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Let kids play with their food to get them to chow down

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Fancy, fussy food isn’t likely to be welcomed at the children’s table. But kid-friendly presentation, from colorful ingredients to playful plates, can ensure that nutritious meals are eaten, not artfully avoided.

“If you present food in a playful way, kids are much more likely to try it,” said Shannon Payette Seip. She’s a mom and the co-author of a new cookbook, “Bean Appetit: Hip and Healthy Ways to Have Fun With Food” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $14.99).

Seip and business partner Kelly Parthen (a Colorado mom!) drew inspiration for the cookbook from their popular cafe and cooking school in Middleton, Wis. Bean Sprouts is a family- oriented spot that features fresh, healthful food in fun new ways.

We’re not talking the old ants-on-a-log snack. Insect-inspired dishes are included, but they’re meal-worthy. Like the open- face turkey and whole-wheat pita sandwich made to resemble a dragonfly, or the avocado, mango and chicken roll-up with pretzel-stick legs and a tomato head, a.k.a. The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

With some key tools, whimsical presentations can be created with just about any ingredient. Lollipop sticks or wooden skewers with the ends clipped off can turn mini-pancakes and fruit into cute kebabs. Or skewer teriyaki chicken onto a pineapple round and top with spinach leaves for a tantalizing tropical scene.

“It’s just a stick, but somehow it makes it that much more fun,” Seip said.

Stacking offers another way to get kids to do the unthinkable: Eat their veggies. Seip’s children don’t eat a lot of tomatoes, but when they create “taco towers” — homemade baked tortilla chips layered with meat, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes — a Jenga-like height contest can ensue.

“The tomatoes add height to the tower, so they chomp them down and try to get to the bottom,” she said.

Clever names add fun to food and boost the chance that it will find its way into young mouths. A Cornell University study found that preschoolers given “X-Ray Vision Carrots” ate twice as much as they did at lunches when the veggies were simply labeled “carrots,” and the 4-year-olds continued to eat about 50 percent more carrots even on days when the food was no longer given a fun name.

It’s important to think of a name the child will like, avoiding cafeteria-esque labels like “salmon surprise,” Seip said. “It has to be relevant and cool to that child. It just really plays to the very essence of kids’ nature.”

Another good idea is to let children have some role in what they’re eating, said Gale Gand, a James Beard Award-winning pastry chef and mother of three who advised Seip and Parthen on creating their cafe.”That is one area where kids can exercise their power. And they need that sense of power.”

Gand, who teaches cooking classes for children and parents in the Chicago area, believes that if you bring kids into the kitchen and get them involved in cooking, they are more likely to eat the meals that result.

A breakfast hit in her household is simple crepes, which son Gio, 13, and 5-year- old twins Ruby and Ella can fill from an assortment of fruit and toppings on the table. “The more control and contribution your kids can make to what they’re eating, the more likely they are to eat it and enjoy it,” Gand said.

Quirky plating also can encourage more adventurous eating. Serve lunch out of a picnic basket, for example, or dinner out of a bento box.

Or indulge kids’ silly streak and have a backward meal. “Start with dessert and eat backwards,” said Gand.

Want to really turn a meal into a party? Dine while wearing clothing inside out and backward.

“Winters here in Chicago are long and tedious,” she said with a chuckle.

-By Niesha Lofing

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