These are boom times for home gardening, but as many parents know, it still isn’t easy to get kids interested and involved. One way, experts say, is to teach children how to cook what they help harvest from the family garden.
Gardening packs an educational punch: It can teach nutrition, biology, mathematics (sizing up rows and plot perimeters), social studies, geography and languages. Vegetable gardens help save money, encourage exercise, deliver fresh flavours to the kitchen and reduce the risks of buying tainted food.
Cooking is the logical second step, providing children with another life-long practical skill.
With that in mind, The New York Botanical Garden offers gardening with related cooking programs for kids from three to 13, along with an assortment of practical and craft ideas for people of all ages.
“It’s a matter of taking things in steps,” said Toby Adams, the institution’s family garden manager. “Plants don’t grow overnight, so we can introduce things slowly. Getting kids to understand things like cleaning up the plots. Composting. Washing their hands before preparing salads.”
Adams breaks students into small groups where they’re taught vegetable preparation methods and menu items. Some do pestos. A few make soups. Still others prepare herbal teas or salsas.
“Then they share them with one another,” he said. “It becomes a reward for all that work they’ve done in taking the plants to maturity.”
Children bring energy, imagination and confidence to the growing and cooking tasks, Adams said. “They also bring attention to detail and a sense of wonder. Kids are surprised at what’s around every corner. They’re seeing many things for the first time. They’ll notice a butterfly fluttering by or see ladybugs under the leaves. When harvesting, they’ll get excited about pulling on a leaf and coming up with a carrot. They think it’s awesome when they stick a fork into the soil and find potatoes buried beneath the plants.”
Mistakes, too, can be turned into learning opportunities.
“Making a mess,” Adams said. “Spillage. Sunflowers that grow from seeds dropped the year before. Planting seeds in rows that are a little bit off here and there. Maybe it’s something we didn’t intend to do, but we’ll try to turn it around and make the most of it.”
One thing children usually don’t have in abundance is a lengthy attention span. But there are ways to get around that. Here are some ideas from the authors of The Family Kitchen Garden: How to Plant, Grow and Cook Together, by Karen Liebreich, Jutta Wagner and Annette Wendland (Timber Press, 2009):
• Learn by doing. “It is boring watching other people gardening,” Liebreich said. “They must be involved from start to finish. Doing is interesting. Watching is dull.”
• Teach kids how to compare: “Does the beetroot ‘Chioggia’ taste different from beetroot ‘Bull’s Blood’? If you close your eyes, can you tell which is a white currant, which is a red currant? Is french parsley different from Italian, curly from flat-leaved? This not only makes it fun, but also cultivates a palate to distinguish tastes,” Liebreich said. “And, incidentally, shows the importance of opinion.”
• Stage competitions: “Whose bramble root is longer, whose bean grew taller, who speared more potatoes on their (pitch)fork when digging them up?”
• Experiment: “Did the bean with no water germinate? The bean in the dark? What happened to the bean with no stick to climb?”