and Photos by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist
For a healthy treat and a healthy
retreat, head for the country!
When my nieces were little, they
clamored to sit on top of my mother’s kitchen counter to observe her
peeling potatoes. They were fascinated when she began the vertical cuts that
they had learned were “where French fries come from” (not from bags in
freezers), and if she continued to cut them into cubes to boil, they
declared that boxed flakes were not as cool. She and I were fascinated, too,
at this sign of the times – that kids rarely see vegetables growing in the
earth anymore. What could be more educational in the summer weeks off from
school than to treat the kids to a real-life botany lesson? If you are tired
of going to the pool, take a family trip to one of the many farms or
orchards that are open to the public, and enjoy fields of vegetables,
herbs, flowers and fruits ripe for the picking.
Farm freshness is highly desirable these
days. It makes sense that the healthiest foods do not come from a box when
you appreciate maximum nutritional value and an absence of processed
additives. Nutrition can be a great follow-up topic once the family’s
interest is piqued by all the fresh vegetables and fruits that are
available. Blueberries, for example, are the number-one source of
antioxidants that aid in fighting cancer and heart disease. Children can
understand more about vitamins and minerals if they hear what direct
advantages can be gained from them. After all, how many children have been
successfully coaxed into eating their spinach so they can be as strong as
Considering what a whopping problem
childhood obesity has become (no pun intended), the exercise aspect of
walking out to the fields, trekking up and down the rows, and bending or
reaching to pick has added health benefits. “Freshness” can also refer
to the cleansing air you breathe deeply throughout the whole process. Many
farms offer wagon rides, games and visits to the animals. Chesterfield Berry
Farm, for example, has a goat walk, pig races, and Bunnyville for kids, and
features a different type of produce on successive weekends throughout the
summer, such as tomatoes, followed by cantaloupes, etc. Many farms are also
now offering cut flowers and herbs. The cost may not be that much less, but
the hands-on aspect, the pungent aromas, and the brilliant sights of color
and texture create a memorable sensory experience as well as family fun.
Visit www.pickyourown.org for listings
of links to all states for farms participating in programs open to the
public. They also suggest tons of activities for using your fresh produce.
Consider it a springboard for a project kids will love and learn from, but
don’t sit in front of that computer for long. Remember, it is the action
of working together with nature that is so beneficial.
Years ago, our grandmothers made the
most of summer by canning, freezing, pickling or otherwise preserving the
bounty of warm weather to be stretched throughout the rest of the year.
Community canneries are few and far between these days, but with a simple
water-bath canner and Mason jars, it is pretty easy to put up some of your
favorites. Tomatoes are one of those foods that just do not taste as good
any time but high summer, so pick in quantity and think of lots of ways to
use them. Make homemade salsa or spaghetti sauce that will be crowd-pleasers
in winter, or experiment with sun-dried tomatoes, so popular now.
Dehydrating is another area to explore.
Notice how dried cranberries or different trail mixes are appearing at the
grocery checkout aisle where the easy-grab chip bags used to be? Show kids
how grapes become raisins; or pick peaches and dry them in halves placed
close together, pitted side up, to retain all the juices. If your kids like
picking flowers, dry yarrow and celosia for everlastings to go into fall
bouquets or holiday decorations.
Make the most of berry season or pick
grapes and try your hand at a batch of jam or jelly. My kids used to look
forward every year to picking cherries and then participating in the process
of making cherry preserves. Or if that is too hot an activity, use some of
the fruit to make homemade ice cream – always a welcome treat.
Another thing my children seemed to
relish was making pickles. They were fascinated with the crock we used and
would inquire about the progress throughout the pickling period. There are
many things to pickle besides cucumbers: beets, mushrooms, watermelon rind,
cocktail onions, green beans, cauliflower, broccoli, okra, brussels sprouts,
jalapeno slices and any of the immature, or “baby,” veggies like whole
baby corn or baby carrots. If you have a place to pick herbs, let kids
experience picking the actual plant that produces the distinctive dill aroma
that goes into a dill pickle. As any teacher will tell you, children learn
best by doing.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture
and Consumer Services has a helpful Web site at www.vdacs.virginia.gov/vagrown
for lists of events, festivals, farm animals, tours, lectures and other
special events on the farms (by county) or through farmers’ markets. You
don’t have to wait until pumpkin season, when the mass exodus occurs from
city to country. Pick a season, any time from strawberries to Christmas
trees, and make it an annual family tradition.