By Nannette Melamed
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 60 percent of our children do not eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables they need. Gardening is an excellent way to encourage and increase your child’s consumption of these vitamin-rich foods.
Gardening is fun, plain and simple. The process involves dirt and water and digging, and it yields hours of fun, a lifetime of memories and most importantly, fresh and tasty treats that nourish growing bodies. So much more than plants are grown in a garden. Families bond and grow together working toward a common goal; children grow and strengthen gross and fine motor skills while exercising and staying active outside; the love of learning grows through this hands-on science experiment; a healthy appetite grows by watching, understanding and appreciating the process behind the food on their plate; a sense of pride, ownership and responsibility grows inside the child that is learning to appreciate nature; and most importantly, a healthy body is grown through increased activity and access to fresh, local, healthy foods.
So, how do you start a garden with your family?
Start small by planting simple seeds. Seeds can be started in small pots or you can get creative and use lemon rinds, egg cartons or toilet paper rolls. Planting seeds allows children to see the very beginning of a plant and get to the root of their food, literally.
Create an herb garden and experiment with flavors. A gateway to trying new foods is often experimenting with the flavors and cooking techniques of old favorites. You can plant some basics like parsley, cilantro and basil or get creative with fun tastes like stevia and mint, which are yummy to enjoy right off the stem. Involve your child in choosing which herbs to use with your meal.
Use fun containers for your plants. Anything with drainage (you can always drill holes in the bottom) can be a planter. Old work boots, rain boots, toy boxes, wading pools, sand buckets, coffee cans, old sinks, watering cans, tires and ice cream containers are some idea of fun containers to use for your garden. Let your children get involved and get creative.
Let your child wear the overalls in the family. Allow him to choose the plants that will be grown, harvested and eaten by your family. Encourage a variety of old favorites, new things to try and of course, a rainbow of flavors. We planted strawberries and romaine lettuce as a family favorite, but included grape tomatoes and sugar snap pea plants to help introduce him to those foods and flavors.
Our rainbow garden plan includes:
Red – Grape Tomatoes and Strawberries
Orange – Sweet Orange Peppers
Yellow – Crookneck Squash
Green – Sugar Snap Peas, Lettuce, Chard and Cucumbers
Blue – Blueberries
Purple - Eggplant
Facilitate the fun. Give your child ownership in their garden by allowing them to lead the way. Standing back may mean you have to sneak out and help with some garden maintenance, but the pride they’ll take in the ownership of their garden is worth it. Encourage fun in the process by allowing them to dig in the dirt, water the plants, push their own wheel barrow, pull the weeds and even (pretend) to mow the lawn. Older children may delight in keeping a scrapbook or journal to make their progress and success. The process of gardening is just as much fun as reaping its harvest.
Celebrate the work. Cook your harvests with simple preparations to bring out the fresh flavors and encourage your child to be a part of that process as well.