QUESTION: In a recent issue of your magazine MaryJanesFarm you had several pictures of animals made from food. Because of the upcoming holidays, my kids will be home more in the next two months. I'd love to keep them entertained cheaply. Do you have any ideas? --Tina Withers, Potlatch, Idaho
MARY JANE: Since it's forbidden territory, playing with food is an adventure at which children excel. With some adult supervision, they can take nature's healthiest foods and make a vegetable zoo from bananas, yams, mushrooms, peppers, onions, etc. Remember, all of it is edible.
Start your fun at a grocery store by visiting the produce section. Organically grown produce tends to have more variations in both size and shape, lending itself to more exotic creatures. Just as children are good at finding faces in clouds, they'll find vegetables that look like animals, people and gadgets. Have your children meet the produce manager and explain their play. If your children know they are about to handle fruits and vegetables that "belong" to someone, they'll understand why they have to be careful.
Pick up a pepper or a pear and turn it around in your hand until it suggests a funny face or an animal. Think of stems as a tongue or nose. The roots of onions can be hair or the root cluster of a leek can be a beard. You might suggest beans or raisins for eyes and garlic cloves for ears. Beets supply a bright red juice that works great for lipstick. Make a pear mouse by slicing off a flat belly and grafting ears from the part you sliced off. Make a lemon pig by finding a lemon with a stem end that looks like a snout. Make a banana octopus with bean eyes or a yellow pepper snail with cinnamon clovestick antennae. Grape stems look like the jointed legs of ants. Put three grapes together with a toothpick and then give your ant some legs. The creased ends of a navel orange can look like a cat in a puckered pout. Make a snowman from stacked mushrooms, using the stem as a hat. Use floppy snow peas for rabbit ears.
Children who are fussy eaters will see vegetables in a new light.
Animal pancakes will also be a big hit with your children. Instead of traditional pancakes, go for unusual shapes. There are two methods you can try. One is to plan your animal shape and carefully place the pancake batter on the skillet, remembering that the batter almost always spreads on the pan. For the more adventurous, pour your batter willy-nilly on the skillet and see what shapes are born out of the chaos. For a more healthful meal, scatter poppy seeds on your hot skillet rather than oil. They act like little ball bearings, and the pancakes won't stick to the pan.
Another fun project is stick art. Take your children for a walk to find a few branches and sticks. All you need next is some twine, scissors and a willing imagination. A forked stick can be a pair of hind legs. Another stick with a graceful curve becomes the backbone of a giraffe. Stick animals can be big. You might end up with a two-foot high horse with a braided-grass tail. Fatten up your animals by tying a few twigs around their middle section. Horns can be a forked stick.
For inside days, it's amazing what your children can accomplish with a roll of duct tape, a few pieces of wood or cardboard and a little bit of imagination. They'll build fly swatters, airplanes, parachutes, even wallets and articles of clothing. Duct tape has a sticky, gooey, almost caramel smell. Bring home a roll and create the mood by taping (with duct tape, of course) the following Carl Zwanzig quotation to your refrigerator: "Duct tape is like the Force. It has a light side, a dark side, and it holds the universe together." At most hardware stores you can actually buy "duck" tape instead of duct tape. The duck tape brand has a cartoon character duck on the label and speaks "kid" better than industrial brand duct tape. One last "food fun" idea is easy to pull together, since you probably already have on hand everything you'll need for this. Let your child pick out some items from your pantry or spice shelf -- things like flour, cinnamon, cornmeal and flax seeds. This is a good way to use up food staples that have been around too long and probably shouldn't be eaten anyway. In a bowl, let them concoct a "recipe" by stirring in some baking soda. The last ingredient for them to add is some vinegar. A volcano of food will erupt. It'll get messy and fizz all over the place. Kids love it.