Early Sprouts: Cultivating Healthy Food Choices in Young Children

early sproutsEarly Sprouts was recently featured on the Gro More Garden Grants Webinar Series hosted by the National Head Start Association, Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation, and KidsGardening.

"I hope we are making greens today.  I miss having greens."

"I just love bell peppers.  Do you have any more?

"I prefer to eat chard raw."

"Can I take a few seeds home to plant?"

These are just a few of the incredible quotes Dr. Karrie Kalich has recorded from preschoolers participating in the Early Sprouts Program developed at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire.  Centered around a working garden and using food as a unifying concept, the program engages young children in growing, harvesting, preparing and then enjoying nutritious seasonal produce, providing them with the full "seed to table" experience.  Their outpouring of enthusiasm for vegetables, along with positive evaluation results, bring hope to parents and early childhood educators nationwide that it is possible to reverse the alarming trend of declining health in our youth today.

"The current obesity epidemic is the fastest growing public health concern in the United States," shares Dr. Kalich, "with some of the most dramatic increases observed among preschool-age children.   The prevalence of obesity in this age group has more than doubled in the past 30 years.  Only one percent of preschool-age children meet all of the dietary recommendations established by the USDA."

Inspired by her own experiences working at a community support agriculture program on an organic farm, Kalich led a team of nutrition and early childhood faculty to develop the Early Sprouts program.  "While I was working at the CSA, I observed the excitement of our members as they picked up their shares.  It seemed like such an ideal setting that people felt attached to.  So I decided why not teach nutrition through the garden?  It provides opportunities to introduce practical discussions about what people should eat more and less of, without overwhelming them with the medical side of nutrition education."

Early Sprouts focuses on 6 target vegetables with 24 weekly, research-based lessons.  The 6 target vegetables — carrots, green beans, bell peppers, tomatoes, Swiss chard and butternut squash — are grown in schoolyard raised beds, allowing students to have hands-on experiences planting, caring for and harvesting a garden.  Each week, teachers spotlight one of these vegetables (each vegetable is spotlighted 4 times) by leading a sensory experience to introduce children to the new foods using all their senses, conducting a cooking lesson to allow them to prepare and then taste nutritious and delicious snacks and meals containing their vegetable, and then preparing a take-home  kit with the ingredients and directions to make the new recipe at home.

Each component of the program provides a key element for changing eating behaviors.  Gardening provides them with a strong connection to the food along with an enthusiasm and sense of pride from growing it themselves.  The sensory experience helps students overcome their innate fear of new food through hands-on exploration.  The cooking lesson, during which children participate as much as possible, from measuring, cutting, and mixing to preparing the foods for serving, instills a sense of accomplishment and provides multiple opportunities and ways to taste the new food.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the take-home kit engages family members who are most often the biggest influencing factor on a child's eating habits.

"We chose to focus on young children because they are just starting to form their eating habits and guiding the development of habits is much easier than trying to change them once established. Between the ages of 2 and 5 years, children become increasingly responsive to external cues and about what and how much they should eat."

early sproutsIn addition to nutrition, the curriculum also teaches science as children learn about the cycle of life, math as they measure and count ingredients, art through time spent drawing in the garden and physical activity as they shovel, plow, dig and explore.

To further support early childhood educators in implementing Early Sprouts and other nutrition-focused curricula, The Early Sprouts Institute was created, offering a diverse selection of in depth, high-quality professional development opportunities. The online trainings are self-paced and designed to be flexible to fit the busy educators schedules. Courses included: Early Sprouts Online, Growing Healthy Eaters and Active Play Every Day.

Early Sprouts Institute Program Coordinator Lynn Arnold recently spoke about the program on the Gro More Garden Grants Webinar Series Creating Edible Garden Programs to Support Nutrition Education, created through a partnership with the National Head Start Association, Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation and KidsGardening. (Register here to view a recorded copy of the webinar.)  Lynn shared that, “Since we started Early Sprouts more than ten years ago, we’ve heard from early childhood programs across the country that have adopted the curriculum and approach in their centers. It’s exciting to see so many early-care professionals who are dedicated to improving the eating behaviors and health of their students and families. Adults are often surprised and thrilled when they discover that children will not only start eating vegetables, they’ll also eat them enthusiastically when they’ve been involved in growing, exploring, and preparing them.”

The curriculum was thoroughly evaluated through questionnaires, taste tests and focus groups.  They found a significant change in whether children reported liking the target and other vegetables and also an increase in children’s willingness to taste target and other vegetables.   Their initial study also saw an increase in fruit and vegetable availability and consumption in the home, and 6 of the 40 families involved in the first pilot started a garden at home after the experience. The program impact reaches far beyond the participating children, as one parent shows in her quote: "Katie (four years old) and her seven-year-old brother helped me make the sesame green beans - the whole family ate it - even my husband, the I-won't-eat-anything-green person, ate it!"

In a society dominated by fast food, the challenge of altering eating behaviors is great and the need for change is immediate.  However, as Early Sprouts shows, it can be accomplished, one garden at a time.

Recipe Ideas from Early Sprouts

early sproutsChinese Green Beans
Estimated Time: 35-45 minutes  

For this recipe, you will need…

1 ½ lbs. green beans
2 TBSP unsalted butter
2 TBSP low-sodium tamari
2 tsp. lemon juice (1/2 lemon squeezed)
8 cups of water  

Basic Method

  • In a nonstick skillet melt butter over low heat on the stovetop.
  • Place a large pot of water on another burner and bring to a boil.
  • Clean and de-stem green beans; snap beans in half.
  • Once the butter has melted, remove from heat and with a wooden spoon stir in tamari and lemon juice. Set aside.
  • Add the green beans to the boiling water and blanch for 5 minutes, or until tender.
  • Turn off heat and drain green beans in a colander.
  • Add the green beans to the butter/tamari mixture and gently toss to combine.

Confetti Corn Muffins

For this recipe, you will need…

Vegetable oil cooking spray

1/2 bell pepper

3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1 cup cornmeal (fine milled)

1/2 cup white whole wheat flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cups low-fat plain yogurt

3 tablespoons honey

2 large eggs

3 tablespoons canola or safflower oil

Basic Method:

  • Preheat oven to 400 Fahrenheit.  Coat muffin tins well with vegetable oil cooking spray.
  • Clean, de-seed and finely dice bell pepper.  Grate cheese and set pepper and cheese aside.
  • Combine cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in large mixing bowl.
  • Whisk together: yogurt, honey, eggs, and oil in medium mixing bowl.
  • Create a well in center of the dry ingredient mixture and fill with wet mixture.  Gently stir batter until all dry ingredients are incorporated.  Do not over-stir.
  • Gently fold 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese into the batter.
  • Use 1 oz. ladle to fill oiled muffin tins to about 3/4 full.  Sprinkle the diced bell peppers onto the tops of the uncooked muffins, followed by the remaining 1/4 cup cheddar cheese.
  • Bake 15-20 minutes or until muffins are golden brown.  Allow to cool slightly before removing from pans.  Transfer to lined basket, serve, and enjoy!