If necessity is the mother of invention, creativity may be its second child.
At around the age of three, my youngest son started refusing most foods–sometimes refusing to eat altogether–until we thought we’d lose our minds with frustration. With two parents who appreciate well prepared, flavorful, and nutritious food, having a child who would eat little beyond string cheese and baby carrots was disheartening to say the least. Anyone who has ever lived with a preschooler may not find this sort of obstinance all that unusual, and we knew we were up against nature to some extent. Then, from all of that frustration a creative (desperate?) solution was born in our home.
Preparing the same limited number of foods over and over again for my son got boring fast. When I started arranging his plates into faces and letters to amuse myself, I made a pretty amazing discovery. I learned that he would quite literally turn up his nose to a plate of food, but would eat the very same food willingly if it happened to spell out his name or look like one of his favorite animals. I decided at that moment that no harm is done if we play with our food, and now he’ll reliably eat what he calls “surprise plates.” These fun food creations not only make him squeal with delight, but they nourish him as well (please, just don’t tell him that).
We find that for our family surprise plates work best for simple lunch time meals, and we still try to introduce him to what we’re eating when it comes to family dinners. Here are five of our favorites, made with simple, easy to find ingredients for quick assembly that don’t require an artist’s skill. Because a plate that is visually exciting for a child is all about taking the stress away from meal times, I’ve tried to include a number of ideas for substitutions. In addition, you should modify these recipes to suit your child’s tastes, take advantage of seasonal produce, or accommodate special diets.
Noodles the Jellyfish
1 10″ tortilla
1/2 cup assorted vegetables (tomato, green pepper, mushroom, and onion shown)
1/3 cup cheddar cheese or other favorite cheese
Several whole wheat fettucine noodles, cooked
1/3 cup grapes or berries, halved
Heat skillet prepared with cooking spray. Place tortilla in pan and load with cheese and vegetables, folding tortilla in half as cheese begins to melt to make a quesadilla. Brown for 1-2 minutes on each side and place on plate to cool. Arrange fettucine tentacles below the flat side of the quesadilla, and add grape eyes along with additional grape “bubbles” if desired.
Gobbles the Caterpillar
1 10″ tortilla
Spinach, lettuce, or other desired greens
2 T cream cheese
2 oz sliced turkey breast
1/2 kiwi, peeled and sliced
1 apple or orange slice (cut width-wise, seeds removed)
2 raisins for eyes
2 matchstick carrots for antennae
Prepare a rolled sandwich by spreading tortilla with cream cheese and layering greens and turkey on top. Roll up and slice, arranging the pieces on a plate with alternating slices of kiwi. For the caterpillar’s head, arrange carrot sticks and raisins on top of the apple slice.
Mango the Lion
2 slices whole wheat bread
2 T all fruit spread
2 T nut butter (almond shown)
1 cup mango or cantaloupe, cut into large elongated chunks
2 whole almonds
1 pineapple chunk
Trim the edges of the bread into a shape that roughly resembles the photo. Assemble the bread, nut butter, and fruit spread into a tried and true peanut butter and jelly sandwich and place it in the center of the plate. Arrange mango or melon into a mane around the top portion of the sandwich, then add almond eyes and a pineapple nose to complete the lion’s face.
Chickpea the Friendly Spider
2 slices whole wheat bread, toasted
3-4 T hummus
1 prepared frozen falafel ball
Cucumber, thinly sliced
1 grape tomato, halved
8 pear, peach or apple slices
Stack toast and cut into circles using a 3 1/2″ cookie cutter, and spread each slice with hummus. Heat falafel according to package directions, then cut in half (making two flat slices) using a sharp knife. Place falafel on one slice of toast. Layer several cucumber slices on remaining slice of toast, and join falafel & cucumber halves to make a sandwich. Secure grape tomato “eyes” on top of sandwich using a dab of hummus, and arrange fruit “legs” to complete the spider.
Olive the Silly Monster
1/2 whole wheat English muffin, toasted
1/3 cup tuna salad, prepared as desired
1/2 cup assorted fruits and vegetables for decoration (black olives, red pepper, matchstick carrots, and raspberries shown)
This surprise plate is best left to the kids. Using the English muffin, prepare an open faced sandwich as you normally would, substituting any of your child’s favorite salads, meats, or spreads for the tuna if desired. Offer a variety of cut fruits and vegetables to create with and let your child(ren) go wild! I have found that my child often gravitates to the healthiest and most colorful combinations and will nibble on things along the way that he normally wouldn’t touch, all in the name of monster art.