ABOVE: A group of home schoolers and their parents weed the Gray Mockingbird Community Garden in Lake Worth. The group grows fruits and vegetables on the plot of land run by Brian Kirsch, the garden founder.
BELOW: Kristen Litteken gives her daughter Ryker Litteken, 3, a cherry to taste.
By Lona O'Connor
Adults would call it weeding, but for the group of children at Gray Mockingbird Community Garden in Lake Worth, it was more like playing in the dirt: pulling up stuff, eating other stuff and finding lizards and frogs. Adults would call it learning about how food is grown. The kids called it fun.
“This just fits so nicely,” said Hannah Mayo, who organized a group of homeschool children and their parents to plant their own plot at the garden. “They can learn botany and they love doing it.”
Some families in this group have gardens at home too, so most of the kids are used to tasting just-picked broccoli and other fresh veggies.
Johana Castillo shows them purslane, which has a small round spongy leaf that can be eaten raw in salads and cooked in a number of ways. Everything else except the cucumbers they are growing goes into buckets, headed for the Gray Mockingbird compost pile. Brian Kirsch, Gray Mockingbird founder, delivers a wheelbarrow full of mulch to discourage the next crop of weeds.
Many children can reach high school without realizing that food does not grow in shrink-wrapped Styrofoam trays. Laura Durso, who teaches cooking and nutrition to children, asks them to describe various fruits and vegetables to others in the class.
“One girl got a sweet potato and didn’t know what to say about it,” reported Durso, of Greenacres.
Seth Mayo, 7, knows how to cook scrambled eggs. His family eats together every day, joining their grandparents at least once a week.
Eating together as a family is a very important tool for teaching children nutrition, says Carol Sherman, a Boca Raton dietitian and diabetes counselor.
“Family meals tend to be more balanced and healthy, and it helps to model what healthy eating looks like at the family table,” she says.
Durso, who was taught to cook by her mother and has run a restaurant, designed her kids’ cooking classes around first lady Michelle Obama’s “My Plate” nutrition program to improve nutrition among children. “My Plate” devotes half of each meal to fruits and vegetables, with the other half divided between protein and whole grains.
With the teen girls, Durso concentrated on portion control, and at the end of the program the girls prepared a meal together.
“They were really into it, talking to each other. They recognized that it was also social time for them,” Durso says.
She showed the younger children how to create a “gourmet bouquet,” arranging cut vegetables in a flower pot.
“There was one little girl who had never eaten a vegetable,” said Durso. “Her mom was thrilled that she tried different things, like quinoa-stuffed pepper.”
She also challenged expect-ations, for example, toasting chickpeas with sugar and cinnamon instead of savory spices. On another occasion, the class made freezer ice cream out of pureed carrots and cream. Close to Christmas, the class made “Grinch skewers,” with green grapes for the body, banana slices for the face and a red strawberry for the hat.
Durso had her own two children (now grown) participate in meal preparation and at least take a bite of any new food at a meal.
Durso’s cooking lessons with at-risk teenage girls had at least one positive result that had no direct connection to nutrition.
“After the first week, one girl said, do I have to come back and I said, it’s voluntary. She stayed away then came back the fourth week. When they cooked together, she was the first one in the kitchen.”
Durso is now working with an art teacher on an “art you can eat” project and hopes to add table etiquette to her other courses.
“I want them to sit still while they’re eating,” said Durso. “It opens up an opportunity to talk, it makes people open up.”
Durso, who runs a bookkeeping service, always made sure to wrap her workday around her children, right through high school. That practice leads to the other benefit of eating together.
“When you sit down to dinner, you find out what’s going on, you get the gist of their day,” said Durso.
“Good habits start early,” said Sherman, who has a master’s degree in public health. “If you feed kids baloney and hot dogs and goldfish crackers, you can’t expect that all of a sudden they are going to change what they are eating. You can start by substituting Cheerios or oatmeal with fruit instead of sweetened cereal.”
When Sherman started practicing 30 years ago, she rarely encountered children with Type 2 diabetes. Now it is considered nearly an epidemic — along with childhood obesity — and strikes hardest among African American, Mexican American, Native American and Asian American children.
“It’s important to have healthy foods in the house,” said Sherman. “When children are hungry enough, they will eat what’s served.”
The other problem, says Sherman, is parents modeling bad food choices to their children. “With so many parents on fad-type diets, that’s not healthy eating, but that’s what the children are seeing.”
Sherman suggests that certain foods, like sugary soda pop, should be “out-of-the-house foods,” not available routinely at home. But an outright ban on sugar only “makes it more attractive and leads to overeating.”
Another advantage of eating at the table rather than in front of a gaming screen or television is that it makes both children and adults more aware of how much they are eating and when they are full, says Sherman.
Mindful eating is eating without distraction, paying attention to physical hunger, sitting at the table rather than while watching TV. People typically eat more than they think under distracted conditions, says Sherman.
Sherman also favors the “plate” method of meal planning, and she suggests gradually “leaning in” to nutrition, rather than making big changes abruptly.
“Start with one part of the plate. If your child can’t give up chicken fingers, leave them on the plate, but add carrot sticks, a stir fry or roasted vegetables, something that’s kid-friendly, like melting cheese on the broccoli.”
And don’t give up, or give in, too soon.
“Psychologists say it takes about four months before something becomes a habit,” says Sherman. “It’s also good to change the language used about food. Rather than talking about deprivation, put it in a more positive light.”
Diet habits of a lifetime — even a child’s lifetime — are changed gradually, says Sherman.
“Set small goals. If you think you’re eating too much sugar, start on that. You can serve fish or eat a vegetarian meal once a week, rather than just saying we’re not eating any animal protein.”
To determine if you are really hungry, and not just bored or restless, Sherman says, “Ask yourself, am I hungry enough to eat an apple now? If the answer is no, you’re probably not that hungry.”
With the weeding finished in short order, Kirsch encourages the children to taste muscadine grapes, Barbados cherries and an impressive bunch of bananas, all growing in the garden. As the year rolls on, there will be more fruits and vegetables to taste, including the cucumbers they grew.
Seth Mayo tries a banana, straight off the tree. Nodding and chewing, he declares his judgment: “Pretty good!”
For more information about My Plate, visit www.choosemyplate.gov.
For more information about Gray Mockingbird, its activities and the weekly farmer’s market, visit www.graymockingbird.com.
To schedule a cooking class for children, contact Laura Durso at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lona O’Connor has a lifelong interest in health and healthy living. Send column ideas to Lona13@bellsouth.net.