The way kids eat can be a little crazy-making. Right? Maybe you have a kid who is adventurous at mealtime. Not me!
Nathaniel does not like broccoli, beans, and weirdly (also inconveniently) pizza. The list goes on.
That said, I’ve found that through some simple games we can have more fun with mealtime. Play these games to spark some curiosity and bravery surrounding unknown foods. Let mealtime be a pleasurable opportunity for playtime!
This brings me to my video this week:
1. Kids Eat Better When they Play “Magic Stew”
This is a game that you don’t need to play at the table, but rather you can do it before you eat as a way to talk about food and healthy (or unhealthy) ingredients. In this video I’m playing it in our summer camp for ages 3-5. (Check out our 2017 summer camp if you live in New York and need a great place for your kids to go in August).
Nuts and Bolts of Playing
- Get into a character – become an animal, superhero, princess etc!
- Take turns listing ingredients for your character’s “stew”.
- Go a step further and “sample” ingredients as you put them in. Feel the textures, smell the smells. Practice mindfulness as you explore all that your senses will tell you. Then take a taste before you plop it in the pot!
Talk about Nutrition through Play
That phrase, “You are what you eat” can also apply to heroes, villains and monsters. What would someone eat who wants to be really yucky?
Imagine Julia Donaldson’s famous “Gruffalo” or Captain Hook? Silly, stinky ingredients, very likely! Have fun with crazy things like “shoelaces”, “toad juice”, “rotten snake eggs”. This is also an opportunity to talk about sugar, salts, fats, and how maybe the monster is loaded up on stuff that isn’t so good for his body.
On the other hand, how about if you need to…
…Have great hair like Rapunzel?
…Be an excellent digger like The Fantastic Mr. Fox?
…A great sailor like Moana?
Those characters need foods that really power them up and get them super healthy. You’ll be surprised how many fruits and veggies your kids can rattle off and how enthused they will be to add them to the “stew” and get their salubrious benefits!
Mix Real (Amazing) Food with Magical Food
As you are listing ingredients it is great to emphasize the vitamins that real foods have, but also keep it playful by encouraging magical thinking. Below are real ingredients that can tickle kids’ imaginations and funny bones and have amazing genuine nutrition.
Real Healthy Food
These real foods are fun for kids to imagine, pronounce, and learn about their benefits. When they come across them in real life, they’ll remember using them to get “super powers” in their game.
- Carrot Juice for super strong eyesight
- Acai Berries from the Rainforest to make a strong heart.
- Seeds from a Sunflower – for amazing Vitamin E
- Beet Chips – for powerful blood
- Garbanzo Beans – for antioxidants
- Alfalfa Sprouts – for new cells
- Blueberries – for vitamin B and to make you really happy!
Magical Food (that encourages imaginative thinking)
When kids eat these they can “transform”. Let your child come up with suggestions. These are some of the popular ones over the years from Child’s Play NY.
- Fire-fly juice – to make you glow and fly
- Rainbow power – to give you all the colors of the rainbow
- Stardust Sprinkles – to make you shine brightly
- Mexican Jumping Beans – to give you jumping power
- Flower Nectar – to make you sweet
How to Deal with Potty Talk
Inevitably if you are making something gross for a monster, pirate or bad guy to eat, kids can call out some “potty talk” words. Don’t pay too much attention to those “yucky” words and immediately re-direct them to something silly. They will not get negative attention for including the “bad words”, rather they’ll be inspired to think outside the box instead of going for something obvious. This week’s video (above), Dr. Bronwyn Charlton weighs in on how to help with “potty talk” using positive discipline.
Kid: I know, let’s put in poop!
You: Yes, that IS yucky, but you know what’s even funnier? Rotten pickles/slimy sea slugs/mildewed mushrooms/stinky nose-hairs/… (you get the idea!)
Don’t be afraid to be gross yourself, just help pivot your child away from the potty talk with a clever re-direct.
2. Let Kids Eat With Their Hands
Never underestimate the power of finger foods.
It’s all well and good to practice fine motor skills with a fork, but there is something great about letting kids eat how they need to and breaking the rules. Just make sure their hands are washed! Young toddlers especially should be encouraged to eat in a playful way so that meals are associated with positivity. Of course, set boundaries for the youngest through positive discipline (“Great job keeping your food on the tray!”), but don’t worry too much if meals are messy.
This is especially important if you are hoping to add in new food into the rotation of stuff your child eats. Let them experience it with their fingers. Don’t be afraid to let them literally play with your food.
When I was trying to expand Nathaniel’s palate, I imagined that my fingers were the proud owners of “Raspberry Hats” and I would be incredibly (mock!) surprised when he came and munched them. Once he was exposed to how delicious those berries were – especially because he associated it with a great and silly time we had – he has never looked back.
I vividly remember my dad encouraging my broccoli-eating in much the same way. When I was about 4 myself, in one of my earliest memories, I was at the table laughing and eating broccoli. My dad was acting out the voice of the tree (the broccoli), hopeful that he wouldn’t be eaten, and I was a dinosaur coming along and eating him! He would protest, and even describe what it was like to be chewed up. Granted, my dad is a great actor, but I really believe that any parent can combine play and food to expand their kid’s palate and that kids eat better when they are having a great time! That said, I’m still working on the broccoli-thing with Nathaniel.
3. Kids Eat Better With Music and Stories at the Table
Encourage stamina at the table, using mealtime as an opportunity to tell and read stories, sing songs, talk and play. When kids don’t just eat and run, meals will be more meaningful. They will also be more likely to munch all that is on their plate.
- Play Story Clap
- Talk about something surprising or funny that happened to you that day.
- Talk about what you are looking forward to in the coming week
- List all the people you love!
- Read a picture book or a chapter of a book
- Listen to a Book on Tape
- Play cards
- Sing a song like Raffi’s classic “Apples and Bananas” or any from his fantastic “Fun Food Songs” album.
What are your favorite playful ways to inspire your kids eat? And does anyone else’s child not like pizza?