March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Parents and caregivers know how challenging it can be to get kids to eat enough fruits and vegetables, but gardening may help. An expanding body of research shows that when kids help grow fruits and vegetables, they are likely to eat more produce and to try different kinds, too.
The benefits of gardening don't end there. Gardening helps kids engage their curiosity, learn to be resourceful and gain self-confidence. It is also a great way to get the entire family outside for fresh air and physical activity.
Consider Your Kids
Depending on their age, children take to gardening differently. For example, preschoolers tend to be fascinated with exploring dirt, seeds and the garden hose, while older children are more interested in how a single seed turns into an edible plant.
Make Kids Part of the Planting Process
Ask children which fruits and vegetables they'd like to grow. While older kids can read seed packets and start to understand growing regions, younger ones may not understand that it's probably not possible to grow oranges in northern Maine. Suggest fun, reliable plants such as purple carrots and striped beets, and make sure you plant a couple of sure bets for your region of the country.
Herbs are perhaps the easiest plants to grow and can be a good place to start to interest kids in gardening. Herbs grow like weeds, so you'll probably have more than enough. Choose one or two herbs to start, such as parsley, basil or rosemary. Don't worry if you have too much by summer's end. An excess of basil can be made into pesto, frozen in ice cube trays and stored in the freezer to use during the fall and winter. And, all herbs can be dried.
Dig What Grows Below Ground
What's more fun for a kid than yanking a carrot she planted out of the ground, washing it and taking a bite? Beets, another "underground" crop are colorful and can be a great way to get a child to try a new vegetable. Potatoes are easy to grow and are kid favorites.
Gardening for the Space-Challenged
No yard? No problem! Try using large pots placed on the patio or porch to grow foods such as tomatoes, salad greens and even cucumbers. Most herbs can grow in small pots on indoor windowsills. Picking herbs is a great task for younger children. And, if they are old enough, let them cut the herbs with kitchen shears.
Take Gardening to the Extreme
Children are fascinated by very small and very large objects … including vegetables. Whether in the ground or in a pot, cherry tomato plants grow to the perfect height for little hands to pick the deep red orbs. Small kids may find it exciting to watch how low-maintenance, easy-to-grow and brightly colored butternut squash and pumpkins grow and expand during the season.
Keep Gardening Year-Round
The gardening experience doesn't have to end with the last harvest. Make growing edible fruits and vegetables a year-round activity. Pore over seed catalogs during the cold winter months with your kids and decide what to grow next summer. Buy a grow light and get started on those tomato, bean and squash plants in the early spring. Kids will be fascinated by the growing process, whether it's indoors or out.