and brown the sausage slices again on both sides. Let cool.

While the sausage is cooling and pasta is draining, whisk or blend together the white balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, Italian herb blend, garlic powder, and olive oil to make the dressing, then whisk or blend in the finely chopped basil or pesto.

Put cooled and drained spaghetti, sliced tomatoes and sliced olives into a large bowl and gently toss with the dressing. Add the cooled and browned sausage slices and toss again, then add the chopped parsley, sliced green onion, and coarsely grated fresh Parmesan and toss again. Season the salad well with salt and fresh ground black pepper and serve, or refrigerate for a few hours before serving. (Remember the pasta cooking water and the olives are salty, so it doesn't need much salt.)

I don't normally like to refrigerate things with fresh tomatoes, but this salad was still really good after it had been in the fridge overnight.

*Denny uses Garofalo Organic Whole Wheat Italian Spaghetti, any whole wheat pasta shape will work.

Servings • 6 to 8 servings

Source: Kalyn Denny at Kalyn's Kitchen

Whole wheat pasta, vegetable and chicken meatball soup


1 cup whole-wheat bread crumbs

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup whole milk

¼ cup parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 tablespoon fresh, minced garlic

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons black pepper

2 pounds ground chicken or turkey breast


1 small yellow onion, diced

4 ribs celery, diced

2 carrots, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 cups low sodium chicken stock

2 (6-ounce) cans diced tomatoes with juice

1 (15-ounce) can whited beans, drained and rinsed

1 cup whole-wheat elbow macaroni

1 bay leaf

1 tablespoon dried basil

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 cup zucchini, chopped

1 cup yellow squash, chopped

½ cup basil pesto (homemade or prepared)

¼ cup parsley chopped

Salt, to taste

Pepper to taste

For the meatballs, heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Gently mix to thoroughly combine. Shape into meatballs that are one-inch in diameter. Place on a foil lined, rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until meatballs are just cooked through.

For soup, saute onion, celery, carrots, and garlic in 2 tablespoon olive oil over medium high heat until softened. Add chicken stock, diced tomatoes, white beans, uncooked pasta and dried herbs. Simmer 20 to 25 minutes. Add chopped zucchini and yellow squash. Carefully add cooked meatballs and simmer an additional 5 minutes or until heated through. Stir in basil pesto and parsley. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

Servings • 6 to 8

Source: Petite Feast Chef Victoria Topham

Spaghetti frittata

10 eggs

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, sliced thinly into half moons

1 bunch fresh spinach (about ½ pound) washed, dried and coarsely chopped (5 cups)

¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes, reconstituted in boiling water for 10 minutes, chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cups cooked whole-wheat spaghetti tossed with 1/2 cup marinara sauce

1/3 cup grated Parmesan

In a medium bowl, separate 5 of the eggs, saving the whites and discarding the yolks. Add the remaining 5 whole eggs to the bowl with the whites and whisk to combine. Heat oil in large oven-proof, nonstick skillet over a medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, salt and pepper and cook until the spinach is wilted, about 1 minute. Add pasta to the pan and stir to combine. Pour eggs evenly over the pasta and vegetables. Lower heat to medium-low and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until eggs are set on the edges but not in the middle.

Preheat the broiler. Sprinkle top of the frittata with cheese and place under the broiler. Cook until the top is set and golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Be careful not to overcook or the eggs will become tough. Cut into 6 wedges and serve.

Servings • 6

Source: Healthy Eating with Ellie Krieger —

Ground chicken and spinach spiral


2 tablespoons olive oil

2 pounds ground chicken or turkey breast

1 small yellow onion, diced

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons black pepper

1 cup whole-wheat bread crumbs

2 cups ricotta cheese

1 egg

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 pound spinach, rinsed and chopped

1 pound whole-wheat lasagna noodles, cooked according to package directions and drained

Marinara sauce (bottled or homemade)

1 cup mozzarella cheese, grated, for topping

White sauce

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

½ cup low sodium chicken stock

4 ounces neufchatel cheese or low-fat cream cheese

1 cup sharp cheddar cheese

½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese

½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

¼ teaspoon cayenne

Salt, to taste

Pepper, to taste

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

For filling, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add ground chicken or turkey breast, onion and dried herbs, heat until browned and cooked through. Transfer to a mixing bowl and stir in bread crumbs, ricotta, egg and grated Parmesan. In same skillet, sauté spinach until wilted. Add chicken mixture taking care not to add excess water in sauté pan.

For the white sauce: melt butter in a heavy sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add flour and cook for 1-2 minutes, taking care not to brown. Gradually whisk in milk and broth. Whisking constantly, simmer 5-6 minutes until slightly thickened. Reduce heat to low and stir in cheeses. When all cheeses have melted, stir in Worcestershire and cayenne. Taste for salt and pepper. Coat an 8 ½-by-11-inch oven-proof baking dish with non-stick cooking pan spray. Place 1 cup marinara in bottom of pan and tilt to coat evenly.

To assemble spirals, lay whole-wheat lasagna noodles on work surface, with short ends facing you. Spread chicken ricotta mixture along pasta. Starting at the short end, roll into a cylinder. Take care not to roll too tightly or the filling will leak out. Place spirals in prepared baking dish. When all filling and pasta is used, top spirals with white sauce. Sprinkle with mozzarella. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until heated through.

Servings • 6 to 8

Source: Petite Feast Chef Victoria Topham