Kids Just Want to Have Fun with Food

Boost the 'fun factor' of healthy foods with these tips and recipes.

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on September 01, 2006

When it comes to food, it seems kids just want to have fun.

We are, after all, talking about the "Happy Meal" generation. Kids are used to going to fast-food restaurants and finding their meal in a cute, colorful box with a toy inside. They've seen snack foods like mini cracker sandwiches made with fluffy cheese and peanut butter, and fruit-filled pastries you can pop in the toaster. They see commercials for breakfast cereals with colorful marshmallows in fun shapes, and cereal that looks and tastes like mini chocolate chip cookies.

It's easy to make junk food fun to eat. But is it possible to use the "fun factor" to inspire kids to eat healthy foods?

The way to get kids to eat more nutritious foods is to make the experience as much fun as eating less healthy snacks, George Carey, president of the Just Kid Inc. marketing group, told WebMD in an email.

And what makes a food or beverage fun? Just Kid Inc. recently put that question to children in three age groups (2-5 years, 6-8 years, and 9-12 years). The study (which included responses from a national sample of 3,230 six- to 12-year-olds and moms of 2- to 5-year-olds) found that most children agreed on a few characteristics that make a food fun to eat.

The "fun" attributes they named include:

  • Finger foods. No surprise here -- kids like eating with their fingers.

  • Dipping and scooping. Children also think its fun to dip or scoop their food into another food.

  • Add-ins. Kids enjoy taking matters into their own hands by adding things to their food, such as sprinkles, sauces, or other toppings.

  • Fillings and frostings. Fillings or frostings tend to make foods appealing to children.

  • Silly shapes and cool colors. Kids like foods that come in interesting shapes and colors.

  • Portability. Children like to be able to take food products with them.

With a little imagination, all of these attributes can translate to healthful food and recipes (with the possible exception of fillings and frostings). For example:

  • Baby carrots and celery sticks are portable and come in individual containers (available in the produce section of your market).
  • Whole grain breads and biscuits can be cut into silly shapes.
  • Light dips, yogurt, and smoothies can change into cool colors with a flick of the finger (using food coloring) or by blending in colorful fruits (like raspberries or mangos) or juices (such as pomegranate or grape juice.)
  • Some ideas for fun add-ins and toppings: Chop tomatoes, broccoli, and green onions for topping baked potatoes; stir frozen fruit (sliced bananas, diced mango, bing cherries, blueberries, or raspberries) into hot cereal; and use veggie toppings to create a face on a pizza or morning bagel.
  • To create fun shapes, try pouring pancake batter into a plastic bottle and squeezing out the letters in your child's name.

One important way to increase the fun factor of healthful foods is to involve kids in the cooking and serving process, experts say.

"Cooking is fun, and kids who like to cook generally like to eat," advises Sam Mead, senior editor of Family Fun magazine.

Some healthful foods can't help but be fun: "Smoothies, for instance, are fun to make and delicious to drink," says Mead.

Here are 5 more tips for making cooking and eating fun:

1. Baking is a great way to get kids into the kitchen.

"Kids like the magic of seeing things change in the oven," notes Ginny Callan, a former vegetarian chef and author of the Beyond the Moon Cookbook.

Callan says her two children often stand before the glass window of the oven door, watching the muffins rise. Bread dough is tons of fun because kids can handle it by kneading, braiding, rolling or shaping, like when making pizza or cinnamon rolls.

2. Learning to make ethnic dishes is not only fun, but helps teach children about other cultures.

Compared to standard American fare, ethnic foods are often more healthful alternatives. Check out our recipes below for some kid-friendly versions of foods from other countries.

3. Cooking can help introduce children to new foods.

Kids aren't always eager to try new foods, but Callan believes a sure way to get children to try something new is to let them help make it. For example, kids might be more willing to taste soy milk if they're pouring it into a smoothie they're whipping up. And they might be less green-phobic if spinach is an ingredient in the dip they are blending.

4. Make the eating as much fun as the food by using interesting tableware.

Try using small plates, dessert forks, bamboo skewers, chopsticks, and similar wares to promote a fun atmosphere at the table. Have fun with your garnishes and table settings, too.

5. Don't forget to show appreciation to your little helpers.

Kids are natural performers and they love to hear the "oohs" and "aahs," Mead says

Try these parent-and-child recipes to boost the fun factor in your own kitchen.

Make-Your-Own Pocket Bread

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal 1 pocket as 3 slices of "sliced bread, toast, whole grain bread."

You'll need a bread machine for this recipe.

1 1/4 cups warm water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups unbleached white flour
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt

  • Pour the water into the bread machine pan. Add the sugar and flour. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the yeast. Pour the salt into a corner of the pan.
  • Set the bread machine for the dough cycle (usually 1 hour and 40 minutes), and press the start button. When the cycle is finished, remove the dough from the pan and divide it into about 6 pieces.
  • Preheat the oven to 500°. Dust the cutting board generously with flour. With a rolling pin, flatten each piece of dough into a circle about 5-6 inches wide and 1/8 inch thick. Place these pitas on a cookie sheet.

With a grownup helping:

  • Place the cookie sheet on the bottom rack of the preheated oven. Close the oven door and cook for exactly 1 minute. (Do not open the oven door during this time.) Then move the baking sheet to the highest rack and continue to bake until the pitas have blown up and are lightly browned (3 to 7 minutes).
  • Serve the hot pitas with butter, peanut butter, cheese slices, or whatever sounds good!

Yield: About 6 pita pockets

Per pita: 260 calories, 9 g protein, 56 g carbohydrate, 1 g fat, 0.1 g saturated fat, 5 g fiber, 0 mg cholesterol, 358 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 3%.

Lompe (Hot Dog in Potato Roll Dough)

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 slice of "bread, toast, whole grain bread" + 1 serving "lean meat without added fat."

This is the Norwegian version of a hot dog. They wrap their boiled hot dog or sausage link up in a potato roll that has been cooked on a griddle.

3 medium potatoes
2 to 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
8 less-fat turkey hot dogs (or less-fat turkey sausage links)

With a grownup helping:

  • In a large saucepan, boil potatoes in their skins until tender (20-30 minutes). Cool the potatoes, then, using a plastic knife, remove their skins. Place the potatoes in a mixing bowl and, with an electric mixer (or by hand with a potato masher), beat until creamy.
  • With a wooden spoon and your hands, blend in the flour until the dough is stiff enough to roll out. Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Using a rolling pin, roll each piece into a thin, oval-shaped sheet about a 1/8-inch thick.
  • In a medium saucepan, boil the hot dogs. When they are cooked throughout, lower the heat to simmer until the potato rolls are ready.
  • Heat a large nonstick grill or skillet, and use it to cook the flat rolls a few at a time. While the undersides are cooking, use a pastry brush to brush the top sides with water. Once the bottoms are lightly browned, flip rolls over and lightly brown the other sides.
  • Sprinkle each roll with water, and wrap around a boiled hot dog. Then wrap each in a paper towel so the roll softens around the hot dog. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8 wrapped hot dogs

Per hot dog: 248 calories, 10.5 g protein, 37.5 g carbohydrate, 6.3 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 484 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 23%.

Plattar (Swedish Pancakes)

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 2 pieces "pancakes, waffle."

If you want to make these like authentic Swedish pancakes – which are much thinner than ordinary pancakes – use just one tablespoonful of batter per pancake.

1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
1 large egg (higher omega-3 if available)
1/2 cup egg substitute
2 cups low-fat milk
1/2 cup unbleached white flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
Canola cooking spray
Jam (flavor of your preference)
Powdered sugar (optional)

With a grownup helping:

  • In a blender, combine canola oil, egg, egg substitute, milk, flours, sugar, salt, and cinnamon (if desired). Blend on medium speed until batter is smooth (1-2 minutes).
  • Heat a skillet until very hot. Coat with nonstick cooking spray. For each pancake, drop 1/8 cup of batter into skillet. When the edges brown lightly (about 30 seconds), use a spatula to flip the pancake over and cook the other side another 30 seconds. Remove the pancakes to a plate and repeat with the remaining batter. For super-large pancakes, use 1/4 cup of batter instead of 1/8 cup.
  • Scoop a little jam onto each pancake, then sprinkle powdered sugar over the top with a sifter (if desired).

Yield: 5 servings

Per serving: 233 calories, 11 g protein, 33 g carbohydrate, 6.5 g fat, 3 g fiber, 55 mg cholesterol, 319 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 26%.

Mini Pavlovas

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 portion light dessert + 1 portion fresh fruit.

This dessert was created for Anna Pavlova, one of the world's best-known ballerinas, while she was performing in New Zealand. Anna's Russian parents were poor and she was a frail and sickly child, but she was determined to become a ballerina -- and boy, did she! She is credited with making ballet a very popular art form.

3 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Dash salt
1 cup sugar
4 cups peeled and sliced mixed fruit, such as kiwi, strawberries, or peaches
1 1/2 cups pressurized whipped cream (or sweetened whipped cream)

  • Put the egg whites in a large bowl and let stand for about 1 hour. Meanwhile, cut a brown paper grocery bag so you can use it to cover a thick cookie sheet. Use a pencil and ruler to draw eight, 3-inch circles on the paper.
  • Preheat the oven to 300°. Add the vanilla extract, cream of tartar, and salt to the egg whites. With an electric mixer, beat on medium speed till soft peaks form. Add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating on high speed until very stiff peaks form and the sugar is almost dissolved (about 7 minutes).
  • With a pastry tube (or using a spoon), pipe the meringue onto the circles on the paper, building up the sides to form 8 shells.

With a grownup helping:

  • Place the cookie sheet into the preheated oven and bake for 35 minutes. Turn off the oven. Let the shells dry in the oven, with the door closed, for 1 hour. Remove the shells from the paper.
  • In a medium bowl, toss the fruit slices to blend. With a large spoon, fill the cooled shells with the fresh fruit mixture. Add a dollop of whipped cream to each mini pavlova. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8 mini Pavlovas

Per serving: 150 calories, 2 g protein, 30 g carbohydrate, 2.5 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 35 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 15%.

Show Sources

Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee

SOURCES: FUNdamentals study, Just Kid Inc. George Carey, president, Just Kid Inc. marketing group. Ginny Callan, author, Beyond the Moon Cookbook. Sam Mead, senior editor, Family Fun magazine.

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