By Hans Wieland
Helping children develop a healthy attitude to food can sometimes be hard. Screaming children in the supermarket aisle and fussy eaters at the dinner table are a headache for parents. I believe that connecting children to growing food at an early age can be part of solving these problems. Our family gathering last Christmas threw up interesting observations.
All of our children cooked in turns with fresh ingredients from the local farmers’ market and our garden. Our twelve year old grandson wanted a recipe journal as a present to start collecting recipes of dishes he likes to eat and wants to cook and our seven year old granddaughter helps with harvesting lettuce from the polytunnel. I think this is rooted in having a garden where they have all sown seeds at various stages of their lives or were sent to fetch vegetables for cooking dinner. Like one of my food heroes, Diana Kennedy, I believe “cooking is about understanding ingredients and respecting traditions”. If you have a garden with a vegetable and herb patch for your children you can grow and harvest many basic ingredients for dinner.
If you then go shopping with your children for the ingredients you don’t have at home and involve your children in helping to prepare dinner, the chances they will eat what you have created together are quite high. It is a case of leading by example. If you can do it, your children can do it too. Culinary connections between parents and children happen while eating together, they are enhanced by cooking together, broadened by shopping together but ultimately grounded in gardening together. The innocent and simple actions of sowing seeds in soil, looking after seedlings as they grow and harvesting vegetables to cook and eat will become skills for life and help the kids develop a natural relationship with food and where it comes from.
The Garden in a Box
This is a wonderful project for getting young children into gardening. It doesn’t require space, or even a garden. It is ideal for primary school aged children. For older children, you can use several boxes to increase varieties.
What you need: A wooden or plastic vegetable box (30cm x 40cm approx) from your market or shop, a sheet of plastic to line the box, compost or good weedfree soil, a few packets of seeds for fast growing vegetables or edible flowers, a children’s watering can, labels.
Suitable seeds: Radishes (small bell varieties like Cherry Bell are best); perpetual spinach; lettuce (best varieties are Baby Leaf or Mixed Leaves and cress); edible flowers like nasturtiums, violas and marigold; sweet peas or mangetout (these might need to be supported with short bamboo sticks). Suitable plants: Alpine strawberries. You can start the project from March onwards.
How it works
Gardening often requires the kind of patience that small children rarely possess. The great thing about the garden in a box is that growth is visible so quickly. By following these instructions, you can begin to see the results in just a couple of days. Select your seeds from a seed catalogue and order online or buy together in a garden centre.
Get your children to line the box with the plastic sheet and fill with soil or compost up to 5cm below the edge. Sow seeds in rows about 10-20cm apart. The depth of sowing depends on the size of the seeds. Sprinkle the tiny lettuce seeds on top and firm down with your fingers but sow radish seeds a little deeper and so on.
Keep the box out of the cold. Somewhere like a shed or on a windowsill inside is ideal. Once the first seeds have germinated (i.e. begun to sprout), put the box in a sheltered and sunny spot outdoors. You might cover it with a plastic cloche or garden fleece if it gets cold at night. Watch your garden grow and water a little at a time. Cress can be harvested early as microgreens are ready after just a few days. Watch as your children proudly tend their little garden and look forward to eating those greens they have waited on so patiently to grow.