Play with Your Food! Cooking with Toddlers

Next time your child plays with his mashed potatoes and peas, he may just be demonstrating his creativity. “Kids express themselves with food,” explains Sandra Nissenberg, a registered dietitian and author of several books on children’s nutrition. Most children show an interest in cooking as young as age two—the key is to find the best ways to get them involved in the kitchen and food preparation.

While it can be hard to relax and let your child jump in and help, it’s important to think about the big picture rather than the crumbs on the floor. Carol Williams, a registered dietitian at Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, points out that getting into food sometimes means getting messy—and that’s OK. “Exploring is very different from playing with food. Touch is a sense used to help get unfamiliar foods closer to a child’s mouth.”

Nissenberg adds, “Just remember that messes can always be cleaned up, but memories last a lifetime. Don’t be afraid to have fun with food.”

The pros agree: the more parents encourage their children to interact with food and its preparation, the more likely kids are to enjoy it in a healthy way as they grow.

Wondering how you can introduce your little one to the joys of food and cooking? Take a look at our fun, nutritious list of tips to get you and your child in the kitchen. Then don your aprons, roll up your sleeves, and get cooking!

Tips for Having Healthy Fun with Food

Have kids choose cookie cutters to make sandwiches into shapes (store leftover bread to feed the birds or to use as bread crumbs later). Think hearts and shamrocks for holidays, or teddy bears for special lunchtime hugs. Chilling the bread a bit before working with it makes cutting easier.

  • Scoop cottage cheese into a plain ice cream cone. Then let your child decorate with fruit, granola, or raisins for a healthy, fun-to-eat treat.
  • Wrap it up! Ordinary sandwiches get rave reviews when they’re wrapped in tortillas, cheese, or lunchmeat. For an extra twist, cut wraps into finger-food pinwheels.
  • For kids, everything tastes better as a kabob. Use craft sticks (they have nice, blunt ends) or straws to make fruit, veggie, even pasta kabobs.
  • Who tosses better than a toddler? Even two-year-olds can help tear lettuce for a salad or put bread into a bread basket.
  • Get them rolling in refrigerated dough by making shapes, letters, and mini pies. Top with tomato sauce and cheese for personalized pizzas with pizzazz.
  • Serve breakfast for dinner! Pancakes, bacon, and eggs make a fun change of pace after the sun goes down.
  • Make your own place settings with laminated works of art as placemats and decorated toilet paper tubes as napkin rings. Let kids help set the table.
  • Take kids to fruit and vegetable farms to pick out their own produce.
  • Institute monthly theme nights. Serve a Mexican fiesta of tacos, red beans, and rice; or spend a Middle Eastern evening with hummus, falafel, and pita. Mix things up with foods that all start with the same letter or are all the same shape (manicotti, carrots, and bananas, anyone?).
  • Stick with it! Meatballs, cheese cubes, even hotdogs are more fun when served on craft sticks, available at your local art supply or hobby store.
  • Let your child decorate sandwiches with raisins, apples, banana slices, or grapes. “It’s amazing how quickly these sandwiches get eaten. Be prepared to make seconds,” says Nissenberg.
  • Try making meatloaf in a muffin tin. The new shape makes the loaves easy to customize with ingredients and fun to pick up and eat.
  • The game you can eat—spread peanut butter or cream cheese on graham cracker rectangles. Decorate with raisins or chocolate chips to look like dominoes. Perfect for playdates and get-togethers.
  • Paint white bread with a mix of food coloring and milk. Throw it in the toaster for colorful, tasty, personalized toast.
  • All the fun, none of the ants! Turn inclement weather into a special occasion for family indoor picnics.
  • Play the refrigerator memory game. Just open the fridge for one minute, close the door, and then have your child list as many healthy foods as he or she can. This is also a great way to encourage yourself to stock nutritious options.

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