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7 Tips to Make Family Mealtime Fun

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Did you ever wonder who creates those kids' menus you see everywhere? You know the ones: mac and cheese, chicken "nuggets," grilled cheese, pizza, hot dogs--some with cheese. As far as I've seen, most restaurants have similar menus that offer kids nothing more than beige, fried and fatty food. Healthy? Nope. Colorful and balanced? Not so much.

So I set out to do something about it.

My husband and have adorable and precocious twins, and we want them to experience something different at mealtimes--something healthier, more vibrant, and more fun! Eating shouldn't be boring and beige; it should be colorful and joyful. I decided to use one of the first loves of a kid to make mealtime better: colors. Colors of the rainbow to be exact. And rainbows give any kid a pep in their step.

But there's more. You need strategies, tips, and tricks to get the young ones to eat in a balanced way. To combat the incessant onslaught of overly processed crap they're offered at every turn, here are my top seven kid-tested favorites:

1) Play With Your Food
Besides colors, what else do kids love? Numbers, shapes, and games, to start. I play quizzes about food, like "What did raisins used to be? Grapes! Where does ice come from? Water!" Or as one of the twins said, "the freezer!" I serve up fresh fruit options that let the kids practice their knowledge of colors. I also do some role playing to get them smiling when I serve their meals. They love my French waitress character who treats them like diners in a fancy Paris café. I take their order and lovingly describe whatever it is they're eating. It helps that they love the Pixar movie Ratatouille.

2) Divide & Conquer
Serve their meals on a divided plate with images of seahorses and mermaids. (Or maybe baseballs and fire-trucks. Flowers and birds? You get the idea.) These separated plates not only encourage kids to eat from different food groups, but they also manage their portions and give them a goal for each food type. The colorful images add another dimension of mealtime fun, too. The kids incorporate little stories about the images. Quote: "Put the carrots on the seahorse's tail."

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3) Foster "Picky" Eaters
By age three, our girls were avid gardeners and plucked lettuce, chard, and berries from our garden. They're much more inclined to eat something if they've had a hand (literally) in picking it. If not the backyard garden, then we go to a farmers' market or take a trip down the produce aisle with them, oohing and ahhing at all the beautiful natural food options. A pineapple in its natural form is pretty cool, I'd say. So is a big furry coconut. Let them hold, touch, and smell everything. Then you can turn your picky eaters into eaters who pick.

4) Show Them What Healthy Looks Like
Rather than tell our girls that different colored fruits and veggies contain valuable phytochemicals (say what?), I eat a blueberry and say, "Wow, I feel better already. Look how fast I can run to the kitchen!" Or maybe I'll eat a carrot and say, "Did you just get cuter or did my eyes just get stronger from eating that carrot?" What parent over 40 hasn't employed the old Popeye strategy to get their kids to eat spinach?

5) Freeze!
Freeze grapes, strawberries, and raspberries. Way better than bon bons, they are not only bite-sized sweet treats, they also work magic as "fruit ice cubes" for the girls' sparkling spritzers I make. No processed sugar and a whole lot better than that syrupy soda pop. This is where I pretend the kids are at their own special drink store where they get to decide what special ice cubes to pick. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a delight it is.

6) Get Smoothie With It
Fruits and veggies make for sweet smoothies, naturally. This is where you get to use things like kale, celery, and spinach. But I don't sneak them in. I let the girls put these items into the blender first, again, calling out just how beautiful the colors are. This participation allows them to learn it and love it. And they get to say, "ready, set, go!" to get the blender going. Works like a charm. One of them even likes to name the smoothies now; "Peach Paradise" and "Kale Congo" get my vote.

7) Eat Extraordinarily
Sometimes I go out of my way to eat things that are way, way off any typical kids' menu. I purposely put anchovies on my salad. I point out the turmeric on the grilled chicken breast. I get help putting parsley in the blender for that pesto. I rave about my ginger-spiced salmon filet and the mango chutney. If they see me liking something deliciously healthy and different, one day they might also like it.

Of course, these tips aren't foolproof. Sometimes french fries and pizza just hit the spot. But I say kids' menus should expand beyond the expected, and mealtime should be an interesting experience. If you have any tips yourself, I'd love to hear them.

Originally from Southern California--the land of fruits and nuts--Rebecca Kraus has always been enamored with produce in all its forms and textures. Now in the Northwest, she counts among her blessings her garden of eatin'. She's learned not only about companion planting, but also how to make the most of too many zucchinis. She's been a magazine editor, games designer, teacher and volunteer in places like Croatia and Northern Ireland. She recently went to Vietnam in search of the perfect bowl of pho. When she's not eating her way around the globe, she's a creative consultant here.