Play With Your Food

By Carrie Barrett – May 1, 2018
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

Austin’s Green Ninja Cooks are teaching kids how to enjoy healthy, plant-based food.

Ask a room full of children where an avocado comes from and watch 20 arms shoot straight into the air with confidence and a chorus of audible, “Ohh, Ohh, Ohh…I know, I know!”

“Yes?” You ask. “Where do avocados come from?”

“The grocery store!” 


It’s a common scene played out in today’s society of modern convenience. Heck, I venture to say that an alarming amount of adults would answer the same way. As a culture, we are sadly disconnected from the origins of our food. What used to be necessities—growing our own food and eating locally and seasonally—are now seen as a luxuries. Eating locally and organically is a trend for the privileged. Due to modern grocery, advances in technology, food delivery, and the ability to harvest food in any condition, oftentimes our food now comes from a click of a button on our phone and not from the earth.

As we’ve seen with recent social movements, the children are going to change the adults, and two local Austinites work daily to invite kids to put down their devices and use their hands and outrageous imaginations to learn about the origins of food—with the help of a green ninja, of course!

“I’ve always had a dream of doing a kid’s cookbook,” says Green Ninja Cooks author and “master of nom,” Nikki Castagneto. “Who doesn’t want to be a ninja or possess superhuman powers?” 

Enter our hero, the Green Ninja. Of course, instead of swords, this ninja has kitchen tools and superpowers for exploring the benefits, uses, and tastes of superfoods!  

When Nikki approached illustrator Jess Engle to help her bring the Green Ninja to life, she knew it was meant to be. Both were coming from demanding and fast-paced careers in New York City; Nikki worked in fashion, and Jess was using her design skills doing marketing and advertising for global businesses and corporations. 

Austin, as it often does, became a respite and creative muse when both decided they were finished with the rat race and wanted to pursue their careers with more purpose and passion.

The Green Ninja Cookbook Zine Series

Green Ninja Cooks is equal parts imagination and immersive hands-on experience with food play. The cookbook zine series, written by Castagneto and illustrated by Engle, will debut this summer to turn kids into Green Ninja Cooks by teaching them how to harness the power of plant-based food. “Our ninja wakes up, does his stretches, drinks his nutritious ninja smoothie, and sets off on a journey to explore food,” explains Castagneto. 

Throughout the books, kids not only learn fun facts and clever ways to interact with foods, but also accumulate three to four simple recipes as well. 

Green Ninja Appearances

In addition to the zine series, Castagneto and Engle bring the Green Ninja to life through their immersive, holistic, hands-on appearances around Austin. The goal is to teach kids how to assemble fruits and vegetables in a safe, delicious, and informative way, while giving them interactive missions that range from exploring the mysterious lands where food comes from, to building healthy daily habits that’ll last a lifetime.  

“We want our Green Ninja events to not only educate children but also to create a culture of play around food without the stress or worry of having to eat or even like the food,” Nikki says. “We use a method of interactive self discovery, as opposed to memorization, which, by empowering children to own their unique learning process, encourages creativity and self-expression, blended with the development of skills and responsibility.”

In fact, a recent “Mission Sweet Potato” event gave kids the opportunity to pick their own sweet potato and then create their own sweet potato toast complete with fun and unique decorations like raisins, hummus, and a variety of seeds. 

“It doesn’t matter if they eat it or not,” Nikki laughs, “In fact, the more outrageous concoction, the better. We’re getting them to have new experiences with their food and, in the process of learning, they’re having fun!” Of course, when kids have fun, they want to share their experiences and knowledge with others including—you guessed it—their parents. 

“Adults get very stuck in tradition,” Nikki says. “We don’t like certain foods because of traditions or what we were told as children. As a result, our children are inheriting unhealthy lifestyle habits, and they are the first in line to be susceptible to a weak start.” 

Food is the building block of a child’s growth and development and, as we now know, poor diet can lead to a range of issues including obesity, unsteady mental and emotional health, lack of energy, and behavioral problems.

“Through local events, the cookbook zine, and online activities, we want to show that nutritious foods are fun. Hopefully, kids will emerge from our mission as part of a community of Green Ninja Cooks, actively involved in their journey to a healthy life.”

To learn more about upcoming events, including a special Mother’s Day event, visit 



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