The care and feeding of school-age kids got a boost last fall from the national Healthy Hunger-Free Act, which was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and added lots more fresh fruit, vegetable, whole grains and lean protein options to the meals students eat at school each day. The goal of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act is to fill lunch trays with high-quality foods that can best fuel growing children and teens, and help them succeed in and out of school.
While school meals can provide up to one-half the calories many students consume each day, there are other meals and snacks kids eat outside of the school day. As many parents know, finding foods that are healthful and that kids will actually eat can be a challenge. Thanks to Mother Nature – and a willingness to get a little messy – adding more healthy and kid-friendly foods to your family’s meals can be a snap (snap peas, fresh from the backyard garden that is!)
With a little planning, gardening with your children, toddlers through teens, can be a satisfying activity. In the garden, kids take an active hand in growing their own nutritious food. They’ll learn a lot about where the food they eat actually comes from, experience life-lessons (such as problem-solving, the value of hard-work, responsibility and patience), breathe fresh air while they stretch and bend their bodies, develop a taste for foods they might have previously refused to try and foster family connections (families that dig in the dirt together, stay together!)
“Life today is so fast paced and driven by technology, which allows us to do more than ever and, so, we are busier than ever. Too, children have so many options to occupy their free time, many of which are indoor activities and things that they do by themselves,” said Sue Pezzolla, a master gardener with the Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Albany County. “People have always turned to gardening as a way to relax and unwind. It’s an activity that gets people outside and back in touch with nature. Container or backyard gardening is about as local as you can get, is a way to feed your family the freshest food grown without pesticides, and it is also a wonderful way to spend family time together.”
A garden doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. With the right tools, a little time and easy-to-follow instructions you’ll be on your way to developing your green thumb. Whether you choose to plant in containers on a patio or have space for a 4-acre plot, be sure to do it as a family – the benefits of growing your own foods are endless.
- Start small, and build on success. A pot of patio tomatoes, some string beans that can grow up a sunny wall or a 3’x3′ plot or raised bed is plenty for young or new gardeners. As their success and interest increases, consider enlarging the garden.
- Children don’t need complicated tools. Child-size tools will help, but buy sturdy ones such as regular trowels and hand cultivators that are made to last. Buckets and plastic pots to match a child’s size are essential and great for moving rocks and compost.
- Keep planting simple, especially for young children, by choosing plants that have big seeds such as sunflowers, peas, beans, cucumbers and pumpkins. While gardening takes time (and patience) there are a number of plants whose seeds are fast-germinating (5-10 days) and are also easy to grow. These include:Vegetables: peas, beans, lettuce, green onions, spinach, kale and other dark greens, radishes, squash.Flowers: Sunflowers, zinnia, nasturtiums, ageratum, marigold, bachelor’s button, cosmos and alyssum.
- Plants that are ready to grow in our region can also be purchased at local greenhouses, farms and farmer’s markets (View a list of farmers markets in your area.)
- Capture a sense of fun and design. Plant a “pizza garden,” grown in the shape of a wheel with each wedge planted with a pizza ingredient: peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, oregano and basil. Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots by Sharon Lovejoy is a great resource book for ideas and plans on creating thematic gardens.
- Keep your garden safe. Whenever your children are with you in the garden, make sure there are no fertilizers or pesticides (even those labeled “organic”) within reach. Keep any sharp or motorized tools out of their way. Teach young children never to put any plant part in their mouth unless you know they are safe to eat and have said it’s “OK.” Garden buckets or other open containers should not be left out if filled with six inches or more of water because they can be a drowning hazard. Remember to keep a constant eye on young children as their attention span is short and it’s all too easy for them to get into an unsafe situation very quickly. For more information on creating a kitchen garden, visit, LetsMove.gov and UNH Cooperative Extension Gardening With Children
A growing concern
Childhood obesity is a serious, growing health concern in the United States. Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America is overweight or obese. The numbers are even higher in African American and Hispanic communities, where nearly 40% of the children are overweight or obese.
Obese children are more likely to develop heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea and to experience social discrimination.
Fortunately, obesity can be fought with regular physical activity and healthy eating habits. Central to good nutrition is eating fresh fruits and vegetables daily.
What better way to encourage this healthy habit than growing some of the food your family eats?!
Kids’ Container Gardening: Year-Round Projects for Inside and Out by Cindy Krezel
American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America by Michelle Obama
Gardening with Kids Book by Catherine Woram and Martyn Cox