Elizabeth Pivonka is a registered dietitian as well as president and CEO of Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), the nonprofit entity behind the Fruits & Veggies-More Matters® national public health initiative. As a working mother of two, she understands that getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables can sometimes be a challenge. Pivonka says letting kids raise their own plants can get them interested in fruits and vegetables and lead them to eat more of these healthy foods.
"Growing fruits and vegetables is a great way to get children interested in eating them, and it's a fun activity the whole family can do together," said Pivonka. "A child that begins eating more fruits and veggies because they helped to grow them will often be more open to eating additional fruits and vegetables throughout the year and even throughout their life. It also gives them an appreciation for their food and how it's grown."
When deciding which fruits and vegetables to plant there are two things to think about, what you (and your kids) love to eat, and what will grow in your area. For example, salad lovers could plant two or even three varieties of lettuce, spinach and other greens; and then add a row for other salad veggies, like radishes, carrots, and green onions. Most seed catalogs feature a map that will let you know when to plant which types of crops in different areas of the country. Some seed packets have a similar map on the back of the package.
Don't let living in an apartment or having only a small yard keep you from gardening. Pivonka says many fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs adapt well to container gardening on a balcony or small patio. Tomatoes and bell peppers grow well in pots and so are suited to growing in a small area. She adds that growing just a planter of vegetables rather than a large garden is also a great option for those with little time to devote to the project.
Sunlight, water, and soil quality are all things to consider when planting a garden for the first time. Note how long your gardening space receives direct sun. The amount of sunlight determines what kinds of fruits and vegetables you can grow. Think about water availability and how much rain your garden spot will receive. This will determine how often you will need to water the plants. Consider using lightweight growing media and containers. There are many lightweight containers of all shapes and sizes that take up little space and are movable to take advantage of morning and evening sun. Lightweight planting mixes are free from soil-borne diseases and pests, or you can simply loosen the soil in your own backyard to prepare it for planting.
Now the fun stuff: selecting your plants. Pivonka suggests starting kids off with something that's easy to grow, like radishes or potatoes. "Small successes go a long way toward developing an interest in gardening in a child. Choose plants that grow and yield produce quickly to keep younger children interested." She recommends basing your garden design on the fruits and vegetables that your family enjoys the most, then adding in one or two items you haven't tried before. "Have you ever eaten parsnips? If you can grow carrots, you can grow parsnips, and having them growing in your own backyard encourages you to cook them. Getting kids to try the parsnips they grew themselves can lead to them asking for parsnips they next time they see them in the produce aisle."
Let children help you plant the seeds or put them in charge of a young plant you get from a nursery or garden supply center. This will make them feel invested in the plants and will help you persuade them to eat the fruits (and veggies!) of their labors later on. Pay attention to watering and weeding. These are the activities that you and your children will be doing in the garden most. Daily and even twice daily watering might be necessary when the weather is very hot and dry as we move into summer. The amount of required weeding depends on your soil, but weeding can be used as an opportunity to teach your child the difference between the plant and the weed.
Follow the directions on seed packets for proper plant development. To obtain the proper spacing, you may need to thin seedlings when plants put on a few leaves. Vegetables need plenty of root space to be highly productive. If the plants are crowded, they won't produce their best possible yield. If plants need cages, stakes or other supports, provide them while plants are small to avoid root damage later.
"Offer encouragement to kids at every stage of the growing process so they are excited about eating their very own fruits & veggies," said Pivonka. "Planting a small garden, or even just a window box or pot, can be a valuable learning experience for kids. The produce they harvest will give them a feeling of accomplishment and once they see how much fun it can be to grow a garden they may gain a healthy hobby they can enjoy for the rest of their lives."
Pivonka adds that inexpensive fruit and vegetable seeds are easy to find this time of year. She suggests the Victory Garden Seed Pouch available online at www.pbhcatalog.com.
"While at the website, check out the book Growing Vegetable Soup. It tells the story of a father and child who share the joys of planting, watering, and growing seeds in their garden and includes a recipe for vegetable soup."
Pivonka says the book is a great way to keep kids interested in their gardens during the early growing stages when they can't see progress as quickly as they may like. It's available in both English and Spanish.
Parents interested in learning more about Fruits & Veggies-More Matters, tips for getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables, and delicious recipe ideas for dishes that children will willingly eat, are encouraged to visit the Fruits & Veggies-More Matters website, www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org.
The Food Champs website, www.foodchamps.org, is a safe, educational, and fun interactive website where kids can play games, fill in coloring pages, and enjoy other online activities all aimed at educating them about fruits and vegetables and encouraging them to eat healthy foods.
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