Making meals fun (and healthy)

Story by Valerie Phillips
Mon, Aug 26, 2013
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Most children love noodles — with mac and cheese and spaghetti being perennial kid-friendly favorites.

But Melissa Mikesell Barlow, of Fruit Heights, wanted to go beyond the usual pasta dishes with her children’s cookbook “Noodlemania” (Quirk Books, $15.95).

“Pasta comes in so many different shapes and sizes, there are strings, ribbons, twists, curls, tubes, flowers, shells, bow ties, letters, elbows, and more,” she said. “I thought it would be fun for kids to experiment and help create their own meals and have more options.”

So Barlow’s “50 playful pasta recipes” include Little Ladybug Salad, Robot Bites, Gooey Green Noodles, Curly Worms, Silly Sea Creatures, and Pink Pepperoni Flowers. Photos by local photographer Zac Williams add to the fun.

Barlow said noodles lend themselves to different sauces and veggies, for better nutrition.

“If your kids are helping you, whether it’s shopping at the grocery store, or chopping up things, they are more likely to eat it,” said Barlow, a mother of three preschoolers.

“The idea of the book is to involve your kids in making more healthy versions of things. There’s still some butter and cheese, but many of my recipes have lots of fresh veggies, and the vibrant colors always make the final food product look more appealing and beautiful.”

Barlow came up with the idea while she was a book editor at Gibbs Smith Publishing in Layton. During that time, she co-authored “101 Things To Do With a Salad,” but she couldn’t find the right format for the pasta book, she said.

When she left Gibbs Smith about three years ago to help with her husband’s business, she continued to do some freelance writing and work on the noodle idea, this time through Quirk Books.

Daughter Izzie, now 4, helped taste-test a lot of the recipes.

“There were some things she liked more than others,” said Barlow. “The recipes are pretty versatile. If your child doesn’t like tomatoes, you can substitute a vegetable they do like.”

For picky eaters, Barlow advises continuing to offer a variety of vegetables, even if the kids have turned up their nose in the past.

“When I cook dinner, I serve what my husband and I are having, and I figure the kids will eventually learn to like what they are being served,” said Barlow. “Our rule is that Izzie has to take a bite of everything on her plate. Sometimes she’s surprised that she likes it.”

The intent is for kids to prepare the recipes in the book with adult supervision — “because you are using a hot stove,” Barlow said.

“But if you have an 8-year-old or a 10-year-old who wants to make dinner, they could do it. Unless you overcook it, pasta is pretty hard to mess up. That helps build your child’s confidence that they cooked dinner for the whole family.”

All of the recipes serve 4 to 6 small portions, “although my husband and I ate those portions and we were fine. It’s a good way to watch your portion control,” said Barlow.

Some recipes call for canned chicken, instead of cooking raw chicken. “I wanted one less step for the kids to have to worry about.” Barlow said. “I use a good-quality canned chicken that I buy at Costco, and you would never know it’s canned.”

In a few recipes, Barlow used food coloring — turning the noodles blue in her “Under the Cheesy Sea Shells” recipe, or green for a Purple Pasta Monster. The book also includes a recipe for homemade pasta for those who want to start out with their own from-scratch noodles.

“Most of the recipes can make a meal for a very decent price,” said Barlow. “It’s a good way to introduce kids to cooking. The recipes are fun to make and fun to eat.”

Barlow will sign copies of “Noodlemania!: 50 Playful Pasta Recipes” at 2 p.m. Sept. 7 at the King’s English Book Shop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.

Valerie Phillips blogs at

Mini Spaghetti Pizzas

8 ounces spaghetti

2 cups shredded pizza-blend cheese

1 1/4 cups marinara sauce, divided

Garlic salt, optional

Favorite pizza toppings: Onion, red and green bell pepper, mini or quartered pepperoni slices, cooked ground sausage, green or black olives, mushrooms

Cook the spaghetti according to package directions. Drain and let cool slightly.

Divide the pasta into 8 sections and twist each section into a layered circle of noodles to make your pizza “dough.” Each circle should be about 4 inches in diameter and about 1 inch thick. Line a cookie sheet with foil and spray it with nonstick cooking spray. Place each circle on the prepared cookie sheet.

Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of cheese over each noodle circle and bake at 350 degrees for 3-5 minutes to melt the cheese. Top each noodle circle with a tablespoon or two of marinara sauce, or just divide sauce equally among the spaghetti pizzas. Leave some of the noodle edges showing on each so it looks like pizza dough. Sprinkle a tiny bit of garlic salt over each, if desired, and then sprinkle the remaining cheese over the sauce. Finish your pizza with your favorite toppings. Return the pizzas to the oven and bake 4-5 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and toppings have warmed through.

Makes 8 small pizzas.

Under the Cheesy Sea Shells

1 1/2 cups small seashell pasta

Blue food coloring


1/3 cup 2 percent or whole milk

3-4 tablespoons Old English cheese spread

Dash of garlic salt

4 cooked hot dogs


Cook the noodles according to package directions, adding a few drops of blue food coloring and 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar to the cooking water. Drain and return the noodles to the pan. In a separate pan, stir the milk and cheese spread until smooth. Season with the garlic salt and stir to combine.

To make an octopus, cut each hot dog in half lengthwise only to the middle. Then cut each half in half again so there are 4 tentacles. Repeat a third time to make 8 tentacles.

To serve, place the seashell noodles in a serving bowl. Pour the sauce over the top. Place your octopus on top of individual servings of noodles. Place two dots of mustard on each octopus to make the eyes.

— From “Noodlemania”

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