“It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” Growing up, my mother said that a lot.

Of course, my brothers and I were usually rough-housing. So what’s that got to do with eating? Well, it turns out that kids can learn valuable lessons from rough-housing. It can stimulate the brain, teach emotional intelligence, enhance friendships, promote ethical and moral development (especially when the stronger player holds back). Similarly, children can learn a lot from playing with food.

I understand the desire to tell your kids, “Stop playing with your food,” especially because it’s usually followed up with, “And eat!” But playing can be helpful—especially if it’s done in the right (i.e. structured) way.

I’m not encouraging your kids to throw food at each other, or to smear stuff on the walls, in their ears or up their noses. This is not the baby version of Animal House.

(That reference dates me. Animal House was made in 1978. Ugh.)

Playing with food turns the unfamiliar into the familiar. It works by engaging the senses repeatedly. In this way, play builds up a database of food facts that help children at predicting what new foods will be like.

I recognize that encouraging children to play with their food can be wasteful.

Playing with food can send the wrong message about gratitude. Further, for some families, it’s not even feasible.

Still, some children aren’t ready to jump into eating. These kids need to get their senses involved and their imaginations engaged. And they need to have fun. It’s how foreign food stops being “the enemy.”

Last week I wrote about the Power of Pretend. That’s a great place to start building familiarity, but at some point, children want to get messy. So let’s talk about minimizing waste.

Ways to minimize waste:

  • Save scraps from cooking. Example: Use carrot peel, garlic and onion skins, bread crumbs.
  • Think small. Example: One pea, one teaspoon of mashed potatoes.
  • Repurpose leftovers. Example: Save a chicken bone, the last bite of orange.
  • Salvage spills. Example: Save anything you won’t eat after you’ve dropped it on the floor.
 5 games you can play with your children that will build new food acceptance.  FYI: These games are particularly good for children with food sensitivities.

Game 1: Hot Potato

  1. Select 3 new foods and 3 familiar foods.
  2. Place one item in a small bowl.
  3. Turn the music on and pass the bowl around.
  4. The person holding the bowl when the music stops makes a visual statement about the item: The carrot is orange.  (You can play a round using smell statements too).
  5. The person who has the bowl now chooses another item to go into the bowl.
  6. Start the game again.

Game 2: Guess What’s in the Box

  1.  Gather 7-10 new food items and a box with a small hole (shoe box will do).
  2. Place one food in the Mystery Box.
  3. Have the child place her hand through the hole, touch the item and guess what it is. (You can also ask your child to guess what’s in the box by smelling the food inside.)
  4. Give the child a turn to select and place the food in the box. Now the adult has to guess what it is.
  5. Repeat.

Game 3: Paint with Food

  1. Select 2-3 sauces as your paint.  Consider ketchup, mustard, ranch dressing, yogurt, and applesauce.
  2. Select several foods as your paint brushes.  Consider carrot sticks, celery, chicken drumsticks, pretzel sticks, broccoli spears.
  3. Provide construction paper and let your child have fun!

Game 4:  Food Bingo

  1. Decide how many squares your Bingo cards will have. Then make Bingo cards by drawing squares onto a piece of construction paper and glueing on pictures of food.
  2. Write the name of each food on a 3×5 card.
  3. Give each member a bingo card and markers.
  4. Turn over the 3×5 cards and select the first card.
  5. Have each child identify if they have the food item on their Bingo card and place a marker on the card.
  6. Each time the child has a chosen food item, he or she has to hold the actual food item and describe it’s touch, smell, look, etc.

Game 5: The Matching Game

  1. Select 3-5 food items, including some preferred foods.
  2. Write a description for each food item on a separate 3×5 card such as: sweet, sour, bitter, strong, refreshing, spicy, minty.
  3. Have each member of the group smell the food item and identify which description best describes it.
  4. Encourage your children to write new and creative descriptions for each item.

I wish I could accept credit for inventing these games, but I can’t.

You might say I stole them, but I like to think I borrowed them, from a brilliant book Just Take A Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~