Playing With Food

Playing With Food


by Nava Atlas

On those rainy or chilly days, when my sons were younger and we had done everything that could be done, I often turned to the one indoor activity that never seemed to lose its charm. 

“Who wants to do a food project?” I’d ask. Invariably, the answer was an enthusiastic “I do!” 

My younger son, nearly 12, has retained his interest in cooking and is quite an accomplished vegan baker. My older son, now 14, has lost his interest in cooking, but definitely not in eating! 

Cooking with the participation of my children and their friends was always an instant spirit-lifter for all. By the age of 3, children can pour measured ingredients into bowls, peel bananas, tear lettuce, open packages, sort ingredients, and place toppings on food. From ages 4 and up they can help grease pans, knead and shape dough, slice soft foods, attempt to measure accurately, wash fresh produce, and spread jam, margarine, or peanut butter. As children grow, they can work on more complex tasks as their skills and interests expand. 

Cooking teaches children the spirit of cooperation, a little bit of math, and a smidgen of chemistry; but best of all, it teaches them to appreciate the effort and artistry that goes into the preparation of food. When that lesson sinks in, as most parents have noticed, they’re far more likely to eat something if they’ve helped make it! Here are some fun, child-approved recipes to get you started. 

Mashed Potato Volcanoes With Hot Lava 

My sons never wanted mashed potatoes until we read The Trouble With Grownups Berenstain Bears book. In one scene, the cubs are bored with the same old dinner. Mama and Papa impatiently scold the cubs for building volcanoes with their mashed potatoes. I see nothing wrong with making food more amusing, especially if it inspires kids to eat it. After that, the boys asked for “mashed potato volcanoes” regularly. 


  • 4 large potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 2 tablespoons non-hydrogenated margarine
  • 1/2 cup rice milk or soymilk
  • Salt to taste, optional


  • 1 cup rice milk or soy milk
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unbleached flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup grated cheddar-style nondairy cheese, optional
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup


  • About 1 cup frozen peas, cooked, or small broccoli florets, steamed

1. Put the diced potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a simmer, then cover and simmer over medium heat until tender, about 15 minutes. 

2. When the potatoes are done, drain them and transfer to a mixing bowl. Add the margarine and rice milk or soymilk and stir in. Mash the potatoes well with a potato masher, then add a little salt if desired. 

3. In the meantime, make the “lava.” Heat the rice milk or soymilk in a small saucepan. Dissolve the flour in just enough water to make it smooth and flowing. When the milk is hot, stir the dissolved flour slowly into the saucepan. Sprinkle in the salt, then the optional cheese and stir until it is melted. Simmer the mixture gently until smooth and thick. Stir the ketchup into the sauce, but leave some red streaks showing, so that it looks “fiery.” 

4. Divide the mashed potatoes among 4 serving plates. Have everyone shape them into mountains, then press the tops down lightly to flatten. Finally, have them make a small indentation at the very top with their thumb. 

5. Have the children arrange some of the peas or broccoli florets around the volcano. 

6. Let each child pour some of the “lava” into the indentation at the top of each “volcano” with a small ladle. It should flow down the sides. It’s fine if it drips over the “greenery” too. Eat at once, before the lava solidifies into magma! 4 servings 

Shake-And-Bake Tofu

Adapted from The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet 

These crispy tofu cutlets are a favorite in our home. Enlist your kids to help with the breading and shaking. If you have more than four eaters, the recipe doubles easily, but be sure to use two baking sheets as well.

  • 16-ounce tub extra-firm tofu
  • 1/4 cup wheat germ
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt-free herb-and-spice seasoning mix
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Marinara sauce (warmed), ketchup, or salsa

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 

2. Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Blot well between clean tea-towels or several layers of paper towel and cut into 1/2-inch-wide sticks. 

3. Combine the wheat germ, seasoning mix, and salt in a plastic, food storage bag; seal and shake lightly to mix. Transfer the cutlets to the bag and shake gently until they are evenly coated with the wheat germ mixture. 

4. Arrange the cutlets on a lightly oiled nonstick baking sheet. Bake until golden and firm, about 12 to 15 minutes. Serve at once with marinara sauce or other sauce of your choice for dipping or topping. 4 servings

Banana-Yogurt Ambrosia

Adapted from the forthcoming Vegetarian Family Cookbook 

Young children often balk at dishes in which ingredients are “touching.” However, I served this often when my sons were younger and had friends visiting. I found that if kids decide for themselves what’s touching what, they don’t seem to mind a mixed dish. In fact, most kids loved creating patterns in their yogurt with the other items, and they often asked for seconds.

  • 1 to 2 medium bananas, sliced
  • 1 cup (about half of one 16-ounce can) unsweetened pineapple tidbits, drained
  • 1 large pear, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup small seedless grapes
  • 1/2 cup dark or golden raisins or dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, optional
  • 1 cup granola, optional
  • 2 to 3 cups vanilla soy yogurt (use 1/2 cup per serving)

1. Place all the ingredients except the yogurt into separate, small bowls. 

2. Divide the yogurt among 4 to 6 individual serving bowls. Let everyone take a little of whichever ingredients they’d like to dress up their ambrosia. 

Variations: During warm seasons, use frozen yogurt or nondairy dessert and replace the pineapple with sliced strawberries and/or blueberries. 4 to 6 servings 

Nava Atlas is the author and illustrator of many books on vegetarian cooking. The best known are Vegetariana, Vegetarian Soups for all Seasons, Vegetarian Express and Vegetarian Celebrations. For lots more recipes, visit Nava’s web site, “In a Vegetarian Kitchen” Look for her Vegetarian Family Cookbook (Broadway Books, NY) in early 2004.


Author: VegFamily

VegFamily is a comprehensive resource for raising vegan children, including pregnancy, vegan recipes, expert advice, book reviews, product reviews, message board, and everyday vegan living.

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