How many times have you nagged your children with that timeworn phrase, "Eat your vegetables"?
In an era when fast-food commercials pollute the airwaves, organic zucchini can have a hard time competing with McDonald's French fries.
Give your children a sense of ownership over what they put in their bodies by making organic gardening a family affair.
"It is natural for children - and adults, as well - to take greater interest in something we have helped produce," says Dr. Virginia Shiller, a New Haven, Connecticut-based clinical psychologist specializing in child and family therapy, a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center, and the author of Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting.
"Children are generally fascinated with the process of growing vegetables, watching them develop from seeds or young plants into mature, produce-bearing plants," she tells OrganicAuthority.com. "And feeling more responsibility for having helped produce the vegetables will often lead to greater interest in eating them."
To provide children with a feeling of accomplishment, let them take charge of certain aspects of your organic gardening projects so they can experience a sense of responsibility. At the same time, it's important to step in on days when they lack the motivation to water plants or pick out dinner fare, so don't be overly rigid - particularly with young children who haven't reached the developmental stage that allows for consistent follow-through, Dr. Shiller says.
If you live in an apartment or lack backyard space, consider creating organic container gardens with your children. According to Cindy Krezel, author of Kids Container Gardening: Year-Round Projects for Inside and Out (geared toward ages 6-12), you can plant everything from flowers and cherry tomatoes to grass and bamboo using everyday household items like old pots and restaurant takeout containers. Her book features 17 projects, divided by season, that introduce children to the joys of gardening - including special gifts for Mother's Day, Father's Day and other holidays.
"As long as gardening is done in a manner in which children feel they are respected and are playing an important role, it is an activity that can strengthen a child's relationship with his or her parent," says Dr. Shiller, a mother of two who chairs the Children and Youth Committee of the Connecticut Psychological Association. "Parents should avoid unnecessarily correcting children's efforts. If the line of bean seeds is crooked, so be it. However, if seeds are planted too deep, sensitive help to correct the situation will increase the likelihood that this will be a successful and fun family activity."
Dr. Shiller recommends keeping a photo album to record your children's organic gardening successes.
"Get a photographer to shoot the family engaged in different gardening tasks," she suggests, "or take pictures of the child standing beside a tomato plant week after week, documenting its growth ever upward. The final photo could be of a special dinner where the centerpiece is the homegrown food, with everyone looking proud of the accomplishment. Many memories of childhood are retained in photo albums."
One important note for overeager parents with finicky eaters: When serving organic vegetables, be sure to have realistic expectations. Don't expect your children to "devour huge quantities of the produce they have grown," Dr. Shiller warns. "It is well established that children must acquire a taste for vegetables and that taking small bites will, over time, help children come to enjoy the taste of new foods. But even getting children to take small bites can be difficult, so homegrown produce may be 'easier to swallow.' "