Like most children being taught table manners, I deeply regretted not being allowed to throw peas at my brother, or to drop mashed potatoes in my milk. But restrictions of the dinner table were offset by breakfast: Pancakes arrived in animal shapes and oatmeal was treated with food dye, so that each bowl was served in a new and astonishing color.

We were learning that there are acceptable ways to play with food.

People who want children to grow up enjoying food -- and not dismissing everything new as yucky -- will teach them that food, in the making and the eating, should be fun.

A letter from a reader, Priscilla Sheeley of Fredericksburg, serves as a reminder of how few opportunities there are these days for children to learn that.

"I have a friend and her 13-year-old son staying with me. When I watch him I feel as old as Methuselah. All entertainment is purchased."

Mrs. Sheeley writes of her own experiences, making caramel corn and "another food of childhood, molasses candy, always made when the first New England snow fell. We'd set the pan on the snow to harden."'

With candy so plentiful that most parents are busy keeping it away from children, it is easy to forget that candy was once a special treat and that a good part of its pleasure came from the making.

Children love kitchens, warm busy places where they can punch their fists into bowls of dough or mush together the ingredients for cookies. It is only when they are forbidden the pleasures of food and relegated to such tedious chores as setting the table that they begin to fidget and complain of having to help.

Mrs. Sheeley's recipe for molasses candy (see below) is simple enough even for young children to make, so long as there is an adult supervising.

Another way that children can be taught that food is fun is in the approach taken by cookbook author Judith Olney in her book Entertainments (Barron's, 1981, $19.95). She describes a children's party where one of the principle playthings is food. Bread is baked in the shape of sandwich-size X's and O's and used as markers in a game of tic-tac-toe. When the game is over, the bread markers are slit in half and given back to the children, who make sandwiches out of a variety of fillings.

Olney bakes a flat sheet of gingerbread, ices it in squares of pink and chocolate frosting and gives the children rounds of red licorice and chocolate -- edible checkers to be used on the edible checkerboard. White icing dots turn brownies into dominoes.

When children are raised to believe that food can be fantasy and that playing with dinner is not always bad manners, they are much less likely to be fussy eaters.

Old Fashioned Molasses Candy

Boil together 2 cups molasses, 1 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon vinegar until syrup becomes brittle when dropped in cold water. Add 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon butter. Pour on a buttered pan. Crack when cool or pull when cool enough to handle.

"I remember," adds Sheeley, "going ice skating with a pack of this in my pocket."