Merging play and food - a new strategy for today's parents

Updated: a day ago

Many of you have children who eat both raw and cooked vegetables with ease. As a Registered Dietitian, I'd like to say I am one of you. But my child has been on the slow train to Veggieland and it has required a lot of time and patience just to get to the outskirts of town.


One strategy I've employed is allowing my son to play with vegetables. If that implies a free-for-all with them that is not the case, though I'm sure he'd love to drop kick a head of lettuce like a soccer ball across the yard. I'm referring to playing with vegetables in the same way that I would let him sit at a table with a puzzle or Play-doh. With civility.



One idea I've used is to fill a muffin pan with a variety of edible colors, smells, textures, and flavors that all complement what any human has to undeniably love: pizza.


I present a cookie sheet with a marinara-covered 6" pizza crust on it and tell him to have fun making something creative. I encourage him to use at least one of everything in the pan and suggest things like faces, patterns, shapes, flowers, rainbows - anything he wants.


If needed, he can wipe the slate clean, I'll dump some more marinara on, and he can make something else. There's no time limit or end goal. If he wants to bake and eat it, great. If not, that's ok. ("We can bake it and give it to daddy for dinner," I may or may not say.)



Why do all this?


Touching the vegetables and playing with them in an imaginative way normalizes them. It's a desensitization process. In the world of psychology it's called behavior pairing and is often used to help adults with weight loss.


It's the idea of combining something not fun (such as exercise, for adults) with something fun (such as listening to music or talking with a friend). For a child that doesn't find vegetables "fun," playing with them makes them fun.


One warning, don't try this around the older generations in your family. Anyone born prior to 1965 is probably not going to like this idea. The generation that belonged to the Clean Your Plate Club and coined the phrase, "Don't play with your food," will probably find it very against the grain. It will probably be considered wasteful given that some of the food will end up on the floor, discarded, or — God forbid! — not even eaten. But as a new generation of parents who live in an era when antioxidants, phytochemicals, and probiotics are typical topics of conversation - we can handle it.


[Photos are from Itty Bitty Bakers teacher Melissa Carden who, with a lot of civility and a beautiful end product, did this exercise with kids at a baking class. These kids did, in fact, eat their pizzas.]