The family that picks together, well, you know. (iStock)

The sun beat down and the bugs buzzed around as little fingers reached for ripe, juicy blueberries. Cries of “Look at the size of this berry!” and “This bush has tons of ripe ones!” rippled through the air instead of complaints about the hot, humid day.

Picking fruit or vegetables at a farm—or your own backyard—is akin to “hunting for treasure,” as my kids describe it. That way of looking at gathering food from its source sums up part of why we make it a priority to visit u-pick farms throughout the summer, marking the lazy, hazy days of school vacation by the growing season. Strawberries in May. Blueberries in June. Blackberries in July. Peaches in August. It’s easy to take advantage of nature’s bounty—and help our kids expand their culinary horizons.

At the Farm

We all know eating fruit and vegetables is an important part of our daily diet, but getting our kids to consume—much less enjoy—produce can be an uphill battle. “Local food grown in season in good soil and picked at peak maturity will taste so much better than what you find in the grocery store,” said Nina Planck, author of the Real Food Cookbook. Here are some reasons why going directly to the source of fruits and vegetables can be so beneficial to children.

Kids are curious. Children of all ages are naturally inquisitive beings. They love to explore their world on many levels, from touching and tasting to seeing and smelling. Taking them to local farms to pick fruit and veggies can be a great way to introduce them to produce at the peak of ripeness and encourage consumption of these foods.

Kids like to do things themselves. Children love to be independent and what could be more independent that picking your own lunch, dinner or snack? “When kids are involved in growing and picking, cleaning and cooking food, they take pride in that and enjoy it more,” said Kate Zurschmeide, farmer of fun (i.e., marketing) for Great Country Farms, a CSA and u-pick farm in Bluemont, Va. (Full disclosure: we’re CSA members of Great Country Farms.) “Their minds are more open to exploring different flavors if they’re involved in gathering the food at the source.”

Kids like to learn. Even outside of a formal school setting, children are ready to soak up knowledge. “Kids are experiential beings,” said Planck. “They need to touch and feel and smell things. You can’t touch, feel or smell a book or a food package, but you can do those things on a farm.”

The discovery of where french fries come from (a potato!) can be eye-opening and fun for kids. “When we have school groups take a field trip to the farm, we often ask them where do french fries come from,” added Zurschmeide. “More often than not, the answer is, ‘McDonald’s’ or ‘a bag at the grocery store.’ This gives us the opportunity to educate them in a fun way by showing them potatoes and talking about how french fries are made from potatoes. Then we head out to the potato patch with shovels and dig for potatoes.”

Kids love to get messy. Going to a farm to pick peas means getting dirt under your fingernails. That’s something too many children don’t have a chance to experience these days, especially for those who live in urban areas. The expressions of joy on my children’s faces when they’ve climbed a cherry tree to pick from the highest branches is worth the extra washing to get the sticky stains out of their clothes.

Kids are responsible. Having a garden or picking fresh produce gives children a unique measure of accountability. “Picking that lettuce or watering that tomato plant teaches children about responsibility in a different way,” said Zurschmeide. “With the pleasure of enjoying food comes the responsibility of growing it or picking it.”

At the Table

Our CSA membership provides us with a box of in-season produce each week from June to October. That weekly bin of freshly picked fruit and veggies has spurred our kids to eat—and even like!—kale, eggplant, chard and beets, for example. Along with why seeing and touching food at the source can be good for children, here’s how you can use that experience to get them to actually eat their veggies.

Taste. There’s nothing so flavorful than a freshly picked blueberry, peach—or kale. The flavor tends to burst on your tongue, a feeling that can transform eating from blah to wow. “The taste of an apricot that you picked right off the tree can’t be replicated in the store because of the fragile nature of the fruit,” said Zurschmeide.

Appearance. By picking your own produce, kids learn that a slightly asymmetrical cucumber tastes just as good as a perfectly oblong one, that the ear of corn with a worm in it is still edible once you remove it. “This helps teach kids to not waste food because of how it looks, that a dented apple has the same flavors as a uniform one, that not everything has to be graded and matched,” said Zurschmeide. Besides, it’s rather fun to see a “two-headed” tomato or a “three-pronged” strawberry.

Effort. Because it took half an hour to pick those green beans, a child is more likely to want to consume them. “We want to nurture in our children the idea of enjoying the fruits of their labor, and picking vegetables or fruit in the heat of summer is a tangible way of showing them that concept,” said Zurschmeide.

Bond. Going as a family to a farm to pick produce can be a wonderful way to strengthen the ties that bind us together. “When families come out here to pick produce together, then they go home and clean it and cook it together, it builds a strong bond between them,” said Zurschmeide.

We’ve already penciled into our calendar when we’ll go blackberry, peach, and apple picking this summer at some of our favorite u-pick farms. Make your own plans to take a trip to one of your many local u-pick farms—a list of Maryland and Virginia farms can be found at www.pickyourown.org, for example—and experience first-hand how connecting with food at the source can invigorate your child’s interest in eating his veggies.

Sarah Hamaker is a certified leadership parenting coach. She blogs about parenting at www.parentcoachnova.com, and is author of Ending Sibling Rivalry: Moving Your Kids From War to Peace.

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