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Let 'Em Play with Their Food and Kids will Love their Veggies

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

When I was quite young, my favorite meal was Sunday breakfast. That's when my dad donned his apron and made pancakes. For the final batch we'd get to choose the shape of our hotcake: bunny or bird, airplane or dinosaur. No pancake ever tasted so sweet! Anything that tickles a child's imagination will capture her/his interest and affection.

Today our kids are in real trouble. They're bombarded with unhealthy food messages pushing pizza and soda, sugary cereals, processed and fast food. Obesity and diabetes are becoming epidemic, gut disorders and autoimmune conditions are on the rise -- all threatening a growing proportion of our kids and setting them up for a lifelong struggle with chronic illness, a lifespan cut short, dreams curtailed. These are lifestyle diseases and mostly caused by the very foods we feed them (1).

Unless you live under a rock, you've heard we all need to consume more plant foods, rich in fiber, nutrient-dense and low-calorie to lower systemic inflammation and optimize our weight. We also need to seriously lighten up on processed foods, soda, meat, and dairy for our health and for the environment. The more we increase the former and reduce the latter, the better off we'll be.

Ok, you've got the message. You're ready to stock your fridge with healthy choices and spend more time in the kitchen. But how to wean your kids off junk and get them on board?

Kids need to own it.

The more you can involve children in food shopping, in farm visits, in prepping and cooking, in gardening, in planting even one little lima bean in a paper cup on the counter and watching it grow, the more interested they'll become in what they eat and why it's important, and the more they'll want to eat what they have had a hand in preparing.

Kids love to play.

If dinner has become an exhausting contest of wills and it's a battle to get them to try new foods, make it a joyful, creative experience by feeding their fertile imaginations. Kids will try new foods if these become props in their make-believe eatable story. Any veggie, fruit, bean or whole grain dough can become a lead character or living scenery for your child's dinner plate “tableau”.

Let them choose which “pals” to play with and gobble up! And keep lots of raw and cooked produce at the ready in the fridge for kids to grab and go.

The examples shown here are cutouts made from POLENTA and they're so easy to make!

Recipe for Polenta Pals

makes 20-30 characters

Time = 10 minutes to cook, 3 hours to cool, 10 minutes to cut out by adults (30-60 minutes for kids)


6 cups water

2 cups polenta (Bob's Red Mill is great!)

Shiro (mild, white) miso paste to taste (optional)


Heat water to a boil. Lower flame to medium, and add polenta in a slow and steady stream, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Cook for 5-8 minutes or until thickened to the consistency of dense oatmeal, i.e. thick but still pourable. Turn off the heat and season with miso to taste, if desired. Pour onto a large cutting board forming a large, rectangular loaf. A thicker consistency will yield a higher loaf, but if it cooks too long, it will become too thick and won't spread. Cool for several hours to solidify completely. Cut ½ – ¾” thick slices (a sharp knife does the trick; Italians like to use a taut thin wire). In each slice cut out shapes freehand or with cookie cutters. And voilà! Polenta Pals are ok served cold but better rewarmed in the oven or pan toasted (without oil) in a good quality nonstick skillet. They'll last about a week in the fridge and freeze beautifully.

What to do with the scraps? Throw them in a food processor and blend again. In a nonstick skillet sauté a thinly sliced onion without oil until caramelized and getting crispy. In a bowl combine the polenta and onion. Clean the skillet and heat over a medium flame for 5 minutes. Drop mixture in large spoonfuls to create POLENTA LATKES! Cook until firm and flip. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with apple sauce. Enjoy!

Make cooking and eating a joy for yourself and your family. Eating is a pleasure and plant-based polenta pals make it so much more fun! Buon appetito e buon divertimento!


Cathy Katin-Grazzini, plant-based chef, cooking instructor, lifestyle coach, and food blogger, is the author of Love the Foods that Love You Back and owner of Cathy's Kitchen Prescription, LLC in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

When she's not cooking up a storm, inventing, fermenting, dehydrating, and creating managed chaos in her test kitchen, she's teaching students, medical practitioners, and fellow chefs about the joys and health benefits of cooking with plants.

For more of Cathy's recipes, videos, upcoming events and a gallery of her dishes see

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