From plants to plates: Growing healthy eating from the ground up

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In the kitchen, a gaggle of kids are busy as bees, chopping, dicing, sautéeing, and simmering this week’s meal: a curried lentil, squash, and kale soup. Having plucked the kale themselves from the adjacent garden that day, the program’s kick-off meal is the perfect start for this field-to-fork approach to healthy eating.

Giving kids a say in what they cook and a hand in the harvest sets them up for a positive relationship with healthy food and eating behaviours.

According to the research, hands-on cooking classes increase children’s willingness to try new foods, build their confidence, and increase their intake of fruits and vegetables, even after the program ends. And community-based initiatives that use gardening-based interventions results in kids eating more fruits and veggies.

To put theory into action, Ecology Action Centre — a Halifax-based Good Food Organization and recipient of one of our 2017 Child and Youth Innovation grants — partnered with the Glace Bay Food Bank to deliver a food literacy program that uses a hands-on approach to gets kids excited about eating and growing food. And thus, Plants to Plates was born.

Every week, youth participants spend two hours cooking a meal with ingredients from the garden. While they cook, they learn about where food comes from, the journey food takes to get to our plates, and the difference between processed and unprocessed foods. The interactive sessions build kids’ confidence in growing and preparing healthy food and offers them the background knowledge they need to make healthy choices on their own.  

The kids love when it’s their turn to choose a recipe. They identify the ingredients and quantities they’ll need, and then they work with coordinator Georgia McNeil to plan out the meal. Not only does reading and scaling recipes, planning grocery lists, sharpen their food literacy skills, it’s a winning way to get buy-in and build leadership. Once the meal is ready, the kids seat themselves around the table to enjoy their culinary creation, talk about the weekly theme, and how they felt about the process.

One of McNeil's rules is that everyone has to give new foods a try before they make funny faces or say things that may negatively influence their peers. “Sure, you can have a negative thought, but keep it to yourself,” she says. A great example is one of the dessert selections — black bean brownies. Not surprisingly, the kids were a little suspicious at first, but after the initial taste test, the recipe became an instant favourite. In this way the kids play an active role in creating a positive environment where everyone is encouraged to try something new.

While McNeil strives to expose kids to different foods, she is also sensitive to the fact that some may not have access to these same foods at home. She always prioritizes making simple, stress-free, and nutritious recipes. And through conversation and session themes she discusses food insecurity and the stigma that exists around hunger and poverty.  

Top 4 tips for getting kids excited to be in the kitchen

  • Involve your kids in choosing the recipes you make. One way to do this is to create a recipe binder that your kids can flip through and choose from before heading into the kitchen. 
  • Start with a small snack: Having something tasty and nutritious waiting for kids when they step into the kitchen is not only a good way to fill empty stomachs and help kids focus but it’s also a chance to encourage them to try something new.
  • Make every step hands-on. Encourage your kids to be part of the whole process: reading the recipe, washing, cutting, measuring and cleaning up. It may take more time, but it’s an essential part of the learning process.
  • Make time to eat together. While you're enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of your labour, talk about what you learned. Ask the kids if there's anything they would do differently next time. Brainstom new recipes that this dish inspires them to try. And make your plan for your next kitchen session! 


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