Growing a Food Lover In My Garden

When my 5-year-old son returns home in the evening from summer camp, the first thing he does is run to our backyard. There, we have a pair of raised beds enclosed inside what looks like a giant chicken coop, which prevents any critters from noshing on our hard work and doubles as a trellis for a number of the plants. This season, it’s home to half a dozen tomato varieties, numerous hot peppers, tomatillos hiding inside parchment paper-like wrappers, heirloom carrots, decorative gourds, and cucumbers. An overflowing herb garden and a modest strawberry patch elsewhere in the yard complement these endeavors.

As Zephyr looks over our various holdings, he becomes part project manager, part treasure hunter. He proudly identifies his favorites, comments on the growth and the health of the plants, and asks what something unfamiliar tastes like or how we might cook with it. As we’re talking, he ferrets out whatever has ripened. Darting a hand into the verdant tangle, he pulls out tiny teardrop tomatoes as bright as yolks, red Thai chilies shaped like little icicles, and plump green cukes. He cradles one arm against his chest as a makeshift carrier, which soon overflows with a rainbow of prizes.

“Look, Poppa,” he’ll say. “I found a lot.”

Sometimes he can’t contain himself, so he starts spontaneously nibbling on his harvest. Sweet-as-candy, fire-truck red cherry tomatoes are irresistible. Biting into one, there’s a satisfying pop followed by an explosion of juice. I don’t believe a single strawberry has made it inside; they’ve all been gobbled down moments after they’re picked. Not that I care. I love that he is involved with the garden, takes ownership of it, and enjoys what we grow.

As Zephyr looks over our various holdings, he becomes part project manager, part treasure hunter.

The garden’s power to engage Zephyr continues once we’re back in the kitchen. I try to keep preparations simple, so the fresh flavors can shine unhindered. I want him to know what food naturally tastes like and teach him that the best ingredients don’t need any accompaniments to please the palate.

If he’s not completely sold on something, I’ll pair it with a familiar ingredient to help him overcome his hesitation. A bowl full of hummus for dipping got him to try cucumbers, while maple glaze convinced him to eat roasted carrots.

I still haven’t been able to convince him to make jalapeños or habaneros a part of his diet. “They’re too spicy,” he tells me. “They burn my tongue.”

I remain hopeful that his continued exposure to peppers will pay off someday. Maybe he’ll decide he relishes the heat, maybe his palate will change. When he is ready, they won’t be foreign to him—and he’ll know exactly where to find them.

No matter what, I can sense Zephyr’s pride when our garden’s bounty makes its way onto our table. We recently had my sister-in-law’s family stay with us. On the first night, my wife whipped up an epic fried chicken dinner with all the fixins. Zephyr happily pointed out our tomatoes in the corn salad and the starring role our cucumbers took in another salad. “They’re from our garden,” he told his cousins with a satisfied smile.

I was beaming, too. Because it made me realize we were growing a lot more than just tomatoes and cucumbers in the backyard. Curiosity, fascination, and responsibility were also springing up in that fertile ground.

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