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OPINION COLUMN: TED KRUCKEL

Little Things Mean a Lot: Notes on Entertaining Kids

And so do little people. But entertaining kids can be tricky—and messy.

By Ted Kruckel March 25, 2008, 4:11 PM EDT

Illustration: Shingo Shimizu

I love kids—probably because I don’t have any. Invariably, if they’re at a party or an event, I will end up hanging around their table. They’re much more fun. And when it comes to attending adult events, kids are like the trees threatened by deforestation in Dr. Seuss’s still-timely The Lorax: Somebody needs to speak for them.

Enter moi. My credentials? Well, I taught hundreds of small folk as a professional swimming coach and instructor. For 10 years I represented Family Fun magazine and created and produced its annual Toy of the Year awards. I have more than a dozen nieces and nephews who expect/demand constant gifts/affection. And most important, I am immature and childish.

Kids are remarkably effective marketing and publicity tools. For starters, they are camera magnets. They also lend instant credibility: Their presence means the event must be a noble and worthy undertaking. They rarely require payment beyond snacks and a toy. (Conversely, though, nothing should be feared or avoided more than a child with an appearance fee. Well, that’s not true, either—the parent of such a child is far more dangerous.)

Take Oprah’s girls, for example. Of course you were impressed by Ms. Winfrey’s founding an African school, and the image of those pristine blue-and-white-uniformed ladies flanking the queen at the coronation/unveiling comes immediately to mind. Then we find out that in the school’s very first year there was a sexual-predator scandal involving more than one girl. Not good for someone who makes being a “survivor” one of her bullet points.

I had my own experience with Oprah and kids. On behalf of Family Fun, my company once booked a segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show on summer backyard-barbecue activities. For Family Fun, this was a big deal. The show flew out an editor. We made zillions of props. Of course we found amazingly cute and energetic kids. The highlight of the segment was a popcorn relay race, which Oprah deigned to participate in.

Now let me just say that a popcorn relay race is oodles of fun. We practiced it in our office, and it was better than our Halloween parade. (There’s a reason my company never made much money.) And it is so easy: You attach a Dixie cup to all the contestants’ shoes, then fill the first racers’ cups with popcorn. They run down the course and back, keeping the popcorn in the cups, and then—here’s the tricky part—transfer the popcorn into the next runners’ cups with minimal spillage. (I forget the penalty codes.) Obviously, by the last runner, there is popcorn flying everywhere, cheaters trying to eat the popcorn to hide their mistakes, and general hilarity all around. I suggested having a cute, small dog (mine is a fox terrier named Turbo) on set to run around and eat the popcorn, but that didn’t fly with O’s people.

Anyway, I had booked segments on Oprah before, so I knew that once the camera goes off, unless you are John Travolta or something, Oprah does not speak to you and you should not speak to her. She is busy preserving her aura or energy or whatever it is that makes everyone think she is authentic. But what my cast and crew were not prepared for during this particular commercial break was that apparently the producers hadn’t warned her that her set would be riddled with popcorn from the relay. Picture it: angry Oprah, scared kids scurrying around picking up popcorn, even more scared producers yelling at my team to get this set cleaned in a hurry. (The dog would have come in handy, huh?)

I think that points to what I want to get across: If you are going to have children at your event, and you expect to benefit from their cuteness and spontaneity, then you have to be prepared for a mess.

One of the big challenges for hosting a large-scale event that both kids and adults attend is serving food that both will like. For some expert advice, I turned to Missy Chase Lapine, a friend and colleague from my days at Elle in the 1990s.

Perhaps you’ve heard of her and her book, The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Food in Kids’ Favorite Meals. Published by Running Press last April, it quickly made the New York Times best-seller list, and a companion book, The Sneaky Chef: How to Cheat on Your Man in the Kitchen, will be out this spring. How could you not have heard of her, frankly, when six months later, Jessica Seinfeld (née Sklar), Jerry’s wife, came out with a similar title, Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids to Eat Good Food? When the press picked up on recipe, um, let’s say similarities (spinach in brownies and carrots in macaroni and cheese), I thought Missy’s hilarious comment showed class and restraint: “It could have been a coincidence.”

Ms. Lapine took a break from the lawsuit that ensued to provide some tips for getting kids to eat at events. “Kids love anything on a skewer—put a few boring pieces of fruit on a stick and they love it,” she advises. Conversely, to guarantee that kids won’t eat their dinner, put a vegetable garni on the plate. “The simplest swig of parsley or slice of carrot will make kids refuse the whole plate,” she says. “Even if you then take away the offending items, they still won’t eat it.”

She recommends quesadillas as a kid-friendly hors d’oeuvre, which you can make healthier with a white-bean puree. Likewise, chicken nuggets and pigs in a blanket can be made more nutritious (and still kid-palatable) by using whole-wheat flour with a dash of, gulp, wheat germ. “I swear to you, adults won’t know either. Just don’t tell them, that’s the trick,” she says. Sneaky, indeed.

And these days, you’d better ask the mommy before giving even a plain sugar cookie to a child, or risk having your head bitten off. Don’t kiss them, either, or you’ll end up on Oprah as a predator.

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