fresh lemon balm

Being healthy and raising healthy kids is as admirable a goal as any. And going about it as naturally as possible will make you a shoo-in for sure. Sometimes the information on holistic health, herbal remedies and natural treatments can be overwhelming, though. Here’s a quick list of the herbs you must have on hand in your efforts to keep that gorgeous family of yours naturally healthy. All of these herbs are easily purchased in a grocery store, and several of them are easy to grow yourself - on a windowsill, in a pot on the porch, or in your garden this summer.

1. Mint
Mint has a fabulous, breath-freshening, energizing taste. It’s the perfect way to pep up your tea (hot or iced), a fresh green salad, or a plate of fresh fruit. And it has several health benefits: not only does it freshen your mouth and breath after a meal, it also helps you digest your food. So adding it to your salad or drink does more than just enhance the flavor. Mint can also help ease gas and stomach aches and has antifungal properties. A cup of strong, unsweetened mint tea can often be enough to ease pregnancy nausea or help a child get relief from a stomach ache. One note of caution: because mint has such strong volatile oils in it, it is not recommended for infants under two years old; the strong fragrance can actually cause them to gag and choke. For mom and older kids, however, mint is a great herb to have on hand.

Mint also gets major points for being easy to grow; it’s so easy to grow, in fact, that it can become invasive. For that reason, it’s a good idea to grow your mint in a pot or raised bed where it will be contained. Alternately, you can plant it along the edge of the woods, around a tree, or somewhere it can spread without invading other landscaped areas. Mint likes partial shade, so it does well near trees. It also prefers moist soil.

2. Ginger
Ginger isn’t an herb you’ll want to tackle growing yourself, unless you live in a tropical climate. This rhizome, however, is sold in all major supermarkets in either fresh or dried form, along with a multitude of crystallized and candied varieties. And you’ll want to keep it on hand. It’s superb for calming indigestion, painful gas, or other stomach upsets. It can also help increase circulation, which is a plus for those of you with perpetually cold feet and hands. Try switching out your coffee or black tea for a cup of honey-sweetened ginger tea. Cook with ginger; it’s spicy, medicinal flavor adds depth to stir fries and curries, and a warming element to traditional soups like chicken noodle or vegetable. For kids, keeping some chewy, candied ginger on hand can be the fix for an upset tummy.

3. Lemon Balm
Lemon balm has been used for a long time to help deal with restlessness, anxiety and insomnia. It also has antiviral and antibacterial properties, so it’s just a good, all-around health boost. With it’s gentle, lemony flavor, it’s a great addition to an herbal infusion for kids or as a straight lemon balm tea to help reduce the duration of colds and flus. In summer time, grow your own and use it as an easy, natural topical treatment for insect bites, minor scrapes and such; just apply a fresh, crushed lemon balm leaf to the affected area.

Lemon balm is a big, bushy perennial which will take as much room as you will give it. It has a great fragrance. Grow it in sun or partial shade – it’s not very particular. I grew it successfully on my back porch, which only got morning sun. It’s not particular about soil either, so put this plant where you can’t grow anything else.

4. Chamomile
Chamomile is a hands-down favorite to use for treating colic, gas, restlessness and anxiety, making it a great choice for both Mom and kids. Chamomile has volatile oils in it which make it a rather effective relaxant; it’s known to induce drowsiness and can help calm irritable toddlers before sleep. Although it’s not an herb commonly used in culinary applications (chamomile soup, anyone?), it makes a great tea with a mild taste. Combine it with lemon balm for a little zing. 

Chamomile is easy to grow at home. Start from seed or buy seedlings at a nursery. Chamomile perfers full sun, though it will grow in partial shade as well. It likes a well-drained soil and needs plenty of room at the back of the garden/bed, as it gets rather tall and leggy.

5. Thyme
Chances are you already have a container of dried thyme in your spice drawer, and you’ve used fresh sprigs of this one on your roast chicken or in your famous roasted vegetable dish. Thyme has a distinct flavor which combines well with all sorts of savory dishes; try adding a pinch in soups, stews, casseroles and fish for a flavor boost. Not only does thyme taste great, it’s good for you. It’s been used for tummy cramps, gas and as an expectorant. It also has antioxidant and antiseptic properties, so it can be helpful in fighting infections, colds and flu.

Thyme is a perennial you can grow yourself. It may need protection in cold winter weather (cover with mulch). Start your thyme plant by sowing seeds in spring time in an area with full-sun and well-draining soil; thyme doesn’t like wet feet. Add some pea gravel or sand to help soil stay gritty and drain well. Protect it in winter and watch it grow bigger each year.

Image: Sophie A.