How to Grow Healthy Kids? Start With Dirt. (And get them cooking!)

March 11, 2010 at 5:55 pm , by

Scott baking a cakeIn my recent post on the “slow home” movement, I scoffed at the idea of trading grocery-shopping for home-grown-vegetable-picking.  Farming on my tiny New York City deck? Yeah, right. Or so I felt then. Now, I’m not only determined to grow vegetables, I want to grow uncommon ones. Rutabagas, darn it. Purple cauliflower. Zebra tomatoes. Can starfruit grow in Brooklyn?

The reason for my turnaround: an amazing “TED talk” presentation from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. He convincingly argues that diseases that are influenced by bad eating habits are the #1 killers in America—and that it’s a health crisis we can easily address.

He included some eye-opening videos. The one that really got me was his trip to what appears to be a second-grade classroom. Jamie holds up a variety of vegetables, asking the kids to identify them. First were tomatoes on the vine.  Do you know that not ONE of the kids in that classroom was able to identify a TOMATO?

Same with beets, cauliflower, eggplant. And the capper, he holds up a baking potato. “Do you know what this is?” he asks a young boy. No clue. It made me cry. How much processed food must they eat? “Normal,” Jamie said. And I’m sure he’s right.

Now, I like a quarter-pounder with cheese—and fries with that—as much as the next red-blooded American. On a day-to-day level, however, I’m a bit of a food Nazi. Brown rice, whole grains, lots of veggies, red meat only rarely, and usually several meat-free meals a week. My dad died of a heart attack at 42; I’m doing my best not to follow in his footsteps.

Besides that, I love to cook. And I’ve had my 3-1/2-year-old son cook with me, basically since he could stand up. (That’s him, age 2, baking a cake with my mom.) He loves it, too. Scott knows how many cups water to put with one cup rice. He snaps the woody ends off asparagus, he cracks eggs, he pulls the leaves off the cilantro stems. I let him decide whether or not we grate a bit of whole nutmeg into the waffle batter—and he grates it himself.

Frozen pizza was on the menu this past week, but so were fresh artichokes, blackeyed peas with turkey kielbasa, and rotelle pasta with cauliflower, black olives and a hint of anchovy. Last night Scott was helping me grate a golden beet into our salad of chopped beet greens and purple cabbage, marinated in an olive-oil vinaigrette.  He eats this kind of stuff because it’s all that he’s offered, poor kid, but also, I’ll bet, because he’s had a hand in preparing it and he’s proud. And he’s learning a lot—perhaps a bit more than he needs to. When I asked him one time if he wanted to finish his ice cream, he said, “It’s not ice cream, Mommy, it’s lemon sorbet.” I am pretty sure the boy can identify a tomato.

But, just as seeing an anorexic woman always makes me dive for a snack, seeing those normal American schoolkids who can’t identify basic vegetables makes me want to put my son’s food education on hyperdrive. I wish I could take him to my grandfather’s dairy farm (now out of business, thanks to factory farming) to milk a cow. Maybe if we go down to Chinatown every weekend and pick the weirdest-looking vegetable there and learn how to cook it; maybe if I start only buying carrots with the tops still attached; maybe if we grow candy-striped radishes out on the deck or if we visit a real farm once a month; maybe that will do something?

Not likely. What Jamie Oliver is doing—educating kids in schools—is one part of the solution. “If the kids don’t know what stuff is, then they will never eat it,” he says.

Teaching kids how to grow food is another. Years ago I met an amazing woman named Bernadette Cozart, who founded a nonprofit that helped Harlem residents turn vacant lots into community gardens. She also went into public schools and helped the kids learn to grow their own vegetables, reasoning that if they felt that kind of ownership, they’d be more likely to try them, and to make other healthy food choices.

Now Bernadette’s idea has corporate buy-in, I discovered this week while scarfing cheese-and-crackers before dinner. (And I wonder where that extra 10 pounds around my hips came from.) Kraft Foods is currently putting seed packets into every box of Triscuits. They’re encouraging home farming with an informative website and they’re funding 50 community-based farms in cities across America.

Scott and I planted our Triscuit dill seeds last night. I can’t wait till he can sprinkle the fragrant leaves into a zucchini omelette or maybe over a plate of fettucine with shrimp and asparagus. OK, he’s not a chicken-fingers and mac-n-cheese kind of a kid (as much as he might want to be!). But even if he were, I’ll bet you anything he’d want to try out that dill, having grown it himself.

We definitely all need to become more food-aware, as Jamie’s electrifying presentation makes clear, and teaching kids is a great place to start. My friend Catherine made a cool documentary film, What’s On Your Plate?, featuring her daughter Sadie and a friend, New York City sixth-graders who investigate where their food comes from.

Instead of growing obscure plants on my deck, I, too, should try to do something that might actually make a difference, like volunteering to help create public-school vegetable gardens.  I know LHJ readers are big “do good” advocates: Any of you guys working to combat the obesity epidemic and help turn our country’s eating habits around?

I’d love to hear your fond memories of childhood gardening, or ways you get your kids to love veggies, or what your ideas are on how to get Americans eating better.

Hmmm… now I’m hungry. Off to the vending machine. What shall it be, the granola bar or the Snickers? I may be a healthy eater but I’m not made of wood!

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10 Responses to “How to Grow Healthy Kids? Start With Dirt. (And get them cooking!)”

  1. I remember getting so excited when something new would start to come up in the garden (unless it was zucchini — blech). You don’t really get that anymore since all produce is available year-round. Kind of sad.

    Also, shameless plug: If you want to know what to do with the vegetables you’ve grown, Jamie Oliver also has a great iPhone app that I love: http://www.jamieoliver.com/20-minute-meals/


  2. I have a half-acre yard, plenty of sun, and zero time to grow my own vegetables. Back in the day– when I gardened during the time I now spend raising children and taking care of elderly parents– I was a passionate advocate of raised-bed organic gardening. Now I make do by belonging to a CSA farm that grows only heirloom vegetables and raises animals only in green pastures (without hormones or antibiotics) and kills them humanely. A farm-fresh butternut squash does not impress my children any more than a butternut squash from Kroger does, however–which is to say not much at all. But since such vegetables come in my farm box every week anyway, I do cook them up, and maybe the kids eat a little more of them than they would if I had the chance to pass them up in Kroger.


  3. The other day my 9 and 12 year old niece asked me where did I get those kind of carrots, you know the kind of carrots with the greens still on top. I was shocked and surprised that my nieces did not know that carrots are grown like this. It has been important for me to raise my daughter with exposure to a large variety of foods; people are always surprised that my two and a half year old likes beets, steamed spinach, cabbage and onions, eggplant, spaghetti squash and many more veggies. My thought is if these are the foods we introduce them to as they get older they may deviate away from them, but eventually will come back to.

    Before my daughter was born I regularly planted a salsa garden each year, since she has been born I have expanded our vegetable varieties. Touching the soil and pulling food out of the earth seems the most normal and natural for my daughter.

    This year on the reservation where I live we had our first community youth garden, it was touching to watch the kids take such pride in working together and creating food for the community.


  4. I completely agree. And sometimes I find our culture’s relationship to vegetables so baffling: while we’ll happily ingest quarts of fat via burgers and chips, there’s this idea that veggies must be steamed and served punishingly plain. Sad. We put lots of lovely butter on our veggies, or eat our salads with delicious dressings and cheese and toasted walnuts, and I think the kids are learning to love veggies because they taste so good. Believe me, it’s not buttered asparagus that’s going to make anybody fat. But meanwhile, I’m a lazy and terrible gardener. So glad for our farm share. . .


  5. When he was a toddler, my mom told my little brother that slices of raw zucchini were “cookies”. At a friend’s house, he asked for a cookie and responded with appalled disgust when handed an Oreo. “Dat not cookie,” he said. Not sure what a child psychologist would make of it, but the adults present were very impressed.


  6. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by lhjHealthLadies: Shocker: kids these days can’t identify a tomato. Here’s how to grow healthy kids http://bit.ly/90Nbn2


  7. Great post Louise. Such an important topic and truly shocking when you see what is happening outside our personal, busy bubbles!


  8. Lovely post Louise–your kid can cook for me anytime! :)


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