On Your Health

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Take Your Kids to Oklahoma’s Gardens, Farmers Markets and U-Pick Farms for Food Fun

Summer is bountiful with fresh fruit and vegetables, and Oklahoma’s farms come alive with the colors of their gardens. Strawberries, watermelons, squash and tomatoes are bursting on the vines.

A 2016 study found that one in five schoolchildren couldn’t say where fresh food came from. One in four didn’t know that butter was made from cow’s milk or that apples and bananas grew on trees. The study also showed three in five parents were concerned that their children preferred processed foods over fresh foods and two-thirds of parents said their children couldn’t even boil an egg.

So, how can parents get their little picky eaters to choose fresh squash over fries? Give them a personal connection and experience with food and they will be more likely to eat that food, says Pam Patty, registered dietitian with the Community Wellness Department of INTEGRIS.

“Any time you can get kids in the proximity of real food is good. But when a child is truly involved in the food – from planting the seed, getting their hands in the dirt and harvesting – that’s when the connection to food really ignites,” she says.

Farmers markets, community gardens and U-Pick farms are easy ways to taste the natural foods of the state. They are also fresh opportunities to get children excited about fruits and vegetables and ready to learn where their food comes from.

How to get kids fresh about food

Visiting a farmers market is a great way to introduce children to healthy food and fresh produce. Not only will children learn where food comes from and how it’s grown, but they get to support local farmers in the area.

Parents can turn a trip to the farmers market into a fun scavenger hunt by telling their kids to find “vegetables that are grown underground” or “berries that are red.” Meeting the farmers is another way kids can learn about what they are eating. Afterwards, older kids might be inspired to choose their own vegetables, fruits or cheese when shopping.

“It also depends on the age of the child,” Patty says. “I think there is this idea that if you bring a child to a farmers market, they will instantly have this amazing connection to food. The food there is still disconnected from its source, so a one-time trip isn’t going to stick.”

Parents who include farmers markets as part of their weekly culture have a better chance of getting children involved in choosing fresh, healthy food, and if there’s a cooking demonstration where children can taste a meal made with the fresh foods there, that’s even better.

Farmers markets are also an opportunity to introduce kids to foods they may never try otherwise, like goat cheese or different kinds of peppers.

Getting dirty in a garden

Children especially love to become part of the experience. When Patty visits school or community gardens, she sees what a difference those gardens make on young eaters. If a child can get into the dirt, plant the seeds, care for the plant and eat the food once it's ripe, they fall in love, she says.

“Any time a child can harvest the food right off the plant, you’re creating a memorable experience for them,” she says. “You can do this with backyard gardens and even container gardens. That’s where kids will really get that connection to food. They will remember picking zucchini off the vine; they do not get excited by going to the grocery store and just picking zucchini out of a bin.”

It doesn’t have to be a big farm to work its magic. Says Patty, “Small farms, community gardens or just a tomato plant in your window will all have a positive effect on kids,” she says.

“I always tell people to start with herbs first, because you can grow them in a small pot and they are easy to care for,” Patty says. “You can get your child to just pick a few leaves to add to a dinner or create a simple pesto, and they will be able to feel that herb, smell it and taste it. Experiences like that are what make an impact.”

“Oklahoma has great access to urban, suburban and local farms and gardens, so there is no excuse for kids to not be engaged with food. The strongest impact comes when kids see a garden and are part of that garden.”

The OSU Extension Office’s Jr. Master Gardeners program is a great resource for families and gardeners in Oklahoma. Junior Master Gardeners also visit public schools to help create gardens and educate students on the thrill of growing their own food.

little girl eating strawberries at a farm

Pick it yourself

If you don’t have your own garden, U-Pick farms are the next best thing. Whether it’s a strawberry farm or a pumpkin patch, children can harvest their food right off the plant and fill a bucket with freshness.

Thanks to the rise of agritourism and an interest in where food comes from, these family farms are abundant throughout the state. Children of any age can participate, though older children may get the biggest benefits.

“A 3-year-old child may just be excited about holding a squash, but an older child might get curious about how to use what they just picked. Let them use their imagination to create recipes using that harvest,” Patty says. “You can make juices out of fruits and even try something new like zucchini bread. Let them explore recipes that use what they just picked.”

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture provides guides and information about U-Pick farms and jelly-picking trails across the state.

Going to various festivals throughout the state like the Rush Springs Watermelon Festival, the Stratford Peach Festival or the McLoud Blackberry Festival in July are also fun ways to introduce children to fresh foods.

Homemade Basil Pesto

  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves
  • ⅓ cup pine nuts
  • ⅓ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 3 cloves garlic (roasted or fresh)
  • ⅓ cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (optional but recommended)
  • ½ teaspoon each salt and fresh ground pepper

Blend the basil, pine nuts, cheese and garlic together in a food processor or blender. Pour oil in slowly while still mixing. Scrape down the sides, then add lemon juice, salt and pepper. Pulse until everything is blended together and relatively smooth. Taste and add more salt/pepper if desired.

Instead of basil, try other greens like spinach, kale or arugula. You can also use walnuts instead of pine nuts or use pumpkin and edamame for a nut-free pesto.