“I’m going to get a snack!” announces two-and-a-half year old Mason as he opens the front door and heads out to pick it fresh from the family’s vegetable garden. His mother, Sarah Renfro, Business Manager at Renee’s Garden, has been gardening with him by her side since he was 5 months old. “I’ve found that Mason will try anything that we’ve grown in the garden,” she says. “He understands the connection between planting the seeds, watering, harvesting and eating. If he knows that he grew the veggies then he is excited and proud to eat them.”
A 2007 study published by the Journal of the American Dietetic Associations found that children who participated in garden projects had increased interest in eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Gardening is also an excellent form of exercise – burning 200 or more calories per hour – and school garden programs are connected with reducing risk of childhood obesity.
Cultivating young gardeners will reap benefits far beyond healthy eating habits, teaching patience and an understanding of cause and effect among other things. Mother and nutrition educator Caitlin Phillips Karimzadeh gardens with kids aged two to five at her son’s school. She has seen an increase in observation skills, curiosity, and a willingness to collaborate among the children who work with her in the garden. “The children take responsibility and ownership in the garden as a place to be and watch unfold,” she says. “I love the metaphorical sense of growing the seed to the plant as so the human being.”
“Gardening can be a small simple project,” says Kate Purcell, who designs family-friendly food gardens. “A garden doesn’t have to be perfect for a kid to love it.” You can turn a small corner of your yard, a few pretty containers, or a strip of sidewalk median into a mini vegetable garden.
Are you ready to get your kids started? These five vegetables will help kids have a successful first garden. They grow quickly from seed or starts, are hardy, and taste great. They’ll make it easy for your kids to plant, tend and harvest their tasty rewards this summer.
Snap peas should be planted in early spring. They grow best in cool weather, making them a good child’s introduction to the garden. Once the pods set they ripen quickly and can be eaten raw off the plant, shell and all, when still small. When the pods are larger, teach your child to shuck them. This is a fun family activity and a good opportunity to talk with your child about her day.
Kale plants grow incredibly healthy leaves, loaded with calcium, iron and antioxidants. It grows well in the cooler spring and fall months, but will also grow year-round in mild climates. A kid-favorite way to prepare kale is roasted and lightly salted, which turns the textured leaves into the healthiest “chips” they’ve ever eaten. Be sure to tell your young gardeners that Tuscan Kale is also called “dinosaur kale.”
Runner beans, like the ones grown in Dixie cups in 1st grade classrooms everywhere, grow incredibly fast in warm weather. You can train them to grow up poles tied into a teepee shape and create a kid-sized hide-out. Even if you just grow them vertically on a trellis, your kids will love having a treasure hunt for ripe pods before dinner.
Carrots are fascinating to kids because of the mystery: they see the leaves, but the carrot is hidden under ground. Show your kids how to scatter carrot seeds around the base of the pea plants. By the time the pea vines have died back the first carrots will be ready to harvest. Planting heirloom carrots in a mix of colors, like yellow and purple, will add an extra element of surprise to the harvest.
Teeny Tasty Tomatoes
Cherry tomatoes are a delicious treat eaten straight off the vine, still warm from the sun. Once your kids discover this you may find that ripe tomatoes never actually make it to your kitchen. Two easy, productive varieties are Sweet 100 and Sungold.
What better way to get a child interested in eating his vegetables than having him grow them himself? Plant a few veggies with your kid today!
Doña Bumgarner writes about gardens, grows gardens for food, and cooks food for her family: a toddler, a step-teenager and a husband. Doña blogs at Aubergine about the wonder and struggles of new mamahood in mid life. She is a freelance writer and artist living on the Central Coast of California.