Exploring farm-to-table connections with young children

Tips and activities for fun and learning in the kitchen this summer.

The kitchen is a special place for children. As you spend countless hours preparing tasty meals, your impressionable youngster is observing your every move. It's never too early to engage your child in the kitchen. Start to prepare food early with your child to develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime. The kitchen is also one of the best science learning laboratories they encounter on a daily basis.

Even children 0-2 years old can be positioned to observe a chef at work and enjoy banging a wooden spoon on a pot to feel a part of the process. Children ages 2-3 years old can become involved by washing fruits and vegetables, mixing batters and wiping up the counter. Children ages 4-5 years old can begin cracking open an egg, using the mixer, measuring ingredients, cutting softer foods with a plastic knife and setting the table.

Muffins tend to be a fun and relatively simple way to engage younger children with cooking. They can assist with many of the tasks involved, the smells are wonderful, the view through the oven door is interesting as the muffins rise, and it all ends with a delicious and healthful snack. Michigan State University Extension recommends the following activities to help young children explore how the food they eat is produced.

Exploring eggs

When it comes time to crack an egg, why not take advantage of the moment to explore the world of embryology! What covers an egg? How does it feel? What does it look like? Break open the egg in a bowl and take a close look. What colors do you see? What is the purpose of each of the parts? Who eats eggs? If you eat eggs, how do you like to eat them? The children’s books “Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones” by Ruth Heller and “Egg: Nature’s Perfect Package” by Robin Page are interesting stories to accompany egg exploration.

  • The shell provides protection for the developing chick.
  • The yolk nourishes the chick with the food it needs to grow.
  • The albumen, or egg white, hydrates the chick and provides energy for growth.

Fun fact: In order for a chick to develop and hatch, the egg must be kept warm (incubated), rotated daily and be fertilized by a rooster.

Making butter

Shelburne Farms in Vermont has a wonderful recipe for making butter with children in their book “Project Seasons.” Gather a half-pint of heavy cream, a jar and two to three clean marbles. Remove the cream from the fridge one hour before beginning. Heavy cream at room temperature will separate faster.

Have your child add the cream and marbles to the jar and assist in fastening the lid securely. Now begin shaking. How is the sound of the marbles changing as the cream thickens? Sing songs while you shake. It will take about 5-10 minutes to make a batch of butter. When you see a lump of butter surrounded by some liquid, you’re ready for the next step.

Place a bowl beneath a colander, scoop the butter into the colander, and rinse off any traces of milk under cold water. Gently press the butter against the side of the colander with a wooden spoon to ensure all liquid has been removed. The butter can be placed in a small bowl and refrigerated to enjoy. Add a pinch of sea salt, if you prefer.

Butter is a very tasty addition to warm muffins. How else do you enjoy eating butter? A half-pint of cream will make approximately a quarter of a pound of butter. The book “Milk: From Cow to Carton” by Aliki is a great one for learning more about milk production and milk products.

Growing lettuce

Summer is the perfect time to dig into greens. A mixed variety of leaf lettuce is a great choice to plant with young children since it grows quickly and has a mild flavor for tasting. You’ll simply need a pot, seeds, soil and a small shovel.

It can be great fun to purchase a clay pot for your child to decorate to make it truly their own. To ensure the artwork withstands the elements outdoors, plan to use an acrylic paint. Wear clothes that can get dirty when painting as acrylic paint is not washable. It’s a great project to take outside. Once the paint is dry, it’s time to plant.

When it is planting time, your child can use a small shovel to fill the pot with soil, sprinkle in the seeds, cover them with a thin layer of soil, find a sunny spot to place the pot, water daily and observe. Within a day or two, children will see their lettuce sprouting up. Often, children who normally wouldn’t eat a salad will try a leaf or two they’ve grown and harvested themselves. Children enjoy using scissors to trim off the leaves and the task doubles an opportunity to work on fine motor skills.

Pull up a leaf to take a closer look at the roots. What are the parts of a plant? What is happening down in the soil? What is happening above the soil? How does a plant grow? The book “Tops and Bottoms” by Janet Stevens explores these concepts in a fun and engaging way. Be sure to discuss the importance of only tasting plants that have been approved by you, and then prepare a fresh garden salad together.

Talk to your child about where the food comes from as you cook. If you’re unsure of how a certain food product is grown or produced, take advantage of the opportunity to learn together. Be prepared for a mess. It takes the practice of many skills to keep a tidy kitchen and even adults can manage to leave the kitchen in a state of disaster after cooking a big meal. Remember health and safety first and use careful supervision, especially around hot stoves and sharp knives.

Encourage touching and tasting! These experiences in the kitchen will help with developing a more open mind when it comes to trying new foods, and gratitude and appreciation for all that is involved in bringing a meal from the farm to the table.

Finally, take advantage of the opportunity to visit a nearby farm to connect the animals to the food you’re eating. Observe chickens, cows, sheep, ducks and other farm animals in their farm habitat to discover what they eat and more about the food products they provide for us. MSU Tollgate Farm and Education Center in Novi, Michigan, now offers a farm and nature-based preschool program and story hour program focused on animal science, food production and nature education. Visit Tollgate's Early Childhood Programs webpage for more information, or look for similar experiential learning programs in your area.

For more information about early childhood education and other topics, visit the MSU Extension website.

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