"But Mommy, you said not to play with our food ..." True, but sometimes it's good to break one of those set-in-concrete rules. For toddlers, getting to play with food and explore all of its different tastes and textures is wonderfully messy fun. Put the splat mat down on the floor, put a bib on your toddler and an old T-shirt on yourself, then enjoy hands-on, sweet-tasting activities together. This is one way breaking the rules can be fun and healthful, and your child can enjoy learning in the process.
1. Fun With Fruit
Give your toddler pieces of cut-up fruit and a muffin tin or small plastic cups. Help her sort the fruit pieces by color or size. Show her how to stack the fruit pieces into little towers on a plastic plate or tray, then let her knock them all down. If your toddler likes to create art, help her arrange fruit into funny faces on a paper plate or frosted cookie. With adult supervision, older toddlers can thread pieces of fruit onto wooden skewers to make patterns; younger ones can line them up on the tray to do the same thing. The best part? You can eat your "toys" when you're done playing.
2. Precious Jewels and Pasta
Pasta is a perfect choice for toddler play. Your little one can use it for counting and sorting lessons, but he can also turn it into works of art or exquisite jewelry for Mom. To create different colors of pasta, put the pasta in a zip-lock bag with a few drops of food coloring and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of white vinegar. Shake it up to distribute the color, then turn the pasta out on wax paper to dry. Your little artist can string colored macaroni to make necklaces, glue it to construction paper for a collage or glue it to a plain wooden picture frame or clay flower pot to make gifts for Grandma.
3. Mix and Mess
Mixing and creating messes are highlights of playing with your food. And it's just plain fun. Admit it; you still swirl your spoon around in vanilla ice cream to mix in the chocolate sauce. So, it's no surprise that your toddler likes it, too. When you're making soup, sauces or other meal elements that involve mixing things of different colors or textures, you have a great opportunity for your little one to "help," as long as you don't mind a little sloppiness. Help her mix a little cinnamon into applesauce, gravy into mashed potatoes or blueberries into yogurt to see what happens -- then let her eat her messy mixture.
4. Plants and Creatures
Toddlers are learning words for things in nature -- flowers, trees, bugs and animals -- so that's a familiar theme for food fun. Animal cookies can be part of a pretend zoo or circus, or glued to a paper plate to make an animal collage. Give your toddler a little plate with ranch dressing on it and let him "plant" broccoli and carrot stick trees and cauliflower bushes. Blue frosting on a cake becomes an ocean full of gummy fish or a swimming pool for bear graham crackers. Help your toddler transform cups of yogurt into dirt desserts by letting him smash up some chocolate cookies and sprinkle them on the yogurt. Make the treats creepy by adding gummy worms or bugs. Yum!
- James Woodson/Digital Vision/Getty Images