Parenting is befuddled by mysteries, and food seems to be at the center of a lot of them. If you’ve ever watched your kid happily eat something at someone else’s house that she wouldn’t touch at home with a 10-foot fork, or abruptly go from hating a food to whining for it, you know what I mean. When my daughter was a toddler, she wouldn’t eat fruit, but she patiently ate an entire bunch of grapes when another child fed them to her. What’s up with that!? She’d also eat broccoli by the kilo if it came with ketchup and could down an entire bento box if it included teriyaki sauce.
This points to a strange truism of tots: Kids will often eat food they purport to hate if it is accompanied by a dipping sauce.
This isn’t news to most parents (or Heinz). Most of us have used hummus, salsa or vats of ranch dressing to get vegetables into our kids. If you or your children are getting bored of the same old dips, or if you want to transition your kids to more complex flavors, here are some ideas for dipping sauces that you can serve with a variety of meals. You can buy many of these as prepared dips, but do try and make some of them at home. They will taste fresher and you’ll avoid the extra salt, sugar and chemical additives contained in most jarred sauces.
Salad dressing is not just for salads. It makes a great dip for any vegetable. Think diced avocado drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette or roasted vegetables dipped in a honey-based vinaigrette. Try experimenting with different oils, herbs, vinegars and mustards.
2. Homemade BBQ sauce
BBQ sauce is popular for a reason. It has that savory/sweet blend that kids typically love. (McDonald’s did their research). Avoid the heavily sugared commercial sauces in favor of recipes that use agave instead of sugar or gain sweetness through a mixture of maple syrup and roasted red peppers.
3. Yogurt-based sauces
Combine yogurt with pretty much anything to make a creamy dip. Mix it with honey or maple syrup for a fruit dip. Try lemon-tahini sauce, tzatziki (yogurt-cucumber sauce) or one of these yogurt-based recipes from Dannon. Substitute yogurt for mayonnaise and sour cream in many dip and dressing recipes to lower the fat content. Similar in versatility to yogurt, feta cheese can also be used as a base for a whole range of dips.
4. Bean-based sauces
Dips made out of beans add both protein and fiber to a meal. Try this creamy white bean dip or this African-influenced lentil dip. Or simply combine a can of refried beans, black beans or pinto beans with some mild salsa and run it through the food processor to remove any potentially objectionable chunks of tomato. Use edamame to produce a beautiful green dip as in this edamame hummus or edamame with avocado recipe.
5. Artichoke-based sauces
Artichokes are magic. Kids love them steamed whole and served with garlic butter or lemony mayonnaise dip. But you can also make a classic artichoke dip or a (somewhat) lighter warm spinach-artichoke dip. This vegan version uses cashew cream for creaminess instead of cream cheese.
6. Grown-up sauces
Tomato-based romesco sauce is delicious with meat, fish, veggies, pasta and on sandwiches. Homemade aioli (garlic mayonnaise) is sublime with vegetables or fish, but does contain raw egg. Try these eggless aioli recipes or a vegan aioli.
7. Asian dipping sauces
Southeast Asian cuisine features sweet-salty dipping sauces with intriguingly complex flavors that children take to pretty quickly. Peanut sauce (usually served with satay) is sublime yet very easy to make, such as this Thai peanut sauce or this Vietnamese version. Serve peanut sauce with noodles, grilled meats or fresh rolls.
Likewise, Vietnamese fish-sauce-based dips are pungent and salty and great with noodles or meat or as a marinade or salad dressing. Sweet Thai chili sauce, which you can make or buy, is also fabulous as a flavor complement to grilled meat or tofu or dribbled on stir-fried noodles. Older kids who are starting to get their sea legs with spicy foods will love these sauces.
Great starter sauces from Japanese cuisine include ponzu sauce, that ubiquitous salty/citrusy dip with grilled fish and tempura in Japanese restaurants; and teriyaki sauce, which is suboptimal in bottled form but a taste sensation when homemade. Either sauce will help make grilled meat or tofu, as well as grilled vegetables, more palatable for kids.
Plum sauce is lovely with broiled chicken or homemade chicken nuggets. Adjust the spice level for any of these sauces by adding more or less chili paste.
8. Make fondue
Fondue is the king of all dips. Try a basic cheese fondue, vegetable fondue or chocolate fondue. You can buy a fondue pot, but it’s more fun to look for one in a thrift store, or do what we did and rifle around in an older relative’s attic for one.
9. Sauce on the side
Turn any sauce into a dipping sauce by serving it on the side in a cute small cup, ramekin or saucer. Making food cute and special makes it more appetizing for a lot of kids. We use sushi dishes with animals on them.
10. Try new dippers
Raw vegetables are the usual dipping implements, but you can expand your kids’ dipping horizons by serving boiled or steamed vegetables, whole wheat pita chips, cheese coins, pretzel sticks, whole romaine leaves, etc.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2014, and updated in July 2021.
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