If there's one terrific way to get kids interested in trying new foods, understanding where food comes from, and choosing produce over chips (at least some of the time), it's a trip to the farmers market.
Along with farmers selling produce, there are makers selling things from pickles to preserves to pesto; beekeepers offering honey; ranchers who have raised chickens, beef and pigs; fishermen and women selling their catch; bakers with breads, pies and muffins.
Shopping at a farmers market also means shopping seasonally, which makes us more aware of sustainability. It's cool for kids to start to understand that, in much of the country, strawberries are around in May and June, peaches and plums are available in mid-summer, and once apples start rolling in, fall is on the horizon. It gives all of us an appreciation for the bounty of the moment. A fresh ear of corn tastes all the sweeter in August because its availability is fleeting.
Melissa Kubin has been bringing her young son Felix to the farmers market in New Milford, Connecticut, since he was a baby. “Now he runs to the car on Saturdays shouting 'farmers market!'” she says.
Shopping at farmers markets also can create a sense of community, since it supports local farmers and producers.
So parents, grab your wallet and some reusable bags. Here are eight ways to get your kids engaged at the farmers market:
1. Encourage children to ask three questions of the farmers/producers – As you move through the market, questions will probably pop up. How many eggs does a chicken lay every day? Why are some vegetables labeled organic and others aren't? What does grass-fed mean? Why are different types of corn different colors?
2. Show up hungry – And taste as much as you can. Tasting might be more limited this summer as different markets adjust to shifting COVID rules. In regular times, most producers are happy to offer up a slice of plum, a sliver of cheese, a taste of homemade jam on a cracker. This is also a good way to teach kids how to ask for something politely, and show appreciation for the sampling.
3. Bring home one fruit or vegetable that's completely new to you, and figure out how to use it. – Maybe you'll find some golden berries, watermelon radishes or dandelion greens. You can try your find as is, or add it to a salad, pasta dish, pie or other recipe. Our best find when the kids were little was an ostrich egg, an enormous egg that we discovered has the equivalent of 24 large chicken eggs inside it. We learned how to get the egg out of the shell without breaking it, and we made a huge amount of scrambled eggs for our neighbors, using ramps – wild leeks which were also regional and in season. We were able to keep the ostrich egg shell on our fireplace mantle for years as a memento of an interesting farmers market expedition.
4. Find a new cheese – Start by blending a new cheese in with something milder and pre-approved by your children for grilled cheese sandwiches. Many cheeses are locally produced.
5. See what farm-raised eggs are all about – When you bring them home, crack open a farmer's market egg next to a supermarket egg – check out the yolk colors to see which is more vibrant. At the market, you might ask the farmer about what their chickens eat, and how that affects the yolks' color.
6. Ask a farmer for a recipe – Who knows how to use these products better than the people who make them? You'll likely find that the “recipe” you get is a simple one, a dish that allows the produce or other ingredient to shine without much adornment.
7. Create a scavenger hunt – You can plan this ahead of time or let it develop organically. Searches might include: How many red vegetables can you find? How many different kinds of apples can you count? How many colors of eggs are there (and can you find any that are speckled)? What's the biggest melon you can find?
8. Find the produce with the weirdest names – Kids often love silly monikers, and you might come across Chocolate Stripe Tomatoes, Cathead Apples, Donut Peaches, Russian Banana Potatoes or Dragon Kale.
After one or two visits to the market, your kids might be fast friends with the person who sells the apple cinnamon doughnuts. Don't forget to pick up a jug of cider to wash them down.
Childhood trips can help form adult shopping habits
Leigh Rowan, organizer of Ft. Wayne's Farmers Market, says it is important to expose children to farmers markets because people learn shopping patterns early.
If a child grows up shopping with their family at a grocery store, that's where they will shop when they are older. The same is true for markets, where young people will also learn how to ask experts for advice, find out how to pick the best products, figure out the importance of shopping local and discover different growing processes such as organic farming.
Many products at a farmers market are also more likely to be at a child's eye-level unlike a grocery store produce section where everything is geared toward adult shoppers.
Rowan says she sees lots of kids with parents and grandparents at the market, especially now that it has moved to McCulloch Park, 1795 Broadway, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. People can bike or walk to the park and enjoy the atmosphere during the market.
The market has also been able to space vendors out more, something that started as a pandemic safety precaution but Rowan says has turned out to be a real boon. It gives people the feeling that they have the time to stop and shop at a vendor's booth because they aren't stuck in a traffic flow with people behind them pushing to move ahead.
Kids are really observant, Rowan says. They see the differences between shopping experiences.
“If you're a kid and you're just being drug to go buy cucumbers and then being drug over to buy chicken – that's what the kid's going to remember,” she says. “But if they are able to engage and see a variety of things and get something to eat, go sit at the picnic table – they're going to remember that special one-on-one bonding time they had with their family.”
The market hands out free child-size tote bags at its host table by the park's gazebo so kids can help parents shop.
And though shopping habits can be formed at a young age, they can also be changed later.
When groceries and big-box stores had shortages early in the pandemic, local farmers markets became a source for produce, eggs and other products. Now familiar with the market, many of those customers are still coming back, Rowan says.
– Corey McMaken, The Journal Gazette