Gardening with Kids

The weather is finally (!) starting to warm up, which means it’s finally time to start your summer garden here in the Pacific Northwest. While cool weather vegetables, like snap peas, lettuce, kale, and chard can be started as early as mid-March, now we can start  warm weather vegetables like peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, and squash.

The peas that we planted in early April have been languishing through all this cold wet weather, but they are still hanging on. Last week we spread some lettuce seeds, and they’ve sprouted this week. It’s made me excited about the summer garden.

Gardening is a delightful activity to share with kids, young and old alike. There are so many benefits to having a family backyard garden. It gets you out in the fresh air and sunshine and is an activity that can include all ages.

Here are a few tips to make it fun for everyone.

Begin with soil prep

Helping prepare the soil for planting means dirt and shovels and digging! What fun! If you work in raised beds, little ones will have an easier time knowing where their feet can go (outside the garden bed) and where their shovels go (inside!). It’s better not to walk  on the prepared soil, as that makes it harder for seeds to sprout. Seeds like the soil slightly tamped down, but not compacted. If you’re working in a garden with rows and paths, using straw to mark the paths for walking can be helpful for kids.

Start with quick to germinate crops

Choose seeds that are quick to sprout to maintain interest in the process. Green beans are one of the quickest to sprout and easy to care for. If you choose a bush variety there is no need to build a lattice to support vines.  But if a trellis is needed, you can easily make one with garden stakes and some twine. Tie the top ends of four stakes together using twine. Position the bottom ends about three feet apart, pushing them down into the prepared soil, then wrap the twine in a spiral on the outside of the stakes to form a trellis for the growing plants. Plant the seeds between the stakes, so plants grow up the twine to the top.

Create a garden log

Invite older kids to keep track of the garden’s progress with a daily log. They can record what was planted and when. You can also track daily temperatures, rainfall, and sunshine. Note when each crop sprouts. They can even measure growth rates and record flowering and harvest dates, for a full picture of how long it takes for a vegetable to go from seed to the table. Next year, your garden log will help you know when to start seeds and when to expect produce as the garden grows.

Don’t forget the flowers

I have one kiddo who loves to plant flower seeds and watch them grow and bloom. Marigolds are great at helping keep pests away from vegetable plants, so we often have marigolds at the end of each row, or around the edges of a raised bed.

Kids who participate in growing vegetables in a garden are often more willing to try new foods and eat what they have grown. 

Fresh vegetables, better eaters, and better nutrition – all brought to you by your backyard garden.

Cooking with kids

In the Montessori preschool classroom, an entire section of the curriculum is devoted to “Practical Life”. Practical Life activities embrace care of oneself and care for the environment. It includes things like learning to lace and tie shoes, close a door quietly, clean a table, sweep the floor, and sew a button. Preparing food for snack is also part of the practical life curriculum in the classroom. 

Even the youngest toddler enjoys activities involving food preparation. Toddlers can peel and slice bananas, stir together the ingredients for biscuits, and knead and shape them (think edible playdough!). They can help peel and separate oranges and hull strawberries.

Including children in meal prep is a wonderful way to combine time together with practical learning and skill development. Here’s how to make the experience fun for everyone.

Slow Down and Let Go

Remember that every child is still developing fine motor skills. Let go of any expectations that every step of the process will be executed quickly or neatly. Expect a little more mess and adjust the time needed for prep. Allow your child to go at their own pace, which may be much slower than doing it yourself. Give yourselves time to stop and clean up as you go along. 

Remind yourself that practice is the path to improvement. Let them try. Each time they will get better and faster, but in the beginning, we need to allow for the mishaps of early experience with a task. Not all the flour will end up in the bowl. Some of the eggshells will end up in the bowl. Carrots won’t be as neatly peeled as you might have done. Diced may look more like chopped. The imperfections won’t matter to the finished dish and there is value in providing the opportunity to learn a new skill or practice a familiar one

Prepare the workspace

Before you begin working together, get organized. If you are cooking with 2-4 year olds, you may choose to measure out the ingredients ahead of time. On the other hand, letting them help gather supplies and ingredients is good practice in following directions, provided items are stored on low shelves that are accessible to small people.

Lay out a large plastic cutting board to work on, so that it can be lifted and carried to the sink for cleaning. Have appropriate utensils at hand. Soft foods, like bananas and strawberries, can be safely cut by young children with specially designed knives that are not sharp. Smaller spoons and whisks can also help smaller children be more successful.

Don’t Show and Tell

Talking as you are demonstrating requires the child to simultaneously process both what they are seeing and what they are hearing. Instead, when helping your child do a new task, take a tip from the Montessori classroom and separate the telling from the showing. Begin by saying what you are going to show them, without any movement. 

Then show them slowly and carefully how to do it, without speaking. This allows them to focus on watching what you are doing and eliminates the need to also process what they are hearing. This video from Viola Montessori is a great example of what this looks like.

Cooking together provides children with practical skills they will use for a lifetime. By the time they are tweens, they will have the experience to prepare meals for themselves and their family. 

Enjoy your time together in the kitchen! Leave a comment and let us know how it goes.

Summer Free Lunch

This week I want to tell you about something that I love.

It is Oregon’s Summer Meals program, and in this time of uncertainty and crisis, I believe it’s one of the few things around that’s just purely good.

It might seem like I’m hyperbolizing (or, more likely, just inventing an excuse to use that word in a sentence), but I tell you it’s true. Why, take a gander if you will at the organization’s handsome and generous website, which provides an overview of the service and a tidy history as well as a sweet site locator to find meals around the state.

What do they do? Well, since it was created thanks to an act of Congress (remember those?) exactly 50 years ago, the USDA-funded program simply gives out free meals to children aged 1-18. Some sites also sell meals to adults, and some offer activities and educational opportunities before or after. That’s it.

Why is that magic? The awesomeness is in the details: how many public programs can you think of that don’t ask you to register your kids, meet eligibility requirements, sign up for further something-or-other, or commit to anything? Really! You just show up and they feed your kids. The end. No follow-up, no stigma around needing the assistance. I think that’s mighty special.

My kids, who eat a lot and are sometimes in need of assistance, have enjoyed free meals in parks and libraries around Linn and Benton Counties. They’re not picky or anything, but they have pronounced the offerings both varied and pleasing. I believe them.

If you have kids, a finite amount of financial resources, and/or it’s just too cockadoodle hot to make lunch, I suggest you check out the Summer Meals sitch.

So, what are you waiting for?

Except for maybe morning?

 

On Peanuts, Truth, and Other Stuff

Earlier this month, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (say that three times fast) released new guidelines for the prevention of peanut allergy in children. These guidelines were rather surprising for many people because they were a complete reversal of the previous ones. Whereas previously the official scientific advice had been to avoid feeding peanuts to allergy-prone children until the age of three, parents are now urged to begin introducing it “before they are 6 months old,” as a preventative measure.

Needless to say, the press release introducing the new position, and the flurry of news coverage that followed, led to much consternation on social media. Many parents, rightfully concerned for the health of their kids, expressed fear and distrust of what appears to be a dramatic turnaround in scientific thought around the issue. A lot of questions were asked about why we should trust the new results when we clearly could not trust the old ones. If scientific research is supposed to give us answers about life or death issues, why does it seem so unreliable?

As far as social media controversies go, the peanut allergy studies are somewhere in the middle. Much more contentious has been the continuing debate over the safety of vaccines: on the one hand, concerned parents who mostly don’t want their kids to get sick are accused of endangering everyone around them. On the other, the lingering suspicion of a link between vaccines and autism (a link that has been strongly–and repeatedly–debunked by several studies).

Not so controversial, but certainly as high-stakes, is the changing advice on how to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Late last year new recommendations included letting children sleep in the same room as parents, and taking away blankets and soft toys.

As someone who does research-based work with families, I try to keep up with new studies, and I like to be able to present parents with the context behind my advice other than “because I said so.” Parents want to do the best thing for their kids, especially when it comes to their health and safety. When the science gives ambiguous or seemingly controversial advice (though really, sudden reversals such as the one about peanuts are pretty rare), the guilt we feel about our decisions may shade into suspicion. How do we know what information to trust?

When I searched online, nearly everything I found was from academic websites. If you’re writing a research paper (and I’ve taught a few of those classes), you want to be sure your sources are sound and reliable. When it comes to the news and the kind of information we rely on, like medical advice, it is just as important (maybe more: more important than research papers!) to distinguish the solid stuff from the shaky.

The articles I have linked to in this post are from major publications. Major newspapers and news magazines have editorial boards and fleets of fact-checkers. They don’t want to be sued for slander. When they make a mistake, they quickly publish a correction and add it to the bottom of the piece. All three name authors and include dates and other identifying information. They link to the studies they discuss (presented by the organizations in question) so that we can see them for ourselves.

When it comes to parenting (or really, health in general), the internet is not the best place to get our information. Pediatricians, clinics, and public health agencies contain real, verifiable people who can confirm or deny when needed.

Practicing this kind of discernment is more important now than ever (and I’m not even going to use the words “fake news.” Oops). Regardless of the anxiety we may feel as parents over keeping our kids safe and healthy, if we know how to pay attention we’re doing the right thing.

Kitchen Think

I had one of those moments the other day. I had asked my eleven-year-old to help prepare lunch, something involving the stove and the broiler, and was giving her instructions when I realized that I didn’t need to be telling her what to do.

Not only was she perfectly capable of measuring the ingredients, watching the time, and reasonably avoiding burning herself. She was also already carrying out the instructions. My continuing to “help,” in fact, was only getting in the way.

I stopped short. I felt pride, and a little bit of shock, and found myself pulling back from the moment–to what a journalist would call a higher elevation–and saw that the little girl I had been raising and guiding was now at least as competent a cook as I am. And I didn’t learn any of this until I was in my thirties.

While I was up there, above the kitchen at around 10,000 feet, I started thinking about how my role as a parent had been shifting and reconfiguring itself all along. Those tasks, those bits of information, and those thought processes which used to require close supervision and physical proximity were now hers to explore, to push against, and expand to the limits of her new older self. My gosh, I thought, she’s approaching adulthood before my eyes.

As I have come through my own journey as a parent raising four daughters, I have been through a similar process. With each new stage and new situation, I come up against my limits and have to start again, as a beginner on a new level. Some parents I know talk about having favorite ages, or conversely, struggling in particular ways with the developmental challenges of three, or seven, or twelve. I can’t say that I have a favorite age (or one that throws me for a loop). I like babies. I like toddlers. And so far, so good in the interim between that and teenagerdom.

I do look forward to being able to share more of my life and myself with my children as they become old enough to process it. To someday have adult conversations about how we got there, and what we took with us or left behind.

Standing in the kitchen with my large-hearted, sensitive, stolid, quietly competent eldest daughter, I realized that teaching her to make a tuna melt was no longer enough. So what’s next? Will she tell me? Or do I need to spend some time here, at the edge of myself?

The Food Post

If there’s anything to get one in mind of food in families, it’s Thanksgiving. Don’t worry: I’m not going to offer advice about how to present leftovers in endless combinations (though I bet the internet has something to say about that). In fact, the only thing I have to say about our Thanksgiving is that we had four (4) pies. So clearly we won.

No, the reason this came up is that at dinner tonight (a completely non-leftover related affair) our five-year-old was displeased by what was on offer and was invited to wait in her room until we were done and I could help her get ready for bed. I later learned that she had changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, made her bed, tidied the floor, and made a drawing, so she was clearly not malnourished.

I won’t say that this is a common occurrence. It’s not. But nor is it unheard of. I can think of a time in the recent past when three out of four children opted out of a meal because of objections to a dish, an ingredient, or a method of preparation. And that’s fine. As we say, “There will be food again at the next meal.” Reliably and regularly. And we will attempt to make that meal as balanced and healthy as possible (with the exception of ice cream for dinner, which I haven’t written about for a few weeks). So if a child refuses offered food, it’s really a drop in the bucket.

Growing up, my nemesis was onions. I would not eat them in any capacity, for any reason (though strangely I always liked onion rings AS LONG as the breading did not come off). My mom, who did most of the cooking, didn’t put a lot of thought into accommodating my prohibition but was pretty good about warning me. As a result, I learned to deal with it as much as I was able and only very rarely gave up on the meal. My dad would marvel at my ability to find every trace of onion in a slice of supreme pizza; I would leave a neat pile on one side for future use in landscaping projects.

The frequency with which we deal with refusals of food is related to the sheer number of new foods we introduce to them. We don’t expect kale or beef liver or spaghetti squash to “take” the first time. Or even the first five. It may not happen ever. But given the variety our kids have seen on their plates over the years, the number of times they felt they had to throw in their napkin and walk away has been statistically quite small.

So, food allergies and sensory issues aside, the reason a child may “only eat chicken nuggets and pizza” or whatever is that this is what keeps ending up on their plate. Might I suggest taking a gamble that they will eventually try something new–if not now, then at the next meal?