My grandson Patrick grasps a carrot’s shoulders and pulls it expertly from the soil. I cut its leafy top, leaving an inch of green, and hand it to his sister, Ella, who puts it in a bowl — and so on down the row until the bowl is full. Patrick is 5, and Ella is 3.
“Carrots are my favorite thing,” Patrick says. “I like them raw, but Ella likes them cooked.” Food preferences are an important topic with him. Name a food, and he can tell you how every member of his family feels about it. While he is a picky eater, Ella is such an enthusiastic omnivore that a friend once nicknamed her Stuffie.
Patrick and Ella are carrying out a long tradition of grazing at our farm. My three stepchildren grew up snacking in the field and escorted their friends to the carrot patch as soon as the school bus let them off. “Candy carrots,” as they called them, became a child magnet each year, especially as the cooler soil temperatures of fall turned them super-sweet.
My stepdaughter Clara, known since childhood as the Fruit Vacuum, specializes in berries, a passion she has passed on to her sons: Bode, who is 11, and Hayden, who is 9. Her sister Melissa’s twin 10-year-old daughters, Heidi and Emily, are similarly inclined, though as toddlers they were also known to nibble on raw kale. No strawberry, raspberry, blueberry or blackberry on the farm escapes their sharp eyes.
My husband’s field snacks of choice are ripe melons, raw English peas and raw corn. When the corn becomes ripe, he’s a worse thief than the raccoons.
I have no problem pandering to children’s fussy eating habits because I know there’s a learning curve when it comes to food. My wise mother, rather than forcing me to eat things I hated, spoke of “learning to like” them when I was ready. That made adopting a new food an achievement, not a capitulation.
I remember coming home from a weekend at a friend’s house and telling Mother I’d learned to like pea soup, despite its mushy texture. I simply imitated the friend’s father’s habit of adding a little vinegar and was won over by the taste.
My son, Chris, who once ate nothing green except chives, now loves all veggies and grows cherry tomatoes for Patrick and Ella, who harvest them with relish. Patrick renounced sugary junk food after seeing the overweight future humans in “Wall-E.” And Hayden, called the Chicken Whisperer because of his ability to get any hen back into the pen where she belongs, has recently learned to like eggs.
In my experience, the key is to offer children a wide variety of wholesome foods and let them choose from among them. Vegetables, and sometimes even fruits, can be the hardest sell, so the usefulness of involving kids in planting a garden is obvious. A tiny plot, or even a row of containers on a sunny windowsill, can produce a tomato plant, a few greens, a bean plant and a selection of herbs.
Here are my top picks for child-wooing produce you can grow at home or in a school garden:
Cherry tomatoes are so vigorous that a single plant might be enough. My sisters and I called them “burst-in-your-mouth tomatoes.”
Alpine strawberries are tiny but prolific and have the added benefit of being perennial. From late spring to fall, they bear continuously, and they are especially fun to search for, becoming the Easter egg hunt of fruits. You should point out to young harvesters that, as with blueberries, the upper part that gets the sun will ripen before the underside, and fruits that are colored throughout are sweeter.
With regular strawberries, plant what is called a day-neutral variety, such as Tribute or Seascape, for longer production over the course of the season. With raspberries, plant a fall variety as well as an early one.
English peas are fun to eat out of the pods, but plant sugar snaps, too. Kids soon figure out that round, newly filled pods taste best.
Humans are wired to love these foods, and the garden is the best invitation to nature’s table.