Child nutrition: Planning, planting and preparing healthy meals

May 20, 2021

By Sandra Millon Underwood,
Professor, UW-Milwaukee College of Nursing

Growing up in Mississippi Bonnie Anderson’s mother always had a garden. Early on, she learned how growing your own food, preserving, and canning it were not only fun activities, but taught her life-long skills that helped ensure she and her family always had fresh, healthy, and nutritious foods to eat.

“Even after moving to South Bend, Indiana, my mother had a garden. She planted tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and just about every vegetable that would grow. As adults, my husband and I continue to have a garden. My husband grew up in the country, so he’s great at gardening. We grow mustard greens, collard greens, squash, tomatoes, and cabbage.

“We start planting on Memorial Day. We grow a lot of vegetables. By late June and early July, we harvest the tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and squash. We have separate gardens for our greens—one garden for mustard greens and another for collard greens. The mustard greens grow quickly so they must be picked and thinned out. We pick and cook this early crop of mustards and harvest the rest of them later in the season. The collard greens grow quickly and really large. We wait until the first frost hits them before harvesting because it makes the collards more tender,” Anderson said.

After harvesting these vegetables, Anderson uses the skills her mother taught her to preserve or “can” her bounty in glass jars.

“After I harvest the greens, I wash them right away. I blanch them and store them in freezer bags. I boil or can the tomatoes. I also can or preserve apples, pears, and peaches. I give a lot of the vegetables to friends and neighbors. My mother always told me that you can keep canned and preserved vegetables and fruits from season to season, so that’s what I try to do. I usually have 50 to 60 jars of apples. Sometimes, I have so many that I let them sit on the shelves a little longer and they are fine,” said Anderson.

Bonnie Anderson

Andre Lee Ellis has also evolved into an urban farmer. Starting out, he just wanted to engage with youth. On Saturdays, he would enlist community youth to help clean up the neighborhood as part of his “We Got This” program. The program, which mentors young men, is now in its ninth year. Ellis and the “We Got This” volunteers work with the youth to plant and maintain a community garden on Ninth and Burleigh Streets. This community gardening program is now part of the Groundwork Milwaukee Program which oversees 85-100 community gardens throughout Milwaukee. It’s also one of three ‘health hubs’ that Groundwork Milwaukee is working with as part of a pilot health equity project. One of the goals of the project is to address food insecurity and promote food access through community gardening and community engagement.

Ellis’ program is particularly popular among neighborhood youth. On any given Saturday he attracts a host of community and business leaders, who stop by to observe, mentor, encourage the youth, and to donate funds to support the program.

“Each year more and more youth come out on Saturdays. They clean up the neighborhood and tend the garden. We pay them $20 for four hours of work every Saturday. Some of the young people have been with the program since they were 12 years old and they are now in high school. There is nothing like watching vegetables grow, then being able to eat what you planted in the soil. The kids love it,” said Ellis.

Ellis said that this year’s community gardening program will start in mid- June. Because of COVID-19, he may need the youth to register if they desire to be involved. The details are still being worked out.

“Some of the youth from “We Got This” recently participated in a cooking demonstration hosted by Chef Marvin Jones and Groundwork Milwaukee. The demonstration aimed to teach the youth how to prepare healthy meals. Chef Marvin was remarkable. The Healthy Eating and Living volunteers brought masks, sanitizer, and other items to help everyone stay safe. It was a great time,” said Ellis.

Not everyone has green thumbs or the space to plant gardens like the Andersons and Ellis, but everyone can learn to prepare and nutritious meals and involve the children. It does not take a lot of time or effort. Speaking from personal experience, Chef Marvin said that he first became interested in cooking by watching his father cook on Saturdays.

“My dad insisted that his sons learn to cook. I am a product of a parent who believed you had to listen and pay attention to learn. My brothers and I had to stand around the kitchen, watch and answer my dad’s questions. If we did not respond correctly, it meant we were going to have a long day,” laughed Chef Marvin.

Chef Marvin does not advocate that approach to teaching children good nutrition or healthy eating. He does believe children should be involved in the food preparation process— whether it is gardening or going to the grocery store to purchase food. “Cooking and involving children with food preparation should be fun. I make it part of a game where there is no pressure or stigma. There are lots of ways to involve children and teach them about nutrition and healthy preparation of food. Start out preparing healthy desserts, then move into vegetables. Sweets catch their attention. Once you have them engaged, show them how to build a spinach tower. It is going to get a little messy in the kitchen so be prepared for that because it is more than worth it since you are instilling something invaluable in them,” said Chef Marvin.

Chef Marvin also advocates establishing a set time to sit down for meals with the family.

“In the western world we don’t celebrate food like other countries do. In many countries the meal is an ‘event’. You sit down as a family, enjoy the food, and conversation takes place. These days, we’re so busy that once the meal is prepared, everyone just comes in whenever, and helps themselves. There is no formal time set for dinner. There was a time when— no matter what you were doing—unless you had a really good excuse, everyone sat down for dinner at a certain time,” he said. Groundwork Milwaukee oversees a network of community gardens that are started and maintained by residents who want to activate unused space in their neighborhoods. Most of the gardens are used to grow fresh produce in raised garden beds while others serve as recreational greenspace and still others function as fullscale farms.

Groundwork collaborates with gardeners to provide legal and safe access to city-owned vacant space, materials and labor for garden builds and maintenance, and planning and training of health-based educational and recreational programming in the gardens. Individuals interested in starting a community garden should contact Groundwork Milwaukee at (414) 763-9947.

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The Healthy Eating and Active Living Milwaukee (HEAL) is a culturally-tailored program that aims to provide education, resources to secure healthy foods, and active living supports for adults at-risk for developing lifestyle-related diseases; and, to empower adults to make changes in their physical and social environment to improve nutrition and physical activity. ‘Like’ their Facebook page that’s full of videos of healthy recipes and low-cost, no-cost exercise.