Wednesday 18 September 2019

Learn to love vegetables

Coaxing children to eat their vegetables can be frustrating, says Helen Hanley, but by educating them about healthy food, and its journey from plot to plate, we may be able to cajole fussy little eaters

Kitty Scully, head kitchen gardener at Airfield in Dundrum, with Jay Courtney (9) and Jess Courtney (8), both also opposite. Photo: El Keegan.
Kitty Scully, head kitchen gardener at Airfield in Dundrum, with Jay Courtney (9) and Jess Courtney (8), both also opposite. Photo: El Keegan.
Airfield hosts a harvest camp for young gardeners.
Garlic can be grown indoors.
Root vegetables are a good introduction to planting.
Bean sprouts in a jar

Who knows what this is?" asked the man to a bunch of primary school-aged kids, while holding up a tomato.

"A potato," came the reply.

"What about this?" he tried again, this time producing an aubergine.

"A pear!" came the response.

You may laugh at these examples, passing them off as one of those 'kids say the funniest things' episodes. While that's true, it also shows how disconnected many of today's youngsters are from the food they eat.

We've all heard of the picky eaters who drive their parents demented, refusing to eat anything other than pasta and clamping their mouths shut at the prospect of some 'new' vegetable.

While my own two are quite good when it comes to food - Jay (9) and Jess (8) - largely because I don't take any nonsense from them. A recent exchange in my house went something like this:

Nine-year-old looks disapprovingly at dinner plate, laid lovingly before him.

"What's this?" he asks dubiously, pointing to a patch of green.


A few minutes' pause. He realises he has no option but to eat it…

"It tastes like grass…"

Trying to encourage your children to eat healthily can be one of the most frustrating aspects of being a parent. Yet we can't give up the fight, especially with an enemy like obesity lurking around the corner.

Maybe we just need to be better at educating them. If we provide them with a bit more context, perhaps then they will have a greater appreciation for food and be less fussy eaters as a result. This is exactly what one of the educational programmes at Airfield, an urban farm in south Dublin, is trying to do.

Their recent mid-term Harvest Camp for kids was aimed at establishing a connection between food and the land from which it comes.

According to Kirstie McAdoo, education and learning coordinator at Airfield: "If the children leave here with a sense of how simple healthy and nutritious food can be, we'll be happy!"

Part of the thinking behind these camps is that the current generation of children doesn't tend to have a connection with farming, which means they're losing out.

"This means that their only connection to food is in the supermarket, where it is processed, packaged and sometimes bears little or no resemblance to the original animal or vegetable."

She gives the example of that dinner-plate staple - the carrot.

"Carrots in the supermarket are cleaned, washed and topped, so all children see is the orange carrot.

"Here we can introduce them to the whole plant, along with purple or yellow varieties as well as the non-straight, knobbly ones!

"If children understand where food comes from they will hopefully be less likely to dismiss it on the plate."

This has certainly been the experience of Kitty Scully, head food grower at Airfield.

"For many, pulling a fresh beetroot from the ground is a new experience. Once children become involved in the story of food, from plot to plate, from seed to harvest, they are clearly more engaged, excited and receptive to trying new foodstuffs."

Being creative in how we 'sell' the notion of vegetables to kids is also important.

"Children like names and stories, and the uglier or the funnier the better. For example, this year we grew courgettes called 'duck' because they looked like a duck. This causes a point of interest and educates that natural food comes in all shapes and sizes," says Kitty.

One of the reasons why children are often so resistant to vegetables, believes Kirstie, is down to marketing.

"Why would they eat something that isn't promoted in the media; something that can have a variable taste, shape and mouth feel?"

We as parents can often exacerbate the situation due to our lack of knowledge about seasonality. Seasonal food is tastier, cheaper and higher in nutrients than that grown out of season.

Kirstie's advice is that parents should expand their repertoire so as to treat seasonable vegetables in a variety of culinary ways.

"If all children are exposed to is boiled broccoli, carrots and peas, why should they be excited?

"If we can learn to cook vegetables in a variety of ways, we can find a texture or taste that encourages the child to eat them."

This kind of resistance to healthy eating in general, and vegetables in particular, is something Cork woman Gillian Mahoney sees first hand, week in, week out.

Gillian is the proprietor of Cookery Cottage,( which runs week-long camps for children from ages five to 19.

At the start of the week, "vegetables are an absolute no-go," says Gillian. "Parents will often say to me, 'My kids are fussy eaters.'

"I say to them, 'Give them to me for a week and I'll fix that.'"

As the days progress, and pupils experiment with a variety of fresh, natural ingredients, their attitude gradually begins to change.

"It opens their minds and they realise that, actually, there's nothing wrong with foods they would previously have given out about."

The fact that the pupils are being encouraged by an independent third party - and not their mother or their granny - makes them more inclined to change their ways.

Teaching children about food and how to cook simple, healthy recipes is one of the most important skills we can pass on to them.

"It's like swimming or riding your bike - it's just something you need to learn. After all, every night you have to sit down and have your dinner, so you have to be able to cook."

The man in question in my opening example was actually Jamie Oliver, who has become a relentless campaigner for healthy eating, especially when it comes to young people.

"Kids have no sense of where anything comes from," he said in a TED talk a few years back. "If they don't know what stuff is, then they'll never eat it," which echoes exactly what Airfield's Kirstie McAdoo said earlier.

Even one of the most successful American footballers of modern times, Tom Brady - aka Mr Gisele Bundchen - chimed in to the debate recently. He used an interview on US radio to complain about how people don't know what real food is any more.

"They believe that frosted flakes are a normal food group," he said in disbelief.

Back at Airfield, the Harvest camp culminates with a feast, comprising the various foods the children have interacted with during the week, accompanied by their own home-made bread and hand-made butter.

And the consensus from my own two?

"I suppose lettuce isn't that bad really. But I still don't like mushrooms!"

Indoor veggie growing

Growing winter garlic

Plants need water to stay alive and this is an easy way of showing children that plants take up water by the roots. As the plant grows the water disappears from the reservoir at the bottom. Remember to keep topping it up. The plant's roots will also be visible through the side of the plastic bottle, so you can keep a track of them growing too!

Garlic can be planted now and be ready for harvest in June.

Peas planted in March will be ready for harvest in May.

You will need:

• 2 ltr plastic bottle

• Scissors

• Compost

• Plant seeds - garlic is good for winter, peas for spring

• Water

What to do:

1. Cut the bottle in half and add a few small air holes (as in the diagram below).

2. Fill the bottom with water to a depth of 5cm, but ensure the bottle neck can reach it.

3. Place the compost in the upper part of the bottle - make sure it's quite compact. So it won't spill out the neck.

4. Place the upper part into the bottom part of the bottle and make sure the neck of the bottle is sitting in the water.

5. Separate a clove from the garlic bulb.

6. Sow your garlic clove into the compost about 3cm down with the flat part pointing downwards and water them a little to get them going. If you are using peas, plant 5cm down and when they get tall enough use a bamboo stick for it to climb up.

7. Remember to top up the reservoir when needed.

Growing Rudolph's favourite

Growing a root vegetable is a great way of showing children that some plants produce what we need below the ground rather than above it. Carrot and parsnip seeds germinate easily in heat and the plastic bottle allows enough space for them to grow downwards.

You will need:

• 2 ltr plastic bottle

• Compost

• Sand paper

• Carrot/parsnip seeds

• Water

What to do:

1. Wash the plastic bottle out to remove any sugar residues.

2. Cut the top 10cm from the top of the bottle and add some drainage holes to the bottom.

3. Use the sand paper on the cut edges of the bottle to smooth them down and make them safe.

4. Fill the bottom with compost almost to the top.

5. Plant up to 10 seeds 1.5cm down (about half a finger).

Not all of these will germinate, and then you can thin out the weaker ones later on.

6. Water the seeds and leave them on the window sill.

7. If you are doing this in winter, you might like to put the top part on the bottle back on, so it acts as a small green house.

8. Be careful not to water the plants too much, just keep the soil moist.

Impatient horticulturists

For those among us who can't wait a few months for something to grow - sprouts are the best solution. These sprouts will start to grow in a day or so and be ready to eat in a salad, sandwich or part of a stir fry in a couple of days! These sprouts will grow at all times of the year - so you can start right away.

You will need:

• Large jar

• J-cloth

• Mung beans

• Water

• Elastic bands or string

What to do:

1. Clean out the jar and wash thoroughly.

2. Fill with enough mung beans to cover the bottom of the jar with two layers.

3. Fill the jar half full with water and leave over night to soak.

4. Put one layer of J-cloth over the top of the jar and secure with an elastic band.

5. Drain the water out and shake the beans.

6. Leave on the windowsill.

7. Every day, fill the jar with water until the seeds are just covered and then drain away the water.

8. Shake and leave on the windowsill.

9. Let the sprouts grow until they are about 2.5cm long (should take about 10 days).

10. Then they are ready to eat in a salad or in a stir-fry!

Courtesy of Kirstie McAdoo, Education and Learning Co-ordinator Airfield Estate.

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