Our Favorite Energy Bite Recipes

Whether it be in our Kid-Friendly Snack Drawer I shared about last week or whenever we are snacking on them in the background of my Instagram stories, you all ask me about energy bite questions ALL. THE. TIME!

That’s for good reason!

With nuts being a choking hazard in kids under four and yet all of us struggling to find easy, nourishing snack ideas to keep on hand, energy bites combine a variety of ingredients like nuts, seeds, and fruit to provide a more nutrient-dense snack than many other mainstays. So whether you call them homemade LARABARs, fat balls, or energy bites, I am sharing my family’s favorite here!

In the post, I give you links to the top 10 recipes we keep on constant rotation. With some seasonal favorites and other year round staples, these are the energy bite recipes I share my family making the most often. I know you and your family will love having this list handy too!

 
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My Family’s Favorite Energy Bite Recipes

Although not all of these can be modified as nut-free (so that they are safe for school), I encourage you to make a batch of whichever recipe sounds the best to your family based on when you plan to serve them (at home or at school). Even if it is you plug one new recipe in per month to try, I think you will quickly see which ones become staples in your snack time rotation (or snack drawer)!

 

1. Blueberry Lemon

I know this recipe post could use some work, but it long stands as a favorite from my site even still! We buy the dried blueberries with no added sugar from Trader Joe’s and then use raw cashews or almonds (depending on what we have on hand). They taste very similar to Blueberry Muffin Larabars.

 

2. Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter

This is definitely one of my kids favorites. I like it for an easy one to sub out a nut-free butter in (we use Sunbutter) so that they are a compact source of energy (i.e. calories) for school. Plus, if you are easing your kids onto the idea of energy bites, these may be a good first one to go with (…because, duh - the chocolate chips!).

 

3. Pumpkin Pie

I saw this one posted on Instagram and knew we needed them in our life. They definitely do not disappoint! With a subtle Fall flavor, they’re in our current rotation.

 

4. Gingerbread

I don’t know technically at what point we swap from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but you can believe that this one and the next one are two of my favorites for December-time (but really any time)!

 

5. Chocolate Peppermint

These scream holidays and for someone living in Houston who doesn’t get a lot of seasonal, winter weather, I take all the lay-ups I can get when it comes to embracing the added feeling of winter. My dear friend first brought these to me in January after my oldest was born (back when Milk & Honey Nutrition and I were neighbors), and they have been among my favorites since.

 

6. Monster (M&M) Bites

These are a bit more like dessert with two sources of added sugar, but sometimes life calls for that! I like making these for playdates or a non-traditional dessert when having company. They’re easy, portable, and much less messy than many other options while still offering some added nutrition to say a cookie or ice cream.

 

7. Carrot

This dietitian mom is MASTERFUL at packing in nutrients, in particular vegetables. So it is no surprise that Min found a way to make these carrot energy balls so loaded up on the good stuff AND managed to get a veggie in them too!

 

8. Apple Cinnamon

Another seasonal combination, I love this combination of apples and cinnamon and how it is a peanut-free option (for schools that aren’t completely nut-free). We buy the dried apple chips that often go on sale this time of year and will make these when near the end of the bag and the pieces are small and crumbly!

 

9. Oatmeal raisin

We love dates at my house, but sometimes we run out! So this is a great option with similar nutritional benefits to other mentioned above, but it doesn’t require dates.

 

10. LEMON

It may surprise you, but my favorite flavor of LARABAR is…LEMON! There is something about it that I just love, so the fact that Lindsay figured out how to recreate a similar flavor profile here is what makes me particularly fond of this lemon energy bite recipe.

 

So there you have it!

Our favorite energy bite recipes.

We constantly have at least one of these in the fridge for portable, nutrient-packed snacks that our whole family enjoys.

However, if you are in a pinch and can’t prep any of those listed below, know that products like LARABARs are a great premade option with similar combinations to many of the above. Using simple ingredients and natural flavor combinations, keeping premade bars or fruit and nut products on hand can be an excellent alternative also.

If your family is already used to LARABARS (or a similar fruit and nut product like them), leverage the kinds your child loves or likes to work backwards when coming up with energy bite recipes. Often, you can go and search for a homemade version of that flavor! Using similar ingredients listed on the package label, one option is to try several of the LARABAR combinations listed with recipes when you scroll down here.

Creating a Family-Friendly Snack Drawer

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. While these do not cost you more to use, they do provide Veggies & Virtue with a small commission for any purchased made through the links. As always, all opinions are my own.

Right before our third child was born, I had this random idea to convert the lowest drawer in our fridge to a “snack drawer.” This way, whether it be my parents helping with my older kids over snack time (while I was newly with the baby) or needing to reach for something satisfying myself, we had a kid-friendly snack drawer stocked with nourishing options at any given time.

Since sharing about this on Instagram, I have gotten several questions about this drawer, how it is used (or could be abused!), and more on the logistics about keeping the food fresh.

That’s why in this week’s post, I created a central spot for all things snack drawer related - including your questions, my answers, and other aspects that commonly come up regarding real life applications for this drawer!


Creating a Kid-Friendly Snack Drawer

 
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Kid-Friendly Snack Drawer 101

Our snack-drawer is intended to help make front and center some of the options I may want to offer my kids at snack time. Amidst the hustle of kids and the mental energy it often takes to come up with variety, adding different options from varying food groups (thus with differing nutritional beenfits) to this drawer has helped lessen the mental fatigue of what to offer at snack time by making it conveniently located in one place.

Some families may find this type of set up works better specifically for lunch-packing, particularly if you have older kids who pack their lunches independently (more on how to foster that from Real Mom Nutrition). We use it in combination for morning snacks (since I still have two kids at home and one whom I send a school-snack for daily), afternoon snacks, and to round out lunchboxes as well.

 

Some of our favorite foods for the snack-drawer (by food group):

Veggies:

  • Baby carrots

  • Mini cucumbers

  • Bell peppers or baby bell peppers

  • Broccoli or cauliflower

  • Zucchini muffins

  • Carrot muffins

Fruits:

  • Apples

  • Applesauce

  • Oranges or clementines

  • Fresh berries

  • Grapes

Fats and/or Proteins:

  • Yogurt tubes or cups

  • Hummus cups

  • Guacamole

  • Greek yogurt ranch dip

  • Cheese

  • Hard boiled eggs

  • Energy bites

Starches

  • Muffin Club muffins

  • Banana avocado Breakfast Cookies

  • Leftover Pancakes

  • Granola-Based energy bites

 

What kind of fridge I have

We have an LG French Door fridge. We needed a shallow option to fit our space and yet I have been very pleased with how much space we have in it. For those curious or in the market for a fridge, you can view models similar to ours here (not sponsored; just sharing).

 

What kinds of containers do you use

At the advice of Emily Ley, I try really hard to re-purpose storage solutions we already own before going out and buying a budget of expensive ones. Thankfully, we had some shallow bins that fit perfectly in our drawer. They are similar in shape to those you might store 8.5 x 11” documents in (as we omit the lid). These allow two main, larger compartments for options, which you could find something similar to at a Dollar Tree, Walmart, or Target. For ease of reference, I have linked something similar here or a slightly deeper option here (if it fits your space) on Amazon. I supplement the extra space remaining with some of the following products:

 

How to create the space in whatever fridge you have

Many of you have said this is a great idea but it doesn’t work for your given fridge! Here are a few ideas to consider:

  1. When was the last time you cleaned out your fridge? Consider doing a deep clean, clearing everything out so that you have a blank slate. Then, use bins you have on hand or buy to fit your fridge to organize condiments and sauces, fruits, vegetables, proteins, etc. This will help you see when you have “too many” open bottles of something or an overflowing bin of another category. This helps prevent food waste while promoting optimization of whatever space you have.

  2. Could you consolidate options? Maybe you commit to only two salad dressings can be open at a time vs six. Or unless one ketchup is empty, you don’t have another one stored. Or you keep the extra unopened peanut butter in the pantry until it has been opened. This might seem small, but each of these little changes can add up to pockets of added space.

  3. Where is the most realistic place to put a kid-friendly snack “drawer”? Of note, this might be a cubby bin rather than a drawer at all depending on your fridge! Just allocate one area in your fridge to refill weekly with a few easy options to have on hand and readily available.

  4. Where can you re-assign other food items to a new home? Our snack drawer was originally intended for meats and cheeses. Well, that was A LOT of space for meat and cheese. So instead what I did was I moved the meat and cheese up to occupy one of the two fruit and vegetable drawers. Did that mean I started buying less fruits and veggies? Of course not! I just reassigned where we stored them, which actually motivated me to wash and prep more options for the snack drawer or to have in bigger bowls on the top shelves to serve with family-style meals. 

 

How is the snack drawer used (i.e. not abused)?

Many of you know that at the time of this writing, I have one, three, and five year old children. That means, NONE of them are given free reign on the fridge let alone this drawer.

Depending on the ages of your child(ren), I do have clients who I teach to set something up like this with their older children as the Division of Responsibility becomes delegated in later ages and stages.

In our home, however, I use this more for my own sake and sanity than to enable bad behavior or endless snacking in my kids. They have been born and raised with the Division of Responsibility so they are well-versed in my being in charge of what, when, and where food is offered? Does that mean they never walk up to the fridge and ask to have a snack outside of snack time? Of course not. We aren’t a militant family; just one with clearly communicated boundaries spoken in love but with firm limits.

Instead, it gives me predetermined options and variety each week from what I have set out ahead of time as some healthy options they can have. So when it comes snack time, I can open the drawer and easily take out 2-3 options. Usually, our baseline combo is “1 rainbow food + 1 other option.”

That means combinations like:

  • Carrots + Hummus

  • Apples + Almond Butter

  • Celery + Peanut Butter

  • Berries + Yogurt

  • Bell Peppers + Guacamole

  • Cucumbers + Cheese

  • Grapes + Energy Bite

  • Broccoli and Cauliflower + Greek Ranch Dip

  • Applesauce + Muffin

  • Oranges + Hard Boiled Eggs

Offering such kid-friendly snack options as this ensures that I am using snack time to fill in nutritional gaps (being food groups they otherwise may not have eaten as much from in a given day or week) rather than reaching for the easiest, often nutrient-poor option in the pantry.

We do supplement with food from the pantry at times, also. This is a decision I make, however, based on how filling I want their snacks to be. If I know they have soccer practice so we are eating an early dinner, I will likely scale back the volume, protein, or fat in a given snack so they have an appetite for an early dinner. Then, upon getting home, when we offer a bedtime snack on sports nights, I bulk up what they get out of here to offer more filling power from such protein or fat.

 

Other Commonly Asked Questions:

How do you keep your kids from binging on snacks? My 4 & 6 year old would only eat snacks and never meals if I gave them access to them.

If you are new to a Division of Responsibility, something like a snack drawer may create more confusion than assistance initially. That’s because your children need to know you get to decide what, when, and where their snacks are being offered. If kids think that they can graze endlessly when given access to options (be it in a kid-friendly snack drawer or anywhere), that will create some challenges in the feeding relationship and likely hinder their appetite come meal times. To prevent this, establish a “Kitchen is Closed” policy when it isn’t time to eat (a meal or snack). Reinforce it when they try to eat outside of such times. Then, as boundaries are understood, see if creating a snack drawer like this cuts out some of the confusion on what’s for snack (or not) - both for you and for them. Having it in a preset place doesn’t change the behaviors expected around snacking and what, when, and where it is offered. It simply creates a space for you to store new options and offer different snack combinations from.


When are they allowed snacks? Do you find they wont eat meals and go to this instead?

My kids are allowed snacks from this drawer at snack time. We continue to have a policy that we eat at meals and snacks and not outside of those times. They do not have the option to eat from this drawer in place of meals, again partly because that has never been an option in our home. They know they get to choose if/whether and how much to eat from what is offered at a given meal, but other options (like those “safe” ones in this drawer) are not offered in place of their choosing not to eat.



What age did you start at?

This was not necessarily due to developmental age as our age of survival, but I first created this snack drawer when my oldest was 4.5 and middle was 2.5, due to their baby brother being born. It was an easy way for me to have snacks ready for my parents, husband, a babysitter, etc. if/when I was busy with the newborn and needed to delegate snack duty to someone else.

As long as a Division of Responsibility is in place in your family, this drawer could be used successfully. As mentioned above, this is something that you can begin to include older kids in filling or pulling from in early adolescents, as they begin to manage more of their own feeding.



How long does the food in this drawer last?

Depending on the week, what other snacks we might have or make along the way, my kids appetites, etc., I usually fill this on the weekend and it lasts us to/through the following Friday. Then, I refill again for the next week. I usually promote we eat the foods that will spoil most quickly in the first few days (like cut veggies or berries) and save the less perishable options for the latter half of the week (like apples, carrots, and packaged options).



Any tips for keeping items fresh (like berries/uncovered energy balls etc.)?

For taking pictures, I remove all lids. To store, however, I cover everything except for some fruit. I find that berries and grapes do best when washed and stores with a paper towel in the bottom of the container left UNcovered. Other than that, I stored cut fruits like melons, vegetables, or energy bites with reusable bags or Pyrex snapwear lids. For vegetables, I often wait to cut them until snack time itself (particularly those more perishable like bell peppers or cucumbers) to prevent spoilage.



Do I replenish as the week goes on?

If it runs out and I remember to, yes. Otherwise we just eat from it until it is empty and they we may have 1-2 days before I get to restocking it. Or, I might add just a few things to help carry us from whenever it runs out to when I “officially” refill it.


Want to see more examples of past Kid-Friendly Snack Drawers?

Scroll through those shared here:

 
 
 


Now, it is YOUR turn!

Want to keep track of some of the new kid-friendly snack ideas you can try at home? Download my free grocery list here to print, put into a page protector, and mark up week to week with whatever family favorites you need (or want to learn to like)!


I hope this post was helpful to you!

Be sure to check out my Instagram and turn on notifications for updates when I post. Or, you can follow the hashtag, #vvsnackdrawer, so you can see each time a new one is added!

Family Friendly Meal Plan for Fall

I can’t cook your dinners for you. I wish I could, but if that were the case, I wouldn’t be wishing someone would cook mine for me too. I need family-friendly meal ideas for Fall just like you do.

So even though as a dietitian mom, “food is my thing” (in theory), coming up with ideas for what to offer my family for dinner EVERY DAY, week after week still takes up a lot of mental energy - even for me.

That’s why I have created another Seasonal Meal Plan.

Similar to how my breakfast and lunch Combination Cards are intended to add variety without the mental overwhelm, so too is this Seasonal Meal Plan supposed to help you achieve less meal time stress and more feeding success this Fall.

 
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Family Friendly Meal Plan for Fall


What to expect

For my family as well as many of the families I work with, a seasonal meal plan can be a helpful tool in your feeding toolbox. This gives you the chance to cycle in seasonal favorites that fit the flavors and styles of food you enjoy eating without having to come up with something new each week or month. In doing so, you can batch cook certain dishes or aspects of a recipe to cut back on the amount of work you have to do each time it is up on the menu. This helps you to save time (by making duplicate batches the first time) and save money (by planning ahead and shopping sales). Then when it is time to re-offer a given menu item, you have it one step closer to being ready!

My seasonal meal plan also gives you three months to continue to re-expose your child to these family-friendly dinner ideas for Fall. In doing so, you’re reminded to expose your child to new meals and seasonal produce every few months so you don’t get so stuck in a rut or routine of only offering old favorites. As I work through with families in The Academy, you can use the general dinner ideas listed for a given day to come up with variations of a given combination that works for your family’s Love it, Like it, Learning it ® framework.

 

What not to expect

The Family-Friendly Seasonal Meal Plan is a simple tool  intended to take the mental energy out of what to make for you so that you have some family-friendly combinations you can make fit for your family. This Seasonal Meal Plan for Fall is not for parents who want to join a more robust meal planning community full of involved recipes or adventurous meal ideas. 

Our families also may eat differently than one another too, and that’s okay. As mentioned, this meal plan is the one I created for personal use and not a one size fits all Fall dinner menu. By request, I have decided to share it for anyone who would also like to have one step of meal planning done for you. I am not advocating this is the best meal plan for everyone. While I do believe this meal plan helps promote a wide variety of nutrients, flavors, cuisines, and options that I see value in helping my kids learn to like based on our culture and social norms, you are welcome to use the ideas as is or modify them based on your own preferences and beliefs.

 

What’s on the Seasonal Meal Planner?

Here is how I structured my meal plan for Fall, based on our current preferences and schedule:

  • Sunday: sheet pan meals or items that require more time to cook in the oven or on the stove since we are home and able to take longer to cook. Usually it is a chicken or fish dish with a grain or starch of some sort with veggies.

  • Monday: Mexican food, much of which is prepped once and eaten three times throughout the Fall season due to batch cooking items like our taco meat, enchilada sauce, or fajitas mix for the crockpot.

  • Tuesday: My kids have soccer practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so these are dinners I know need to be know they either need to be passively cooked. On Tuesdays, they eat early before practice (then my husband and I eat later).

  • Wednesday: Italian food, each with another freezer-friendly way to make ahead and store and/or you can take shortcuts to buy premade sauces (instead of making your own).

  • Thursday: Due to soccer, my kids eat beforehand with another passive meal option I can make in the crockpot or Instant Pot featuring Asian foods on Thursdays. My kids get a bedtime snack on these nights when dinner is bumped ahead before practice.

  • Friday: My husband and I are newly doing date nights on Friday, so I share a few simple ideas we keep on hand for the babysitter to give the kids for dinner.

  • Saturday: We are a football-watching family in the Fall, so some classic comfort foods or pizza are usually on the menu for weekends.

 

How long do these recipes take to make?

Some of these recipes are more involved than others. However, as a mom of three myself, none are intended to be overwhelming or unnecessarily complicated. Instead, by rotating through and repeating each month, the dinner recipes become easier to make with practice. Plan for most of the recipes shown to take 15-30 minutes to prep plus cook time. If you need dinner ideas you can have prepped AND ready in under 15 minutes, check out this post.

For this meal plan, I encourage you to prep and freeze any elements you have time and storage space for in advance (i.e. you can make three lasagnas at once and freeze the remaining two month’s worth). What I find works best is to pick a couple of meals from each week that I can do that with; then, I have at least 2-3 meals prepped and ready in the freezer so that the next time that week is up on the menu, I can prep elements of the remaining menus. This cuts back on the number of times I have to plan, shop, and prepare each given meal while also ensuring I have a constant flow of meals ready to cook or reheat in our freezer.

 

How to use the Seasonal Meal Planner

The meal plan is a one month calendar download with hyperlinks to family-friendly recipes for Fall. Because of security purposes, the download is available for 24 hours after you purchase it here. You are then encouraged to download that to both your computer and your device. I prefer using the Dropbox app on my phone for storing PDFs like this one, my Combination Cards, etc. Then, whether I am meal planning from my computer or my phone, I have the files handy.

From there, it is up to you how you want to use the meal plan. I like to print out each of the recipes included and put them in page protectors in a “Favorite Recipes” binder. For me, this is easier to access when in the kitchen than having my laptop, phone, or iPad out and needing to open up browsers. It also allows me to have a method for keeping favorite recipes ready year after year to reference. If you are more tech-savvy and prefer to use less paper in printing, you are welcome to simply access the Meal Planning download from your computer or device and click through to the recipe links as needed that way. Find a method that works for you!

Not knowing which menu items you will choose to actually offer on a given week, it does not come with a grocery list. You are encouraged to adapt any of the given combinations for your family’s dietary needs and Love it, Like it, Learning it ® preferences.

Additionally, the options listed may be modified to accommodate for food allergies (like dairy, soy, or gluten) or vegetarians. Please note the recipes included are not specific to these dietary needs, however.

 

Where to get the Seasonal Meal Planner

You may find the Fall (current) or past (Spring and Winter) meal plans here:

 

If you want a FREE Seasonal Meal Planning template to fill in for yourself, you can get yours here:

 

For help with also streamlining breakfast or lunch rotations, you can learn more about my Combination Cards here:

 

Wishing you and your family a Fall full of less meal time stress and more feeding success with nourishing combos and Fall favorites!

15 Easy Dinners from Costco (ready in under 15 minutes)

It has been awhile since I shared my last post featuring Costco, so I knew it was an appropriate time to list out some of my favorite, easy dinner ideas from Costco again. With Back to School and after school activities in full swing, I know this list of 15 simple yet satisfying dinner ideas will help you make a healthy dinner happen even on your busiest of nights!

You can get this free one week meal plan featuring seven night’s worth of easy Costco dinners too at the end of this post!

 
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The Need for Easy Dinner Ideas

In theory, I enjoy scratch-making recipes and rotating through new, nourishing options at any meal of the day. Many of my family’s staples and most favorite Fall recipes will be on my Seasonal Meal Plan because these are the dinners that I make a habit to prep ahead and pull together on a regular basis.

The reality is though, sometimes my meal planning doesn’t happen, grocery shopping happens AT dinner time, and I need simple options I can literally be pulling off in the kitchen AS I unpack the car of groceries (with three kids on my ankles I might add).

There is what’s ideal (healthy, simple ingredients and well-balanced meals) and then there is what’s real (busy, chaotic nights and rushed grocery runs where we need to grab some easy options). That’s the intersection I hope this post finds us at. Next week, I plan to give you the recipes we PLAN to have over the upcoming Fall quarter. This week, however, I want to give you some easy ideas for your dinner time tool belt that you can easily use on those UNPLANNED nights when we have to operate “off menu” and work with what we’ve got - which is often a Costco run as a catch all.

 

In this post, you have 15 easy dinner options from Costco that you can have ready in under 15 minutes.

With each meal including a balance of food groups and nutrients for a given night’s dinner idea, all you need to do is pick and purchase the listed items to pull off a quick and easy dinner once you are back at home.

Costco also offers bulk packaging of many of the items listed, so many of these ideas will give you a few meals worth from them. So while you pay a bit more up front, if you have the space to store extras (in the pantry, fridge, or freezer), these easy dinner ideas from Costco will come in handy again down the road when you find yourself needing a simple dinner ready in under 15 minutes!

 
 

If you have questions about My 55 Most Favorite, Dietitian Approved Costco Staples, be sure to check out this grocery list download!

In this grocery list, I include images of each product I love to help make it easy on you to find. Just print, put in a page protector, and let your little ones mark it up as you move your way through the aisles filling your cart with many of my favorites. Many of these are ingredients included in the following 15 easy dinner ideas list!


15 Easy Dinners from Costco (ready in under 15 minutes)

1 Chicken burgers with sweet potato fries

2 Spaghetti and Meatballs

  • Coleman Organic Meatballs (in the refrigerated, pre-packaged foods section)

  • Organic Spaghetti Sauce (in the non-perishable section)

  • Zucchini to turn into zoodles (in the refrigerated produce section)

3 Cauliflower Crust Pizza with Veggie tray

  • Cauliflower Cheese Pizza (in the frozen foods section)

  • Veggie Tray (in the refrigerated produce section)

4 Hot Dogs with Slaw Salad

  • Teton Waters Ranch grass-fed beef hot dogs (in the refrigerated, pre-packaged foods section)

  • Sweet Kale salad (in the refrigerated produce section)

5 Tikka Masala with Brown Rice and Stir-Fry Veggies

6 Madras Lentils with Cauliflower Rice

7 Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese

8 Mediterranean Quinoa Salad Dinner

9 Caprese Pasta

10 Soup & Salad

11 Teriyaki

12 Salmon Caesar Salads

13 Quesadillas

14 Tuna Sandwiches

15 Breakfast for dinner

  • Make French toast with organic eggs, milk, vanilla, and Alpine Valley Organic Honey Bread


Want more easy dinner ideas with images to shop you just what to shop for? Get my free one week meal plan for Costco here!

25 Easy Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kid's Lunch

Disclaimer: Please note that some of the following links include affiliate links. These do not cost you more money, but help Veggies & Virtue continue to grow and offer you fun free resources like this post. For more on my disclosure policy, please visit my legal page here. As always, all opinions are my own.

 

I know a lot of us parents struggle with how to include veggies in our kid’s lunch box without defaulting to baby carrots and dip each day. While that is a fine option, older kids may get burnt out of that offering and younger kids likely can't (safely) crunch their way through it.

That's why I have created this list.

With 25 ideas for how to include a variety of vegetables in each lunch box, you could literally offer a different option each school day of the month! I know this list will help to spur on some new ideas, get you out of a "what to offer" rut, and help your family shop for some fun new offerings this school year.

If you haven’t already, be sure to also grab my FREE Lunch Packing Cheat Sheet. I share 30 options for veggies at lunch!

 
 

25 Easy Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kid's Lunch

10 Effortless Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kids Lunches

  1. Frozen Peas: any kind will do; no need to buy organic (based on EWG clean 15 here)

  2. Grated Carrot Straws: You can grate your own, or buy them premade like these

  3. Freeze-Dried Veggies: We love these ones by Karen’s Naturals

  4. Kale Chips: Make your own or buy premade ones like these for a less perishable option

  5. Bell Peppers: Buy the large ones and cut into shapes or with cute punch out cookie cutters. Or, buy the mini bell peppers!

  6. Sugar Snap Peas "Peek a Boo Babies": As shown here.

  7. Canned Corn: Buy an organic, no salt added option like these ones.

  8. Grape Tomatoes: Skewer with grapes or cheese on a small kabob stick or mix with pre-made mini mozzarella balls for a simple kids caprese salad.

  9. Cucumber: An easy option you can cut in sticks or circles!

  10. Celery: Include thin sticks of celery with peanut or nut-free butter and raisins!

 

5 Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kids Lunches with Baked Goods

Based on feedback from Muffin Club, I know MANY families said they enjoy muffins mainly at breakfast or as snacks. However, tucking a veggie-packed baked good is an easy-to-eat way for veggies to be offered in lunches as well. I like to include these options in addition to a more obvious form of veggies when we have them baked and ready!

  1. Carrot Muffins: These are a staple in our house and the most popular recipe from Muffin Club!

  2. Zucchini Muffins: This recipe offers a subtle yet sweet way to add in a little added veggies.

  3. Pumpkin Donuts: These can be enjoyed year round as a tasty, veggie-packed treat to add in any lunchbox.

  4. Sweet Potato Muffins: These Sweet Potato Muffins with Crunchy Flax topping are a tasty way to tuck some added veggies into a muffin form! Plus with ways to reduce the amount of sugar or omit the gluten (if needed), I found these ones my family as a whole could really enjoy.

  5. Hulk Muffins: Don’t knock these til you try them. Such a simple way to add in some spinach to a lunch!

 

5 Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kids Lunches with Leftover Veggies

Have veggies that might otherwise go to waste but don’t necessarily look (or smell!) good in a lunchbox on their own? Try these ideas to repurpose!

  1. Spinach Quesadilla: Have spinach that is getting wilted? Add it to these and serve warm at home or in a thermos or an insulated lunchbox like this.

  2. Fried Rice: Sick of sandwiches? Add those straggling peas and carrots to your child’s favorite fried rice, or mix in some riced cauliflower and send it warm in a thermos.

  3. Frittata Cups: Have veggies that went untouched on your child's plate the night before? Add them to a egg frittata recipe or serve them up as mini egg muffin cups. These broccoli egg quiche cups are great!

  4. Soup: Have veggies that come back untouched from the day’s lunchbox? Consider storing them in a mason jar in the fridge (assuming they are still edible). Then, toss them into a soup like minestrone or many others like these!

  5. Smoothies: Do you have a little extra veggie smoothie from today’s afterschool snack? Include in a pouch or leak-proof squeeze container. These are two great squeeze containers for leftover smoothies by Squeasy Gear and WeeSprouts. Click here for more smoothie ideas.

 

5 Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kids Lunches with Cooked Favorites

I know a lot of parents and kids wish they could have warm, comforting favorites sent for lunch -- especially as the school year progresses and weather starts to cool down. We love using our OmieBox for this, but you can also use a simple, small thermos that you already have separate from your child’s usual lunchbox (like those shared here).

  1. Hidden Veggie Mac n Cheese: Get that go-to orange color of mac and cheese with the perks of packing in REAL veggies! This is a good recipe to try!

  2. Spaghetti: I love spaghetti sauce as a flavorful, family-friendly staple for getting veggies in like this recipe. Add to whole grain or bean-based noodles, or put on top of zoodles for even more veggies.

  3. Tomato Soup: this is perfect to serve with a side of grilled cheese.

  4. Tater Tots: These options tend to be a toddler favorite for their soft texture and starchy taste. Consider baking up some of the more natural, nutrient dense "tots" or buying pre-made ones like Alexia sweet potato puffs here, Dr. Praeger’s Kale Puffs here, and Don Lee’s Veggie Bites here. You can serve as a side to a leftover slider, natural hot dog/sausage, or other preferred foods!

  5. Pizza Sauce: There are so many great variations to make a more nutrient-dense pizza option at lunch. Make ahead a veggie-loaded sauce like this one to freeze in an ice cube tray so you can pop out one mini pizza’s worth when needed! Serve on a cauliflower for extra veggies!

 

So there you have it!

Plenty of fun ways to get different veggies in your kids lunch this school year! Maybe you rotate through different combinations each week based off of what you have on hand fresh or have time to prepare. Then, rotate to include other options in upcoming weeks so your child continues to get exposed to veggies in all their many forms!

If you are stuck on what to send in your kid’s lunch, don’t miss the effortless options and yet endless variety of Combination Cards - on sale now.

In the lunch deck of Combination Cards, you get 30 ideas for each food group, as shown in the image here plus examples for veggies to include in each of the lunch Combinations.

Must-Have Lunch Packing Cheat Sheet

With the school year upon us, many families are getting ready to pack school lunches. So to help simplify the process for you, I am sharing my must-have lunch packing cheat sheet (free!) plus several other tips and tricks below. You can download the cheat sheet to help figure out what to offer, then use the other tools to do everything from meal plan to grocery shop to communicate with your child’s teacher about how all foods fit.

 

Must-Have Lunch Packing Cheatsheet

Do you have all your lunch packing supplies ready?

You can find all of my favorite products to send back to school here.

Once you have your lunch box and accessories ready to go, then comes what to actually pack in the lunch box. That’s what this post will help you accomplish!

 
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What to include in a school lunch

It is easy to default into offering the same foods every day. Instead, try to rotate through a variety of simple staples, as shown in my new Combination Cards [on sale 9/4!]. By leveraging known favorites to include more new foods in your lunch packing rotation, you can continue to expand on what options your child learns to like at lunch so that they are satisfied throughout their school day.

For easy drag and drop ideas of what to pack in your child’s lunchbox, use this free printable (below). It includes one month’s worth of fruit, veggie, protein, carbohydrate, and added fat options to both fill and fuel your child. Just print and post in your kitchen for healthy lunchbox ideas to keep on hand!

 
 

What to avoid or limit in school lunches

While there are many foods that may fuel your child better than another, there are a few foods that I stand firming behind needing to avoid altogether or limit in kid’s lunches at school.

  1. Avoid (pea)nuts: Check with your child’s preschool on their nut policy. As needed, avoid all peanuts or nut containing products. If allowed, you can offer other nut butters like almond, cashew, or combinations like Nutzo. If you need to send completely nut-free options, you can utilize a growing list of alternatives like Sunbutter or Granola Butter. Spread thinly on a sandwich, crackers, or add to celery.
    For more on peanut-free playdate (or lunch packing!) ideas, visit here.

  2. Modify choking hazards: Depending on the age of your child, there are some foods that need to be modified or avoided due to choking risk (under the age of 4). Since a teacher cannot physically watch each bite every child in their class takes, use your best judgement and adapt what options you pack in your child’s lunchbox accordingly for your child's age and feeding stage.

    Such potential choking hazards may include: hot dogs, nuts and seeds, chunks of meat or cheese, whole grapes, whole cherry tomatoes, hard or sticky candy, popcorn, chunks of peanut butter, chunks of raw vegetables, and chunks of raw apple.

  3. Limit foods that lack nutrition: Kids rarely have enough time to eat their lunches at school as is, so limit the number of items you send that lack nutrition. While sending chocolate or snack crackers may be fun to include on occasion, consider where you get the most bang for your buck most days of the week. Consider how offering these foods at lunch time impacts your child's overall intake at the meal and fit into their overall diet. Some children may crave these foods more than others in social settings, like school, when eating around their peers. Other children may get a mixed message if/when another caregiver or teacher enforces they eat their "healthy foods first." Decide how such foods fit for your family and child and pack accordingly.

 

A Rule of Thumb

The goal is to offer: a fruit and/or vegetable, carbohydrate, protein and fat source at lunch.

In general, you want to use this rule of thumb when packing your child’s lunchbox to include a variety of nutrient-dense options for your growing child. If you need more ideas for each of these food groups, get the must-have lunch-packing printable below, which gives you 30 ideas from each of these food groups that you can include! Soon, you can also check out my Combination Cards for well-balanced lunch ideas (that I have already come up with for you!). These will go on sale 9/4/19.

 
 

How to plan and pack ahead

Whether you’re a parent or a child, routines help life go smoother for everyone, especially when it comes to back to school. So see what you can establish as a new rhythm when it comes to packing lunches at home or incorporating in school lunches to make the hustle of school mornings less stressful.

  1. Decide if your child will buy or bring their lunch. Most schools have a school lunch menu online that you and your child can look through at the start of every week or month. Decide which days they will buy lunch, and then plan accordingly for which days you will need to pack lunch. While some families may choose to pack every day, others may see that their children are more willing to eat lunch and more variety when they buy lunches. Play around with what works for your family’s food preferences, budget, and overall lifestyle.

  2. Plan what you will offer: You can use Combination Cards as a guide for what to offer by allocating Monday is sandwiches, Tuesdays is leftover pasta, Wednesday is wraps, Thursday is a snack-style lunch, and Fridays are for a protein-salad. Or, use the free printable in this post as a lunch packing cheat sheet you can drag and drop into a basic meal planner. This helps eliminate the mental energy it takes to come up with new ideas but instead helps you to use what you have on hand to promote more variety over the course of the week.

  3. Pack lunches the night ahead. This seems to be a piece of advice every parent who has gone before us is successful with, and that is to try to pack what you can the night before. You can pack lunches for your kids, or have your child assist in packing their lunch by giving them two options from the food groups listed on the free Lunch Packing Printable Cheat Sheet. Just be sure you leave enough time at night (or in the morning, if you are early risers!) for them to make decisions and be involved in this.

  4. Create a snack drawer in the fridge or pantry. Having a place with“approved” snacks ready to go can be a huge help. Be it assigning a bin in the pantry that is peanut-free (if necessary), or a drawer in the fridge that has a combination of nutrient-dense snack options, can help guide your child to select their own snacks for school from the options you have set out in front of them. For more ideas on this, you can check out all of my #vvSnackDrawer posts.

  5. Help your child navigate the school lunch options. If you have a child who will buy lunch any number of days in the week, consider reading this resource by Jill Castle. It highlights how to help 

 

Questions to ask about lunch the first few weeks of school

Asking questions about lunch time, particularly as your child gets into the routine of a new school year, will help you learn more about their meal time dynamics while at (pre)school. Particularly if your child’s lunches are coming back uneaten, it is important to understand what dynamics are at play that might be impacting their ability to eat.

Consider inquiring rather than assuming, by asking questions like:

  • Tell me about lunch time. Where did you sit?

  • How many kids do you sit with? Did you make any new friends at lunch?

  • What was the hot lunch today? Did anyone around you have that instead?

  • Did lunch time feel faster or slower than we do at home?

  • Was there any wrapper in your lunch that was tricky? How did you problem solve?

  • Who’s lunch around you looked the yummiest? How come?

  • I see you ate all of your _____________, but none of your _____________. Can you tell me more about how your tummy made that choice?

 

When schools use different feeding philosophies at lunch

It is very common for schools to emphasize “brain foods first.” With this, they may have a standard rule in the classroom that kids need to eat certain “healthier foods” before they eat their other, potentially “less healthful” preferred foods.

This type of feeding dynamic does not support the Division of Responsibility, and ideally is not used. However, many teachers and educators feel a pressure for children to eat at least something and may see this as the most effective means (in the moment) to ensure that kids aren’t filling up on the more “discretionary” foods in their lunches but rather those that are more nutrient-dense.

If a scenario like this is in place at your child’s school, you might consider:

  1. Talk to your child. Remind your child that food is intended to fuel them for learning and that they need to eat from the options sent. While you want to maintain positive feeding practices at home, help set your child up for success at school by practicing opening the foods being sent and time trials to help them gauge the length of their meal time at school. If your child seems to be running out of time to eat often, also discuss with them that while lunch is a fun time to socialize, eating their lunch is the priority for that time and where else in their day they might be able to make those special conversations happen too (or instead).

  2. Talk to your child’s school. Speaking with the school administrator or your child’s teacher to see if they are open to feeding in a way that better aligns with the Division of Responsibility. If your teacher’s child would be receptive to it, a note like this one from The Feeding Doctor may be helpful to laminate and send (or stick in a Ziplock inside their lunch tote). I wouldn’t send this without first initiating a conversation if/when you know your feeding style conflicts with that used in the school or without follow up, but it can be a helpful reminder of your requests. If your child’s school is receptive to feedback and is open to more training on how to help create healthy feeding norms, this is an excellent printable to provide to your child’s teacher for a reminder in the classroom from The Ellyn Satter Institute (ESI). ESI has several other great resources you can access under your needed category (school, preschool, childcare, etc.) here.

  3. Create or join your school’s wellness committee. Even if it is just helping to refine the “acceptable snack list” to more nutrient-dense items and can align with a Division of Responsibility at snack time, that can be progress. Sally, of Real Mom Nutrition, has some great tips on how to get started with that here.


I am excited to share with you many more lunch-packing ideas to come with you. I will store them on my Instagram story highlights, but be sure to also keep an eye out for the official release of my new Combination Cards next Wednesday! Til then, here is a little sneak peek of what you can expect:

First Birthday Smash Cake Ideas

Disclaimer: All smash cake images shown were courtesy of a smash cake photo shoot with Jessica Vaughn. Jessica is a local Houston area wife and mom of two boys, ages 2 and 1. Jessica has a growing photography business that offers all inclusive photo packages with 30+ photos promised from each session (included in the session fee)! You can follow her on Instagram at @vaughnboysmom or visit her website here to see some of her work. She is offering $25 discount for anyone using “OwenTurnsOne” when booking!

From my child’s first birthday to someday their last, I want them to freely enjoy every bit of it. Their first birthday smash cake is no exception.

My choice in what to offer my own children for their first birthdays was a personal decision. While not much of a baker (nor a great one at that!), I still wanted to bake a cake for each of my children’s first birthdays from scratch. This was part of the party that I felt was “my thing,” but it is okay if it isn’t, wasn’t, or never will be your thing. Do your thing. You are your baby’s biggest fan and no one knows how to celebrate them better than you do. There is no shame in any birthday cake you have offered or may choose to offer in the future.

The purpose of this post is to reiterate how food is about more than just the nutritional value it offers (or doesn’t). Food has a way of creating special moments and fond memories, passing down family traditions, and being used in celebration, including as early on as a baby’s first birthday. It also makes for some adorable pictures of kids eating that kills me every time, including here my birthday boy covered in his smash cake.

 
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This said, what I have chosen historically is not necessarily my overarching, best practice advice professionally nor is it what I am suggesting you should do when deciding on your baby’s first birthday cake. Instead, I felt it was about time that I had a small space on my site to house healthy first birthday smash cake ideas for those interested in low-sugar alternatives to traditional birthday cakes for a baby’s first (or second, or third!) birthday! So here it is...

 
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What is a smash cake?

A smash cake is the term used to describe the small cake a baby is given, usually on their first birthday. Made up of anything from a store-bought cake with frosting that looks like Cookie Monster to stacked pancakes layered with an alternative to icing, smash cakes are a baby-sized birthday cake exclusively for eating without the formality of a plate and fork.


Why is it called a smash cake?

Smash cakes get their name as a birthday cake that babies are given to smash with their hands, fists, and sometimes feet, as part of the celebration for their first birthday party. Due to how messy this can get, smash cake photo sessions are now commonly being done separately from a baby’s first birthday party in order to capture the cuteness and contain the clean up!

All smash cake images shown were courtesy of a smash cake photo shoot with Jessica Vaughn.

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Does my baby even eat the smash cake?

Many babies do not, especially if it a cake and/or frosting combo is unfamiliar to them. Thick, extra sweet frostings can turn some babies away from the birthday cakes quickly, meaning that even if/when you offer a smash cake with added sugar, the amount they actually consume is very little.


Can my baby have cake for her first birthday?

Babies can eat cake on their first birthday. Both physically with the feeding skills intact and from a nutritional perspective, most babies bodies are physically able to consume cake on their first birthday without it being a big issue. Infants are exposed to naturally sweet tastes both in utero through amniotic fluid and during their first year of life through breast milk and/or formula. So although we do want to try to limit a toddler’s overall added sugar intake as much as we are able, a single exposure to added sugar at a first birthday, even with the sweetest options of smash cakes, is not going to derail your child’s nutritional future. That is an important point to remember both now and in the coming year(s) as your child is exposed to more and more sugar in the world around them.

While we want to raise children who eat healthfully, we also need to prioritize our children experiencing food freedom and understanding how to embody a level of eating competence that allows them to confidently enjoy all foods (including birthday cake) if they so choose. While a traditional, sugary first birthday smash cake is not necessary nor negligent towards training your child in this important life skill, I encourage all parents to begin evaluating how they can better establish an all foods fit mindset while their child is still an infant or young toddler. This potential mindset shift in parents helps to set the stage early on with their child(ren) for ongoing feeding success, intuitive eating, and overall body positivity with each passing birthday!

 
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Healthy Smash Cakes

“Is it even a cake then?” a friend asked when she suspected that I might be offering my son a healthy smash cake for his first birthday. To me, yes - it is. A cake does not require any specific ingredients to have the celebratory look or feel of a “true” first birthday cake.

However, as a baby, I know what foods, flavors, and foods my child favors (hence the strategically placed blueberries on top of my son’s cake, as shown). Something super sweet and unfamiliar in texture like a thick frosting may not engage them to “smash” let alone enjoy the taste of a baby’s first birthday cakes at all. That’s one of the reasons why I opted to make an alternative birthday cake with no-added-sugar for each of my baby’s first birthdays. During the early years of their development, this was still “the real thing” to them and didn’t leave them “missing” anything from it.

So although I decided to forgo turning these lentil banana muffins into a healthy smash cake for his first birthday (solely based on the principle of lentils being in his cake!), I searched for other recipes that aligned with what I wanted in a healthy smash cake and good, wholesome fun on his first birthday.

 
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First Birthday Smash Cake Ideas

Here are a few of my favorites first birthday smash cake ideas from ones I have made for each of my kid’s first birthdays:

The Best Healthy Smash Cake For Baby’s First Birthday

I made this first birthday cake for my oldest daughter’s first birthday. I used whipped cream instead of the frosting option included in the recipe and used sprinkles. I was VERY first-time mom and went all out on her first birthday party, so homemaking a cake was something I wanted to do. We made it into an ice cream parlor theme party, so she had other exposure to sugar at her party since we offered an ice cream sundae bar. Majority of the guests were adult friends or infants (who didn’t yet eat), so we didn’t make extra of her smash cake for guests.

Baby’s First Birthday Cake

I made this smash cake for my second daughter’s birthday plus cupcakes of it on the side for guests who wanted an option without added sugar. By this party, we had significantly more guests with young children come to the party so we offered traditional cupcakes and other sweets options for desserts, as well as this for a low-sugar alternative.

First Birthday Smash Cake

This is the one we made for my son this year. I used Just Date Syrup instead of maple syrup in the cake itself and then topped with a fluffy, whipped cream frosting similar to the one in the recipe above (basically whip the whipping cream and add maybe 1 Tablespoon total of an added sweetener of choice). Not that it was any less messy for photos, but I liked that being one consistent element between my kid’s first birthday cakes. We held a small party with extended family only this year, so I made two smash cakes: one for his photo shoot and another kept in the fridge (without whip) until his party two days later. We also offered traditional chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting on them for everyone at the party.

 
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Celebrating the first year of life with a little one is so sweet. I hope whether you add sugar to their smash cake or not, you don’t stress over their first birthday. You are an amazing parent and you did an amazing thing raising a tiny human for one whole year! Fork-cheers-full-of-cake to you, friend!

Kid-Friendly Food at Trader Joe's

This week, I am excited to feature a fellow foodie friend of mine, Ashlee Rowland. She has generously written the following post for us on kid-friendly foods at Trader Joe’s. She also created an easy shopping list for you to use when at Trader Joe’s to help you avoid some of the impulse buys and instead, optimize what is in your cart with some of her top picks! I know you will enjoy the simple yet smart ideas Ashlee shares, especially as we get into the Back to School season and need nourishing ideas on hand.

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Ashlee is from Alaska and is a sustainability and wellness travel blogger. She is a Holistic Nutritionist and dedicates her time to simplifying wellness, even on the go. You’ll find her traveling the world in her sprinter van with her husband and rescue pup, Gilligan! Be sure to go say hello — @simplholistic!


This downloadable guide to kid friendly food at Trader Joe's is perfect for this week’s shopping trip. Best of all, it has a lunchbox approved section that makes packing lunches for school and field trips effortless. 


Kid-Friendly Finds at Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s is packed with snacks, meals, produce and cultural finds. While I love TJs, not everything is healthy there... actually, a lot isn’t healthy. So, I created this guide to show you my well vetted favorites from TJs. Everything in this guide and blog post is gluten-free, soy-free and refined sugar-free. You’ll learn about actually healthy finds you can feed yourself and family with confidence.

What to look for

  • Organic

  • Grass-fed

  • Pasture raised

  • Pesticide-free

  • No color added

  • No flavor added

  • Whole food ingredients

What to avoid/limit

  • Refined sugar

  • Artificial sugar

  • Sugar alcohol (erythritol, maltitol, etc)

  • Maltodextrin

  • Caramel color

  • Artificial flavors/colors

  • soy/corn/canola oil

  • Conventional animal products 

A rule of thumb

Most of the time when you’re in Trader Joes, the premade meals are likely to be filled with added ingredients; most of which you’re better off avoiding or limiting. There are - of course - exceptions to this like a few of their TJs dressings, dips, bars and coconut milk. I will talk more about this below. The biggest thing you can do is read read read labels. Don’t go by “natural” or “healthy” labels on the front, they aren’t regulated terms and do not mean as much as they are marketed to. 

I like to look for simple ingredients so, if I am buying chicken I look for: organic chicken, sea salt and seasonings. Rather than this: chicken, maltodextrin, soybean oil, corn starch, seasoning, canola oil. Choose whole foods over packaged foods and you’ll be one step ahead, always.

 
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Kid friendly food at Trader Joe's

Now, I get it, your kids may want the sweet treats, chocolate ice cream and bread, but you can choose to offer those less often, opt for healthier alternatives, or make these items at home with them. If you have the time to make bread, you can buy almond flour, coconut flour, eggs, baking soda and oil from Trader Joe’s. Maybe they want candy? Buy cacao powder, coconut oil, cashew butter and maple syrup and before you know it you’ll have healthy chocolate cups they helped make! Plus, they are both school lunchbox friendly. Just swap the nut butter for sunbutter if you school doesn’t allow nuts!

In a perfect world, you would have all the time in the world to make bread and chocolate cups but this is real life! Trader Joe’s luckily has healthier options for some of the items I listed above. For instance, you can buy their sourdough bread if you don’t have the time to scratch make it at home. Their freezer section is filled with fruits, vegetables, fish and premade meals that *can* be nourishing. You want to look for healthier items like Cauliflower Crust, Cauliflower Gnocchi, Organic Vegetable Foursome with New York Steak or the Organic Superfood Pilaf. Refer to the list above for ingredients I personally avoid.

Products I love (in the guide) with pictures

  • Organic ketchup

  • Plantain chips

  • Organic oats 

  • Organic Valencia Peanut Butter

  • Grass fed Collagen

  • Organic raw almonds (heavily sprayed food)

  • Coconut aminos

  • Coconut milk (one of the few brands without gums!)

  • Organic tahini

  • Organic chicken

  • Organic applesauce

 
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Here are a few of my favorite recipes I’ve made with 100% of the ingredients from Trader Joe’s, woo hoo for only one shopping trip!

Almond Butter Energy Balls

Overnight Oats

Whole Foods Frittata

 
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To get your hands on tried & true Trader Joe's products that kids can't get enough of, download the free grocery list. Perfect for school lunches, after school meals and field trips, this list will help give you simple ideas to get started with from Trader Joe’s. Plus, they're all gluten-free and simple to prepare at home!