If you’ve ever been to a backyard barbecue with a toddler or a preschooler, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of the traditional foods are a lot more adult-friendly than they are kid-friendly. Between the choking hazards, the buffet of sugary desserts, and the high-sodium snacks, getting them a balanced, age-appropriate, and safe meal can be a challenge! I’ve been around the block once or twice on this– we’re now on year six of family-friendly summers– so I’ve got tons of suggestions and ideas to share. Keep reading for how to put together safe, healthy and kid-friendly summer dinners (even when you aren’t controlling the spread!).
Quick safety tip before we jump in: Whenever you’re at a party or a BBQ, make sure your little one eats while seated! It’s easy for them (and us!) to get distracted at parties, and all of a sudden they’re eating while playing or running around. But this increases their risk for choking, so you’ll want to keep a really close eye!
Kid-friendly Appetizers & Snacks
When it comes to snacks, kids are NOT the ones to object! Usually for them, snacks overshadow every. single. other. food. So when it comes to summer appetizers and snacks, a parent’s main concern is really just choking hazards. Here’s how to make common finger foods a little safer:
Raw Veggie Tray
- Carrot Sticks: Safe for 18m+, just quarter lengthwise.
- Snap Peas: Safe for 18m+ if you peel the string off.
- Cucumber: Safe for 12m+ if quartered lengthwise.
- Grape Tomatoes: Safe for 12m+ but again, quarter lengthwise (bit of a theme here!).
Potato chips, tortilla chips, and pretzels are all choking hazards, so do your best to avoid for kids 4 and under. Things like veggie straws and Pirate’s booty, while not exactly health food, are a better texture for choking prevention.
Fruit is a great option nutrition-wise. Just make sure it’s nice and soft, or cut into small pieces. Aim for about 1/2 inch size.
Kid-Friendly Summer Dinners
Hot dogs get a bad rap, but like all foods, they are okay on occasion. Around once or twice a month. If they’re not your favorite thing to serve, there are a few things you can look for to make them a more nutritious option. Look for brands that:
- Are nitrate-free
- Have less than 400mg sodium per serving
My top choice is the Organic Prairie Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs.
To prevent choking, slice hot dogs lengthwise for ages 4 and under. From there, you can also slice them into half-coin pieces, so your child can easily eat them with their fingers or a fork, or you can serve the sliced hot dogs on a bun. I like to hollow out the bun a little to get rid of some excess bread and make it easier to chew.
If you’re serving sausage, I would choose chicken sausage. Just make sure to peel the skin off– if it’s particularly thick or tough– to prevent choking.
Burgers are a great protein- and iron-rich choice for kids! You can go with beef, venison, bison, or turkey burgers– they’re all fine choices. I’d aim for about 90% lean. Or, go meatless with a black bean veggie burger. A few tips for preparing burgers for kids:
- Make sure to cook meat burgers all the way through.
- Serve with a whole wheat bun to pump up the nutrition they get.
- Opt for sliders if you have young kids. They’re a lot easier to handle!
My favorite store-bought veggie burgers for kids are the Dr. Praegers California Veggie Burgers.
Kid-Friendly Summer Sides
Baked beans get a green light for kids! They can be high in sodium and often have added sugar, but the beans themselves are such a healthy choice that I don’t mind. Because they’re so good for kids, I think it’s great for them to be exposed to beans in any way they like! This way, they’re more likely to try them in other dishes down the road.
Corn on the Cob
First of all, yes, you will see whole pieces of corn in their diaper afterwards! And no, they didn’t swallow it without chewing. Corn gets re-hydrated in the digestive process, so this is completely normal and fine.
Toddler Tip: My pediatrician (@hillarylewismd on Instagram) taught me that shucking corn is a great sensory and fine motor activity, so put them to work!
Kid-approved! Just make sure to cut any larger veggies into bite-sized pieces for them.
Avocado, Tomato, Corn & Cucumber Salad
This is a super nutritious option for kids, so it’s great as long as the choking hazards can be addressed. To make it kid-safe, slice the cherry tomatoes in quarters, and thin-slice the cucumbers.
Toddler Tip: Serve the components separate if they don’t like foods mixed.
Mix it up with olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, and salt and pepper for everyone else!
Another kid-friendly option! Fresh mozzarella is lower in sodium than traditional cheeses, making it a great healthy choice for your littles (and especially any babies in the crowd).
Potato & Pasta Salads
These can be good options, but be careful with these mayo-based salads in the heat. When they sit in the heat, bacteria grows QUICKLY, so don’t leave them out more than an hour or so on a hot day before eating.
To be fair to potato and pasta salads, this really goes for any food! These are just the ones I see sitting out most often.
No kid-friendly summer dinner is complete without kid-friendly condiments!
With little kids, especially the picky ones, I’m ALL FOR condiments. If they want to dip everything in ketchup or ranch, great! I am a-okay with that. Kids are often much more likely to try new foods if they know they can pair it with the familiar flavor of a condiment they love. Here are some of my favs:
- Ketchup: True Made Foods Ketchup is a great brand to try.
- Mayo: I like Sir Kensington’s Classic Mayonnaise. (If you’re not big on mayo, you can always substitute around half of the mayo in a recipe with low fat plain Greek yogurt!)
- Ranch: Same thing as Mayo– sub in some Greek yogurt for a little more nutrition.
Fun summer weekends. Easy summer weeknights.
I hope that knowing how to make BBQ and summer party spreads into kid-friendly summer dinners makes you more likely to say yes to all that summer has in store– even if we are adapting things a bit this year.
Oh, and don’t forget about those summer weeknights! Grab my Dinnertime Survival Guide for 6-weeks’ worth of new, easy & healthy weeknight meals your kids will actually eat.