A Unique Child

Learning About Fruit and Vegetables in the Early Years

  • Learning About Fruit and Vegetables in the Early Years

In the third part of her series on food and nutrition, Patricia Pillay suggests cooking and growing activities to encourage children to enjoy a healthy diet…

● Read the second part in Patricia’s series, on non-dairy proteins, here.

Fruits and vegetables are an important part of the diet for children. They provide many of the vitamins and minerals needed to establish and maintain healthy functioning of the various parts of the body. Fortunately our knowledge and thinking has moved on from Victorian times when it was widely believed that fruit was bad for children’s digestion and so very little fruit was eaten by children.

These days fruit and vegetable eating problems are more likely to be caused by children quickly establishing favourite fruits and vegetables – which are often the most easily eaten, such as peas, bananas, carrots – and then rejecting anything more challenging or unfamiliar. However, all fruits and vegetables provide growing bodies with different macro and micro nutrients and so it is valuable for children to eat a wide variety. For example, dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale and sprouts, provide valuable iron while citrus fruits provide vitamin C. Fruits and vegetables also provide fibre which may be otherwise missing from the diet if children eat mostly the more processed carbohydrate foods, such as white bread or white rice. Crunchy fruit and vegetables like apples, radishes and celery help to ensure that mouth muscles develop as they should and so help reduce early speech problems that may be worsened by a diet containing mostly soft food.

Below you will find some cooking and growing activities to help you explore fruits and vegetables with the children in your setting. Remember that children may take their cues from the attitudes of the adults around them, when expecting that children will try tastes that are not familiar to them it is valuable for adults to eat with them and demonstrate their own enjoyment of the food.

Indoor cooking – Vegetable tarts

This is a very simple and versatile recipe for which you can use any combination of seasonal vegetables. Using a mixture of different vegetables enables children to try new tastes alongside those they are more familiar with. The tarts cook quickly and so children can have all the pleasure of cooking these and then eating them together for their lunch or tea.

You will need:

● Chilled puff pastry

● Medley of seasonal vegetables

● Flour for rolling out pastry

● Grater

● Safety knives and scissors

● Bowls for mixing in

● Rolling pins

● A clean card template approximately 10cm square

● Baking tray

What you need to do:
Heat the oven to 200°C, gas 6, then show children how to prepare the different vegetables that you are using. For example:

- Scrub or peel root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, turnips, swede), cut off the growing top and wash.

- Wash courgettes and green beans and trim the ends.

- Wash peppers, cut them open and remove the seeds.

- Trim spring onions, radish and celery sticks and wash.

Show children how to make very small vegetable pieces. They can do this by chopping with a safety knife. Peppers, green beans, cabbage and spring onions can be cut with clean scissors. Root vegetables and courgettes can be grated.

Try using different flavourings to bind the vegetables together. You could try grated cheese, beaten egg, or a small amount of a pasta sauce or soy sauce.

Show children how to roll out a small piece of the puff pastry to make it the same size as the card template. They will need to use a little flour to stop the pastry sticking to the rolling pin or to the work surface.

Place the pastry square onto a baking tray and let children spoon the vegetable mixture into the centre. The sides of the pastry square will puff up around the vegetables as the tarts cook. Try adding a little grated cheese as a topping to the tarts.

Cook in the hot oven for 15 minutes until the pastry is puffed and golden.

Outdoor cooking – Baked apples and root vegetables

For settings confident lighting fires with children and keeping them burning until there are hot embers, making baked fruit and vegetables is a wonderful opportunity for children to experience hot fruit and vegetable snacks. Or cook them to eat alongside sandwiches for a picnic lunch or tea.

You will need:

● Apples and/or root vegetables such as carrot, parsnip, slices of swede

● Foil suitable for cooking in

What you need to do:
Make sure that fruits and vegetables are clean and ready to cook. Larger root vegetables may need to be cut. If you prepare the fruit and vegetables before going outdoors you will need to keep them in a sealed container until you are ready to cook them.

Show children how to wrap the fruits and vegetables in foil parcels, making sure that they are sealed securely to prevent ash etc. getting in, and to help them cook well.

The food parcels need to be cooked in the embers of your fire and not on direct flames; therefore it is important that you have already allowed some heat to build up in your fire. Long tongs will enable you to put the parcels in and out of the fire safely.

Cook your fruit and vegetable parcels for about 20 minutes. There will be hot steam from the parcels when they are unwrapped, children will need help to unwrap their parcels safely. Alternatively unwrap the parcels for the children and use a song or short story to pass a few minutes while the contents cool. This will allow the children to smell the food as it cools, increasing the sensory experience for them. Remember – all your usual fire safety rules will apply.

Indoor growing – Vegetable tops

You will need:

● Root vegetables, such as carrot, parsnip, swede and turnip

● Saucers or shallow trays

What you need to do:
Cut a piece approximately 1cm thick from the top of the root vegetable. Children can do this for themselves using safety knives. Place the vegetable top, cut side down, on a saucer or shallow tray. Add a little water and place in a warm, light place such as a windowsill. Change the water each day.

After a few days you should begin to notice green sprouts growing out of your vegetable top. Keep changing the water each day until these have grown to about 10cm. Children can cut this edible new growth with safety knives or clean scissors and add it to sandwiches, salads or soups. It can even be added to the vegetable tarts (see above).

Outdoor growing – Runner beans

Runner beans make a very good growing project for young children. Once they are established the plants grow quickly so that children can easily notice changes over short periods of time. Once the beans themselves start to grow they do so quickly, enabling children to harvest new beans every couple of days.

Runner beans grow best if you are able to plant them in a trench of rich soil or compost in the ground in a sunny position. However, they will also grow well in a large garden pot placed in a sunny position. Add a bamboo cane to each corner of the pot and tie these together at the top to make a frame for the bean plants to climb. If children grow their beans in the ground you will also need to provide a frame for them to grow up. Bamboo canes, secured together, make a good frame.

Plant seeds in small pots in mid-April and keep them on a light windowsill, they will soon start to grow. When there is no danger of frost (mid-late May) children can plant these small plants outside in their trench or pot. Let the plants get used to being outdoors for a time each day in the week leading up to planting out.  Children will need to keep them well watered, especially if there is little or no rain.

You may need to protect the very young plants from slugs. A child-safe way to do this is by scattering whole oats around the base of the plants each evening until the plants are bigger and stronger and the slugs lose interest in them.

Patricia Pillay is an early years consultant and qualified forest school leader.