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Food For Thought

Entertaining takes on new meanings when you have young children.

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And play groups come with a specialty type of entertaining: snacks. For the past 18 months, our play group has been meeting Thursday mornings. The kids have learned quickly that food is an integral part of their weekly playtime.

Take my friend's son, Brendan, 4. When his mom mentions that it's their turn to host their play group, he hones in directly on the most-important question: What's for snack? When they visit another home, my friend is amazed that her son - after already starting the day with a full breakfast - can pack away multiple muffins and enough snacks to feed a family. Then, he still has room for a full lunch after play group.

At play groups, the food selection never varies too much, which is fine for sometimes discriminating toddlers and preschoolers. For the most part, that translates into a convenient selection of muffins, bagels and breads, as well as cut-up fruit and slices of cheese, including marbled brands like Chedderella that I'd never noticed in the grocery store before my daughter, Sarah, was born. Some moms have tantalized us with baked goods straight from their mother's or grandmother's recipe boxes, while a busy schedule can make a quick run to the bagel store appealing before the minivans and SUVs start lining up outside your house.

Constant hits have included breads and muffins, any kind of fruit and Goldfish crackers. To make snacks their most nutritious, one host regularly bakes with wheat flour and may serve zucchini bread - a proven method of getting her son to ingest at least one vegetable that day. Some of the more-exotic (and still popular) offerings have been pineapple bread and breakfast strata, a casserole baked with eggs, cheese and sausage. With two proven peanut allergies among the children, we always check labels in advance for contraband ingredients.

A little bit of creativity can go a long way in planning a playgroup menu. We can spice up the selection with seasonal crackers, shaped like summer suns or winter snowflakes; graham varieties that resemble characters from "Dora the Explorer;" or cheese and turkey sandwiches created with train, car or flower cookie-cutters. One host even baked muffins in special snowmen molds.

One week, snack time might start when the first guest walks in the door. Other weeks, the kids run straight for different toys than they have at home. At one point during our 90-minute session, however, most of the kids usually are settled around the kitchen table. Peer pressure applies even at this young age: Some of the kids will try foods they shun at home when they see their friends asking for seconds.

Over the past 18 months, we've watched our children grow from a full-finger assault on the snack table, where the options included plain breads and a selection of spill-proof sippy cups, to using forks to cut up and eat their fruit. We've used play-group sessions for birthday parties (with absolutely no parental guilt for offering cake at 11 a.m.) and pizza parties, where the kids added their own toppings and sprinkled on as much cheese as they wanted.

Without question, every step of the journey has been entertaining. FS

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