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Worst Dinners to Feed Your Children!

9 min read

By Katherine George

Medically Reviewed by Julie Ching, MS, RDN, CDE

Feeding your children fast and nutritious dinners can be impossible. You’re just back from working all day and now have to get them ready for after school sports, hobbies, or any clubs they belong to with only a short break to eat. The struggle is real and a lot of parents feel it. We know most of the time it’s easier to just cave and get them fast food which is fine once and awhile, but we wouldn’t want to get into that habit on a regular basis.

Not only do parents suffer from time constraints, but most children are also really picky eaters. This is a particular issue for young children. Their taste buds are extremely sensitive and many adult flavors are not palatable. Children may also be scared of trying new things because they are different to their normal meals. The fatty, salty flavors of fast food are what they crave because that’s what most children’s foods like chicken nuggets, happy meals, mac ‘n’ cheese are made with. Unfortunately these are also the most unhealthy. Food experts warn parents to be wary of any of these 13 worst dinner options…

Fried Chicken

Fried chicken is a popular dish for take out dinners. Restaurants advertise that the chicken is cooked at a high heat, preventing the oil from being fully absorbed.

This may be true for the chicken meat, but consider that the breading soaks up all the fat instead. Children love the crunch of the coating on chicken, but nutritionists recommend baking it to keep the crunch without all the fat. Also watch out for the gravy that is commonly served beside take away fried chicken.

Hot Dogs

Hot dogs are a childhood favorite, especially in the summertime when family barbecues are a dime a dozen. Your children can easily eat them with their hands, they can be roasted by a campfire for some evening fun, and there is basically next to no preparation for them. What’s not to like? Well, food experts point out that dogs often contain high levels of nitrates, which help preserve the meat.

All cured meats contain this compound, including bacon and lunch meats. Nitrate free varieties use vegetable processed nitrate alternatives, which are still unhealthy. Instead, opt for sausages that aren’t pre-cooked and inspect the package to ensure they’re nitrate free or buy them from a healthy butcher!

Delivery Pizza

A weekend staple, delivery pizza can throw off an entire week of healthy eating. Each piece is packed with calories and fat. “If it’s been prepared out of the home, it’s likely going to have more fat and salt than anything you would make,” says Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas-based pediatrician who talked to “And if it’s more than once a week, it becomes a serious issue. You definitely don’t want to make it a daily staple.”

Instead, make your own healthy, homemade pizza using individual whole wheat pita breads or English muffins as the crust. Top kids pizzas with low fat cheese, low sodium tomato sauce, and extra vegetables like fresh peppers, mushrooms, and tomatoes.

Fast Food

Picking up fast food after a long day of work can be convenient, but rather unhealthy. Your children may beg for this treat, but you won’t be doing their bodies any good caving to this request.

Most fast food burger joints serve up empty calories, and high amounts of fat and salt with happy meals. They may advertise apple slices instead of french fries, but the caramel dip that comes with is still loaded with sugar. If you’re in a rush after work, try making a slow cooker meal. Set it in the morning to have dinner already prepared when you get home!

Grilled Cheese

Grilled cheese can be a fatty nightmare for dinner if it’s  made on white bread with processed cheese slices. It is completely possible to make a healthy grilled cheese, but the bread and filling has to change.

Instead of sliced cheese, add in low fat cheddar, fresh tomato, and lean sliced chicken breast. Go easier on the cheese, and cut from an unprocessed block. Instead of refined white bread, opt for a whole wheat or rye. Finally, use only a light smear of butter along the outside of the bread or don’t use any and use the toaster oven. This can cut some of the hidden calories and fat.

Fettuccine Alfredo

Fettuccine Alfredo is a delicious meal, but it can be wickedly unhealthy. The creamy sauce is often packed with fat and calories from heavy cream, butter, and plenty of cheese for  flavor.

You can certainly make a healthy pasta dish, but ditch the creamy sauces altogether. Opt instead for a fresh and hearty tomato sauce to incorporate minced vegetables in a sneaky way. Look for whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta to amp up the fiber content.

Fish Fingers

It can be hard getting children to eat fish. It has a stronger flavor and strange texture. Fish fingers are a popular childhood dinner as their fun shape and their mild taste is pleasing.

Even if it tastes fishy, ketchup and sauces can mask it. Fish fingers contain too little fish and have way too much breading. The sauces are also packed with sugar. Try pan frying mild fish like tilapia instead and coating it in a whole grain, baked crust.

Chicken Nuggets

It may be hard to find a child that doesn’t adore chicken nuggets. Heck, I even like them as an adult! For kids, they come in fun shapes and sizes which also makes them easy to dunk into sauces and eat with their fingers. They’re also a popular item on children’s menus at restaurants and fast food joints. However, chicken nuggets are often made from the off cuts of chicken, such as the bones, organs, and fat, blended into a pink slurry and then formed into nugget shapes.

LiveStrong also points out that “popular fast food chains often contain 20 or more ingredients anre are fried in oils with additives such as dimethylpolysiloxane, an ‘anti foaming agent.'” When our food comes already prepared and boxed it’s easy to forget how it got that way, but once we learn the truth, it’s hard to look at them the same way, let alone allow our children to eat them in place of a nutritious meal. To make them a little healthier, try to shop for the real chicken tenders made from all breast meat with no additives. Also, pick the dipping sauces carefully by using real barbecue sauce or fresh salsa.

Tuna Casserole

Tuna casserole is a classic weeknight meal and it sounds healthy! After all, tuna is a healthy fish! Men’s Journal explains that it’s a lean protein with lots of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, so why wouldn’t we feed it to our kids? Unfortunately it’s the excess cheese, cream soup, and butter in this dish that turns it from healthy to indulgent. Also, a lot of food experts also warn parents to be wary of tuna and to only enjoy it on occasion because it can have high mercury content. “Fish that are high in mercury can affect the nervous system of young kids,” says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a health sciences professor at Boston University to Men’s Journal.

However, you can certainly make a healthy casserole for weeknight dinners easier. Make the cheese sauce with skim milk and light cheese or use sodium and low calorie cream of mushroom soup, and add in a variety of fresh or frozen vegetables along with the tuna.

Frozen Dinner

Frozen dinners might seem like the best thing since sliced bread for a busy parent who is juggling work, active school activities, homework, play dates, etc, but they’re super unhealthy. If we stop and think about it, not only does it seem strange that a full meal can be eaten in roughly 2-minutes, but let’s face it, there’s no way a meal prepared that way has any nutritional value. And what is the point of eating if we’re not deriving any nutrients from it? At that point we’re just subsiding hunger for a short period of time because all we’re eating is calories, fat, but not actually providing our body with the fuel that food is supposed to be.

The worst thing about these foods is similar to many of the other foods on this list, they lack nutrients and contain a large amount of salt. “Processed foods are in general less healthy. They usually contain more salt or fat than food you prepare yourself, so make the effort to prepare food for your kids at home,” says Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas-based pediatrician who talked to

Packaged Pasta

Mac ‘n’ cheese is almost a staple of any childhood. I used to eat it all the time as a kid! Unfortunately it’s also one of the worst foods for a growing child. Other packaged pastas like canned spaghetti and ramen noodles are also among the worst dinner foods to be feeding our children. This is because of their sodium content. LiveStrong informs that packaged pastas can have more sodium in one serving than what a child should be eating in an entire day!

The worst part of these meals is the white pasta which is made from enriched flour. White pasta is the same as white bread or white rice, it’s been stripped of all its nutrients and fiber. We understand that many kids don’t like to eat the same kind of healthy dinners that an adult would, so pasta is an easy option. In this case, we advise making your own pasta with whole wheat noodles. Whip up a big batch of noodles during some down time on the weekend, then reheat and use it throughout the week for a quick and easy meal.

Processed Meat

Processed meat isn’t good for anybody, so why would we feed it to our growing kids?! There are so many problems with eating processed food, but the biggest thing with meats like hot dogs and deli meat are the carcinogens, says International Agency for Research on Cancer the cancer agency of the World Health Organization.

Studies reviewed by the agency showed a link between colorectal cancer and processed meat. Research shows eating a hot dog a day could raise the risk of cancer by 18-percent. “We should be limiting red and processed meat to help reduce colon cancer risk, and possibly, the risk of other cancers,” says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, the American Cancer Society managing director of nutrition and physical activity in a public statement. Now this doesn’t mean we have to eliminate this food entirely because we know that’s not practical, but we should be limiting their intake to once in a while.

Dipping Sauces

Okay, so this isn’t a meal in itself, but we thought we’d include it in this meal because it often accompanies our dinner foods. Dipping sauces are useful for kids because they don’t always like the taste of healthy foods on their own, especially veggies. The problem is that including them in a meal is just adding more calories and fat making a once healthy meal unhealthy, or making an already unhealthy meal even worse. “With foods like chicken fingers and hamburgers that taste good already, there’s no need to get them used to having extra sauces,” says Wesley Delbridge, RD, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesman who specializes in children’s nutrition to Men’s Journal. “Condiments can add hundreds of calories and extra fat to a meal.”

If you absolutely can’t lose the sauce, try offering them a small serving to ration out throughout their meal instead of giving them access to an entire bottle of ketchup. For things like ranch dressing, Men’s Journal advises using greek yogurt mixed with seasonings.

Looking for other articles on healthy eating for kids? Check out these:


Julie Ching is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator in Los Angeles. She decided to become a Dietitian after traveling through Europe, South America, and Asia and discovered a passion for food. She now works with people of all ages and varying disease states to improve their health. She is passionate about teaching people about nutrition so they can live their best life while still considering their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.



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