Emma Townshend: How to persuade kids to eat healthily

The <i>IoS</i> gardening columnist
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The Independent Online

Children and gardening have so much in common. An emailed photo of a friend's new baby, or the tiny first leaves of a seed opening, induce loopy smiles in most of us. Each day brings changes you want to boast about. We should let kids have that proud sense of responsibility and achievement too.

The worst that can happen is a mess. Children run riot in gardens, but that's the wild joy of it. At last summer's Hampton Court flower show, exhibitors' gardens were awash with schoolkids who received press day invitations to check out the schoolyard veg plots. And these, in the end, took all the plaudits.

Thirtysomething parents raised on Eric Carle's classic children's book The Very Hungry Caterpillar definitely know the importance of eating their greens. As the book makes clear, after a week-long salami binge, the one thing to restore a wayward larva is a nice green leaf.

But introducing the delights of fruit and vegetables to our kids has been a trickier process. Children have a mentality better expressed by Lauren Child's 2000 runaway bestseller, I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato. Child's book introduced Charlie and Lola, the flagship kids of today's CBeebies generation, and little sister Lola became well loved for her point-blank refusal to let a tomato past her lips. Everyone identified with the story: for many parents, not just Lola's, getting their kids to eat fresh fruit and veg is a constant battle.

By contrast, Italian children can be seen happily wolfing down a range of home-grown produce ranging from rare heirloom tomatoes to cavolo nero. What's the secret? Italian kids are raised to understand how fruit and veg are grown, with specific time allotted in the primary school curriculum for lessons on food. They watch their parents growing potatoes, lettuce and peas, and are included in the process.

The Italians understand that kids need to be persuaded to eat healthily. It doesn't happen automatically. Children need to be tempted by great flavour, but your chances are doubled if you make veg growing a special experience. The sugars which make tomatoes, carrots and peas so delicious start disappearing within minutes of their picking – so let kids do the work, and taste the difference for themselves.

That's the nicest thing about getting kids involved in growing their own food. It feels right that they should be getting to have that experience. For Inga Grimsey, chief executive of the RHS, now is the right moment. When irritated garden visitors write in to complain about the hordes of kids at Wisley these days, she is unfazed. That's exactly what should be happening, she says.

And even Charlie and Lola get round to growing their own. In a recent episode, Charlie grows a tomato plant from seed, and Lola wants to copy him. "Where are you? Why aren't you doing anything?" she asks the seed, plaintively, a mere hour after planting it. That's one more thing growing your own can teach kids: patience, and all its delicious rewards.