One thing that’s better about raising kids today is the access we have to locally grown food—and a growing awareness of its benefits. The number of farmers’ markets has increased dramatically across the country in the last decade, from under 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 today. Supermarkets have become more locally minded, stocking fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat produced within a few hundred miles, to keep the carbon footprint low. This makes it easier to raise kids who are healthy eaters and who are mindful about seasonality, sustainability, sourcing, and more. But easier than my parents had it doesn’t mean, well, easy. Most of us don’t grow food in our own backyard or have an organic food store down the block. And not all can afford to purchase higher-quality, locally grown foods, or are able to participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) programs.
That said, raising a farm-to-table eater is possible—and there’s no better time to try than now, while your children are young, impressionable, and have a shot at developing farm-to-fork eating habits that will stick. Helping them understand the farm-to-table connection might just boost an intrinsic desire to eat locally sourced, in-season foods, and may influence them to be respectful custodians of their bodies and their planet. So buy good food, eat good food, grow whatever you can, cook as much as you can, and enjoy meals with others. But like teaching kids that money doesn’t actually come from ATMs, we need to teach them where food comes from if we want them to understand what “good” food actually is. Here, a how-to in four easy steps:
Get farm savvy. Kids love working farms, but if time, money, or distance rule that out, visit a roadside stand, if possible, or consider taking a virtual tour of websites such as the American Egg Board’s Meet the Farmers or the American Dairy Association’s Dairy Farm Life with your grade-school children. At home, plant seeds indoors in empty milk cartons. When the seeds have sprouted and the plants have grown a few inches tall, transfer them to containers outdoors in the summer; herbs, tomatoes, and small veggie plants work great even on a balcony or a door stoop. Leave the watering and tending to the kids so they can see how much care goes into raising a plant. If you’re lucky enough to have backyard space to plant vegetables and fruit, have your kids help with the planting choices. Ownership is so important for children, especially when so many decisions are outside their control. But be realistic about how much tending they can achieve, and pitch in to help. While school-age kids are capable of weeding, harvesting, and perhaps moving a pot to get more sun, your assistance can help make the difference between success and failure.
Change your kid’s perspective. Monica Rocchino, mother of a three-year-old daughter and co-owner of The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, California, loves the accessibility of farmers’ markets, “where kids can taste samples, run around, talk to the farmers,” she says. And there’s a learning opportunity too. “It’s great when you start to go year-round and say, ‘Hey! It’s cherry season!’ or ‘It’s pea season!’ or ‘It’s watermelon season!’ They start to get in tune with the comings and goings of different produce during different times of the year.”
Share the kitchen with your child. Most kids love to help in the kitchen—even beyond cookie baking. The younger your kids, the simpler you should keep it. Kids can shell peas, set the table, or put a stick of butter away. To help build skills, repetition works too. “Crack two eggs today, two more the next day, and two more the day after that,” Rocchino says. Kids will pick up culinary techniques and your respect for good food just by being near you.
Sit down and eat together. You’ve heard it before: turn off the TV at mealtime. Even pediatricians advise parents on the health benefits of eating together as a family. When you sit down to eat, you can talk about the tastes you’re experiencing (“Man, these blueberries are sweet!”), the new cooking method you tried (“How cool is that potato ricer!”), or another culinary adventure (“Let’s make homemade ice cream this weekend.”). Talk about the link between sustainability and farm-to-table eating. “Point out how most locally sourced food is not wrapped in a bunch of plastic so eating this way helps to cut down on our plastic consumption,” suggests Rocchino. “Or mention that having the produce travel less than 100 miles to the farmers’ market (vs. on a plane or an 18-wheeler from across the country) significantly reduces our carbon footprint.
Food is, ultimately, a great pleasure. Meals are great unifiers. When we sit down to eat and talk, family life can be at its absolute best. Gardening and cooking with your children to get there? Can’t think of a nicer way to spend time.
Pam Abrams is a writer and mother of two who splits her time between the city and the country, and frequents the farmers’ markets in both locations.