Kids Just Want to Have Fun with Food

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

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

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.

Fun-Filled Healthful Foods

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.

Fun Cooking and Serving Tips

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.

5 More Tips

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.

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