This is Part 2 of a 4-part series about kids and food. Part 1 is about establishing and encouraging healthy attitudes toward food and is found here. Today we’ll talk about ways to make good food fun.
One of the very best ways to ease kids into a positive relationship with healthy food is to make it fun from the very beginning. Placing food at the center of playtime or reading time allows you to talk it over from a neutral place – talking about mushrooms while looking at them in a book or playing store is entirely different than talking about mushrooms while they’re sitting on the dinner table.
Playtime or reading time is a positive (or at least neutral) environment while the dinner table can be contentious right from the start. Sometimes the smell alone can set kids off, sending the experience of the whole meal in a downward spiral. So better to start widening kids’ exposures and palettes through playtime, when they know there’s no chance you’ll ask them to try something new.
Take baby steps here, slow and steady wins the race.
Here are some fun strategies for you to try that help kids develop an open mind toward healthy food:
Embrace Food as Play
One of the best toys you can provide your kids is play food. It comes in so many different formats, from baby-safe softies for teething to toddler-appropriate wooden and plastic food to even more elaborate dishes and utensils and play food items with moving parts. Try to get a wide variety of play food items, including fruits and vegetables of course but also things like breads, sweets, meats, pastas, etc. This isn’t about brainwashing your kids by exposing to only “healthy” foods through toys, rather it’s about putting all different kinds of food at the center of play.
As toddlers get older they will probably enjoy a play kitchen, shelves to hold their food and dishes and play pots, and even a working cash register. Games and scenarios evolve to be more elaborate as kids get older, you’d be surprised at how far they can take this pretend play into the elementary years.
There are also some great photo books that feature food. I spent many many plane and car rides reading and pointing at pictures in what my kids called “The Food Book,” which is actually one of the DK Eyewitness series books for toddlers (it’s a board book and we still have it, it’s hanging in there despite being taped up over and over). Books that feature photos of food are perpetually a big hit.
The bigger variety of foods you can show your kids through a wide array of methods (books, toys, movies, games, and of course the grocery store) the more familiar they become and kids are less likely to balk and seeing new things on the dinner table.
Use Small Plates and Keep Portions Reasonable
Plain and simple, meals are less intimidating when they’re on smaller plates. My kids, who are now 17, 15, and 14 still to this day use small lunch-size plates for most of their meals, just out of habit now. Better to keep portions smaller and give kids the feeling of accomplishment for finishing their serving rather than start them off feeling overwhelmed with a big plate. Things can spiral downward quickly when a child feels defeated before he even begins.
Ask Your Kids to Make Tablescapes
A tablescape is a fancy word for decorations in the middle of a table. As much as you might like the pillar candle or vase of fresh flowers in the middle of the table, I guarantee it’s more interesting to you than it is to your kids.
Give them the task of decorating the table now and then, and let them run free with it (as long as it’s clean and safe enough for the table). You can set themes for certain days (such as Americana for July 4, or other holiday-related themes) or even themes that might tie into their schoolwork. Or just let your kids’ imaginations run wild and enjoy the shenanigans. Watch how the fun, positive environment they create spills over to the actual meal.
Let Your Kids Cook
Really, let them go to town in the kitchen. Whether they want to bake a batch of cookies or brownies for a snack or actually make a full meal, give them free reign. Yes, it will be messy. Yes, there’s a good chance whatever it is they’re making is not going to turn out that well. Yes, they may end up not eating what they make.
But that’s OK. I know (believe me, I know!) that it can be hard to watch food get wasted. Food is not cheap, especially healthy food. But try to look at their time in the kitchen as practical science rather than messy wasteful play. They are most definitely learning, and the time they spend having fun in the kitchen now is an investment in their future relationship with eating and cooking and responsible living.
Now, about that mess. It can be a fine line between teaching responsibility (ie, whatever mess you make you have to clean up yourself) and deterring kids from exploring and learning because they hesitate to actually try cooking for fear of having to clean up the mess. I’ve always tread gently on this one, erring on the side of me cleaning up more rather than less because I didn’t want the kids to be deterred. I’ve always asked for them to help and many times they’ve cleaned up on their own accord. But not always, I assure you.
I figure that I let my kids paint and play with clay and do all sorts of other messy projects around the house and don’t always expect things to be perfectly clean when they’re done, so why should the kitchen be any different?
I hope these ideas get you started on making food a source of fun with your kids. Just like we try to make school work as fun, engaging and non-threatening as possible, we can do the same with the process of growing healthy eaters. Using patience, fun and creativity, you’ll be on your way to making mealtime a source of pleasure rather than pain!
What other things do you do to keep the fun in healthy food?