When it comes to food, I'll be the first to admit I spoiled my kids. They eat vegetables only if they come from the garden. Teaching kids to eat well is easy if they learn by nurturing seeds.
My children (now ages 17 and 21) grew up eating organic vegetables and fruit from our Vermont garden. Our family garden doubled as a trial ground for our seed catalog, The Cook's Garden, and it was important that the plots were weed-free and orderly. Because we wanted our kids to enjoy gardening, we let them participate in selecting their own seeds and designing their own garden plot with a playhouse in the center. They came to associate playtime with gardening.
Grazing is always allowed in a kid's garden, and a rainbow of colors is a sure-fire way to encourage good eating habits. Many varieties featured in catalogs recently contain an explosion of vitamin-rich hues. The startling color of orange cauliflower is sure to invite the younger set to try it raw with a dip, in salads, as a snack, or broken into florets and steamed until tender. While the inviting yellow-orange hue disappears once cooked, the nutty, mild flavor remains.
Like purple potatoes, purple carrots may seem like a novelty, yet purple is actually the original color of this beloved garden vegetable. 'Purple Dragon' carrot has purple skin, an orange interior, and the same sweet taste that makes carrots a favorite at the table. Intense color in vegetables translates into elevated vitamin content, and 'Purple Dragon' carrots are jam-packed with vitamins A and C.
'Mr. Big' pea is an ideal crop for a kid's garden, with large and easy-to-plant seeds. The vines inch their way up a trellis that can double as a secret fortress. 'Mr. Big' pea produces an abundant harvest of large pods filled with good-sized juicy peas, guaranteed to keep kids eating them fresh from the garden.
Growing lettuce is a good place to start teaching kids to cook because salad dressing is a snap to make. Salad greens are mild tasting and easy for kids to harvest or nibble on straight from the row. Kids can easily learn how to make a simple pesto with basil, olive oil, and grated Parmesan cheese to stir onto noodles and other pasta. And it's a meal that can easily be transported to a picnic in the garden.
When vegetables fail to stir up the appetite, try planting edible borders created by fruit bushes and vines. Planting a selection of blueberries, raspberries, and grapes is a sure way to encourage young gardeners to keep checking the vines for juicy treasures. The best way to be sure of a long season is to check out new varieties such as 'Festival' strawberry, a day-neutral variety that will produce a heavy crop of juicy fruit in June, followed by a continual lighter harvest until frost.
It's no coincidence that my kids can taste the difference between home-grown and store-bought vegetables. But this year, I think I'll throw in a few cooking lessons to cinch the link between planting the seeds and eating what's on their plate.
Here are a few simple ideas for encouraging kids' involvement and good nutrition:
Nasturtiums make a lovely garnish. The peppery flavored flowers and leaves also make a colorful butter to liven up vegetables.
Soften 1 stick butter to room temperature. Finely chop 6 nasturtium flowers along with 6 nasturtium leaves. Beat together with the butter and chill in a bowl or make a roll by spreading the butter onto waxed paper or aluminum foil. Form a long tube shape and twist the ends closed. Freeze, and slice as needed.
Carrot and Red Cabbage Salad
The colors of this salad give it eye appeal, and kids like that familiar raisin sweetness.
Roast a head of garlic by wrapping it in aluminum foil and baking it at 400'F until soft, about 45 minutes. In a salad bowl, combine 4 cups grated fresh carrots with 4 cups grated red cabbage. Add 1 /2 cup raisins and 1 /2 cup roasted pine nuts. To make the dressing, whisk together 1 /4 cup red wine vinegar and 1 /2 cup extra virgin olive oil. Cut the top off the roasted garlic head with scissors and squeeze out the soft garlic paste into the oil and vinegar. Season with 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Pour over the carrot and cabbage salad, mix thoroughly, and chill until ready to serve.
Ellen Ecker Ogden, co-founder of The Cook's Garden seed catalog, is the author of From the Cook's Garden.
This article originally appeared in NGA's print quarterly, Growing Ideas. This newsletter features projects, profiles, and tips that address topics of interest to home, school, and community gardeners. Growing Ideas is mailed free to paid Supporters of NGA. Sign up for a free 6-month trial subscription (two issues).