Food as Play? Mealtime Fun for Picky Eaters

This is a guest post by Jennifer Westpfhal. Thanks Jennifer, for sharing your fabulous ideas with all of us. While my own children have moved beyond the picky eater stage, I know I could have used these tips a few years ago. Today my girls eat almost everything, although I’m still working on getting them to clean the kitchen (well) when they’re done. Cute ideas for making housework fun are always welcome!… Anyone?

I have one very picky eater — penance for mine and hubby’s childhood eating habits — so I am always looking for ways to get her to try new things or eat nutritious things. I’ve found it’s all about making it fun. Here are some ways to do that.

1. Serve it on/in a fun dish. Some ideas include the face plates pictured at left, silicone cupcake cups or anything that has multiple compartments, like Zak’s confetti plates, made of recycled material or, of course, EasyLunchBoxes.

2. Make it small. My kids love things presented in bite-size portions, especially if it has a toothpick through it. This can be bites of sandwiches, pizza, cheese, meat, fruit. When she was young, my daughter didn’t like tacos but she liked “mini tacos” made on tortilla chips instead of a large taco shell.

3. Make it a shape. Anything shaped as a heart, Mickey Mouse, a face or the kids’ initials has a higher chance of being eaten than if presented in its normal shape. My 5-year-old doesn’t eat noodles of any kind, except mac and cheese. I wonder if these squid dogs would change her mind. Family Fun has a whole section devoted to making food fun, including a slide show of fun shaped food like these kiwi faces to the right. You can use cookie cutters or cheese cutters on lots of things besides cookies and cheese. You can make sandwiches into puzzles and hard-boiled eggs into animals.

4. Teach them about food. Teach them how it grows and where it comes from. Take them to a farmers’ market. Grow a garden. My kids really liked a promotional coloring storybook from Dole that taught them they could get their own rainbow if they eat five different colored fruits or veggies a day.

5. Make eating a game. I love this idea, which came from a Family Fun article titled Meet the Mystery Vegetables:

Each week I find a vegetable that’s unfamiliar or that the kids have tried and rejected in the past. I then search out a tasty-sounding recipe to prepare in which the chosen veggie plays a starring role. After Gavin and Meriel are seated at the dining table, I tie blindfolds over their eyes and place bites of the mystery vegetable on their forks. The kids always find the blindfolds slightly scary — in a good way. It definitely adds a thrill to dinnertime. Next, they get to smell the veggie and describe the scent; then they taste it and describe the flavor. The whole time we encourage them to be as descriptive as they can, saying positive and negative things. Finally, they get to remove the blindfolds and name the new dish something wacky.

6. Let them cook. Kids Cooking Activities has lots of ideas and lessons for teaching kids to cook. There are lots of cookbooks intended for children, such as Pretend Soup, and other books by Mollie Katzen, Cook it in a Cup and even character-based books like this Princess and the Frog one.

7. Get them their own utensils. Remember that kids’ hands are smaller and arms are weaker than ours. They need their own kitchen utensils. Mine have a small whisk and scraper with a cute pig head on the end of the handle. When they are ready to help cut, this safety cutting board would be very handy. What do you think is a good age for teaching kids knife skills? Alton Brown says 13 but I think maybe 10. Even toddler should have a space in the kitchen, like this one. And don’t forget a fun apron!

8. Be patient. The most important thing, for me anyway, is to remember that it’s more important that the kids learn to cook and to like cooking than it is for me to get it done quickly. So I need to stop saying no when they ask to “help” or to be lifted up to see into the pot.

Jennifer Westpfahl is a stay-at-home mom of three. At www.growwithgraces.com, she chronicles the things she strives to do and be. One of the things she is striving toward is making healthy food choices for herself and her family.