It was during a visit to California to see a friend who missed her calling in life (she should have opened a catering company), that I learned the value of creativity when it comes to feeding kids.
Here we were in the land of sunshine, fresh fruit and vegetables and my son, then 6, was refusing to eat anything more adventurous than Honey Nut Cheerios.
My friend asked if he would eat the fruit if she turned it into a blue flower. Fascinated, he promised he would. She turned her back to him and began slicing. When she turned back, the cutting board held a beautiful blue flower—the petals were pieces of banana cut at an angle and covered in blue sprinkles, the center was a bunch of blueberries. He was wowed—and ate the whole thing.
That day I learned that sometimes the question isn’t, "Who wants a banana?" But, rather, "How do I get my kids to eat the banana?" In that spirit, the Chicago Parent editors have compiled some ideas for fun food—most of our suggestions are healthy snacks but a few are special treats. We’d love to hear your ideas, send them to us via e-mail at email@example.com.
Cookie cutters are for more than just cookies. Try a heart-shaped slice of cheese for a Valentine’s Day snack, a bunny-shaped peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich for Easter-time lunch or a pumpkin-shaped piece of toast for breakfast on Halloween.
Round turkey cheeseburgers are the perfect pallet for making faces—try olives for eyes and red pepper lips.
Or, if you’re handy with a paring knife, carve the fruits and vegetables. An apple can be a bird, a radish becomes a flower and a piece of celery is a potential palm tree.
Just as that blue sugar transformed the banana, a little food coloring can turn scrambled eggs into a Dr. Seuss story, "Green Eggs and Ham." Read it while you eat. Or drop food coloring into milk and kids have "paint" for bread before you toast it.
Your kids won’t eat celery, but love raisins? Put them together by filling the trough of the celery with peanut butter or cream cheese, then lining the top with a row of raisins: ants on a log.
Or, if your child eats a sandwich every day but rejects the carrot stick side dish, try making the carrots the body of a butterfly sandwich. Cut the sandwich diagonally, and turn the two triangle-shaped pieces away from each other for wings. Then, use a carrot stick in the middle to be the butterfly body. Use two raisins for the eyes and thin strips of curly celery for the antennae. For even more fun, break out that colored milk "paint" and let the kids decorate the butterfly wings before they chow down.
Give it a theme
Themes can be elaborate—plan a meal from another culture—or easy—foods of all one color.
Try an all-yellow lunch to celebrate the first day of summer. Serve bananas, peach yogurt, crackers and corn soup.
Or make a finger-food meal and serve it without utensils.
You can actually build a skyscraper by using cut- up pieces of cheese and pretzel sticks. Let the kids manage the construction and the tear down of their own snack.
Or cut a sandwich into a puzzle—interesting shapes that must be fit together before it’s eaten.
For a scary snack, cut peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into circles and stick eight pretzel sticks around the edges for legs and two raisins for eyes—and behold, a spider sandwich.
Offer an animal-themed meal with a bunny salad (half a pear with two raisins or small grapes for eyes, two almond slivers for ears and a cottage cheese bunny tail), octopus turkey dogs (slice the dog before cooking and the "tentacles" curl up during boiling) and "worm" cupcakes for dessert (make the cupcakes, mix Oreo cookies into the frosting to make the dirt and add gummy worms).
Mix it up
Try serving breakfast for dinner or lunch for breakfast. Pancakes and fruit or scrambled eggs and ham at dinner time and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at breakfast can be fun just because they’re out of order.
Cindy Richards is the senior editor and travel editor for Chicago Parent and the mom of two, one of whom is a very picky eater.