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Play with your food

By Barbara Quinn

McClatchy News Service

Open the door to my office and a child will go straight to the food. And it’s not even real. No matter. Children always seem to be fascinated with the realistic-looking food models I use to counsel clients about portion sizes and other highly technical matters.

Should we be teaching kids to play with their food? Probably, according to a recent article in the journal of the American Dietetic Association entitled "Promoting Food Play to Teach Healthful Eating Habits."

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According to this article, play is an essential activity of childhood that helps kids practice skills they will need to survive in adulthood. Food play fits well into that category.

Unfortunately, kitchen play sets and play foods are not as popular as they once were. Over the past few decades, some parents have rejected kitchen and food-related toys as "sexist." Still, many companies wisely market these types of toys as "educational."

Good or bad, children practice through play what they see in their world. To help steer them in the right direction, child development experts tell us to provide young ones with "guided but not rigidly defined" opportunities for play. I would guess that means to stock a child’s play area with items that represent healthful foods rather than a play set that mimics a fast-food drive-in.

This all takes me back to one of my first memories — a cute little playhouse my grandfather built in our backyard. To this day I remember the countless hours I spent playing there — setting the tiny table, preparing pretend meals, and even washing the dishes with pretend water.

Real food works well to educate children, too, say experts in the article. And much of what a child learns about food comes from those who take care of her — parents, teachers, and other caregivers.

To this day, my children adore lima beans and canned spinach (I am not making this up) because they learned about these two foods while in the care of their beloved babysitter, Ruth.

Let us then remember that habits are "caught, not taught." We don’t have to be perfect but we need to be willing to demonstrate to children what we want them to learn. Here are some ideas:

—Regularly expose a child to real or pretend foods that represent healthful choices.

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—Provide opportunities for children to watch or help you prepare healthful foods.

—Involve children in shopping for balanced meals. Say something clever like "Let’s find something red or green (besides M&M’s) to eat today!"

Play is necessary to rid children of excess energy and allow them to practice how they will behave as grownups. Maybe if we play with food and our kids more often, we can all learn some valuable lessons.

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