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Celebrate National Nutrition Month by Gardening with Children

By Diana Wind (windMarch 31, 2010
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You will love the theme selected by the American Dietetic Association for this year’s National Nutrition Month. 'Nutrition from the Ground Up' can be celebrated all year long, not just during the month of March. After visiting various children’s gardens in backyards, community gardens, and at camps and schools, I would like to share with you 10 of the best plants to include in a children’s garden (this article includes the first five).

Gardening picture

When it comes to gardening, children enjoy "Being outdoors, exploring creative "free" time, and connecting with the earth," according to Anne Negro, author of Our Generous Garden. Children benefit by, "Seeing lifecycles take place, experiencing the rewards of hard labor, harvesting, and preparing and tasting what they've grown."

Parents beam with pride when they see their children so excited to explore and discover the wonders in and around a garden. Smiles become contagious, as the boys and girls hand pick the fruits of their labor. Often times words are not even needed to communicate the excitement of tasting fresh fruits or discovering new plants, foods, birds, animals and insects.

What does nutrition from the ground up mean to you? To me, this year's American Dietetic Association's National Nutrition Month theme evokes visions of seeds being sown and nurtured with energy from the sun and water from the rain, resulting in nutritious whole-grains, fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, blooms and seeds.

The American Dietetic Association encourages us to focus on making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. Gardening rewards us with locally grown, healthy foods and an opportunity for education and physical activity.

Gardening and Eating Right

Fruits, veggies, grains and beans are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. Physical Activity and eating fruits and vegetables reduce the risk of premature death. The many In the Garden at HealthBarn USAbenefits of exercise and eating well include:

  • promotion of psychological well-being
  • control of body weight
  • maintenance of healthy bones and muscles
  • reduced risk of getting type II diabetes and high blood pressure
  • reduced risk of heart disease and stroke
  • reduced risk of some cancers  

Thanks to the White House's public vegetable garden, public health organizations, school garden efforts, and the recent 'Let's Move' initiative by First Lady, Michelle Obama to fight childhood obesity, we are seeing more attention focused on nutrition education for America's children.

Gardening with Children

Food preferences and appreciation for the earth starts at an early age. Hands-on, garden-based nutrition education programs have been shown to benefit children by stimulating them to increase their fruit and vegetable intake. "Kids learn to identify and taste a variety of fresh, seasonal food that they grow and why these foods are good for their bodies," according to Stacey Antine, MS, RD and CEO of HealthBarn USA® - a nutrition education program in North Jersey, which features a children's garden. "If they are eating from the garden, they decrease their consumption of junk and fast food" - a health point that is backed up by scientific research and continues to be studied.[1][2]

When children grow and taste raw fruits and vegetables, they make mental notes of the experience, flavors and foods they like, and are more likely to eat well. 

Best Plants for Gardening Kids ~ part 1

Below is a short list highlighting five of the best plants to include in a children's garden. They are not listed in any particular order, and please don't be surprised when you see that not all of them are edible. After all, special features make gardening all the more exciting and fun! 

Keep in mind there are thousands of cultivars and species of various fruits, vegetables, grasses and herbs suitable for growing in a children's garden. Part of the fun is selecting what to grow.

#1 Jelly Bean Tomatoes
Lycopersicon lycopersicum 'Jelly Bean' HealthBarn USA CEO, Stacey Antine, teaching children in the garden

Jelly Bean tomatoes fit perfectly in little hands. The plants grow 8-10 feet in full sun and yield a prolific harvest of 1/2-1-inch grape cherry-type tomatoes. Disease resistant cultivars include both yellow and red varieties. Jelly Bean tomatoes, like all tomatoes, are packed with vitamin C and are a source of Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, dietary fiber and other nutrients.

#2 Silly Dilly

DILL (Anethum graveolens) is this year's International Herb Association's Herb of the Year. Many gardeners prefer growing dill from seed in a full sun location, since it grows a long taproot and prefers not to be transplanted.

This annual herb will attract beneficial insects and black swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucas) to the garden, adding additional educational opportunities about metamorphosis.

Most known for its use in dill pickles, fresh dill (sometimes known as dillweed) adds Vitamin A, Vitamin C and healthy nutrients to breads, soups, potatoes, fish, chicken, and Greek specialty dishes like Spinach pie 'spanikopita', and tzatziki sauce - a thick cucumber-dill dip made with yogurt.

#3 Tickle Me Plant

Mimosa pudica

I first observed this groundcover after hearing sounds of parents and their children giggling around it at HealthBarn USA's children's garden. The plants mimosa-like leaves actually contract and recoil when touched or tickled, making it a real conversation piece in the garden.

There is no reason to eat any part of this plant; it is not edible. The seeds are inconspicuous and overlooked, which is a good thing, because the seeds are known to be toxic. It warrants respect, like a poinsettia plant; don't eat it! Mimosa pudica is fun to play with and perfectly safe to touch. The tickle me plant is a guaranteed attention getter: gardening kids and their visitors find it captivating.

This plant may be invasive, especially in zone 11, so it's probably best grown in pots and discretely displayed nearby more common garden vegetables and herbs, such as peppers or parsley. It can be overwintered as a houseplant.

Summer pattypan squash 'Flying Saucer'#4 Flying Saucer Summer Squash 

Cucurbita pepo 'Flying Saucer' will capture attention in the garden with its dramatic, two-toned, green-striped markings - a nice change from the more common white or yellow scalloped squash cultivars. Pattypan squash is a fun veggie to grow and will surely bring out the imagination of young children, as the flying saucers soar around your garden or classroom. 

Don't be afraid to cook this alien. Patty pan squash is easy to cut up and can be used similarly to zucchini -- roasted, grilled, sauteed, in soups, etc. -- or hollowed out and cooked with a tasty, wholesome stuffing. Scalloped squash contains protein, and many vitamins and minerals.

#5 Red Strawberry Popcorn
Strawberry Popcorn Photo copyright Victoriana Nursery GardensZea mays 'Strawberry'

Growing and eating corn is always a winner for kids. Corn, like potatoes and some other vegetables, comes in different colors. This 4-6-foot tall annual features unusual red-orange kernel color. Each plant produces three to four small (2-3-inch), strawberry shaped cobs.

Other cultivars to consider include open-pollinated 'Little boy blue' or hybrid 'Mini Blue', a 6-7-foot tall variety that yields cobs 2-4-inches long.

Both red and blue corn cultivars will yield fat-free, white popcorn. Corn provides energizing carbohydrates and 100% wholegrain dietary fiber, making it an ideal garden snack. The corn can be popped in a microwave. Simply place the entire cob in a brown paper bag and heat.

For more year round tips on building your healthful diet from the ground up, visit www.eatright.org and click on 'For the Public'.


Photographs: Little girl and butterfly thumbnail and little girl watering photos used with permission. Copyright ©2010 Linda Juelg. Strawberry Popcorn Photos used with permission, copyright ©Victoriana Nursery Gardens, Buck Street, Challock, Kent, UK. TN25 4DG. Telephone 01233 740529. Facsimile 0203 292 1529. Victoriana Nursery Gardens is a division of Floriculture International Limited.

Eat Right logo and NNM are ®Registered Trademarks of The American Dietetic Association. Patty pan squash photo Copyright Dave's Garden member 'Chicochi3'. Children in garden photographs Copyright © Diana Wind - photo release permission granted from Stacey Antine, HealthBarn USA®. All rights reserved. Special thanks to Linda, Chicochi3, Stacey and Victoriana Nursery Gardens!

Footnotes:

[1] McAleese J, Rankin L, Garden-Based Nutrition Affects Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Sixth-Grade Adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007; 107:662-5

[2] Heim S, Stang J, Ireland M,A Garden Pilot Project Enhances Fruit and Vegetable Consumption among Children. J Am Diet Assoc 2009; 1220

Related Links:

Kids in the kitchen

USDA food guide pyramid for kids age 6-11

Stuffed Patty Pan Squash Recipe Vegan Food Blog

DILL by Susan Mahr, Wisconsin Master Gardener Program, University of Wisconsin

From Our FarmsTM teaches children and their families about the importance of good nutrition, the value of local agriculture and the role farms play in enriching our communities and the environment

Tango, the Garden CatTM a short story about feral cats that arrived in a children's garden

A World Outside the Classroom

BBC Gardeners encouraging Children's Gardens

Gardening with Small Children by Alice Formiga

Gardening with Kids Classroom Activities Oklahoma State University, Div. of Agricultural Sciences


  About Diana Wind  
Diana WindDiana is a registered dietitian nutritionist with a passion for gardening and sustainable foods. She is a graduate of the Academy of Culinary Arts and member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Food from the garden fuels her enthusiasm for eating right and nutritional science. She especially loves gardening as part of a healthy lifestyle. Gardening engages us with nature, gives us health benefits from exercise, and rewards us with fresh, nutritious foods. To assess your food and garden activity level, visit choosemyplate.gov or her blog. You can also follow Diana on Google.

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