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Column: Get kids involved in the kitchen, garden

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Multiple studies show that the more children are involved with their diet, the healthier they eat. The process of experiencing planting a seed, watching the plant grow, preparing the fruit and vegetables, and then eating them can be a lifelong learning experience that promotes healthy eating.

Studies have proven that when kids are able to be involved in gardening, their fruit and vegetable intake increases. Kids can develop a sense of ownership when helping select items at the grocery store or selecting items for meals. Benefits of eating together for family meal time include developing a foundation of lifelong healthy eating habits, maintaining a healthy weight and even performing better in school.

So how do we get our young kids to take an interest in a healthy diet? I'm living through that question everyday because luckily my 16-month-old demands to help out in the gardens and while cooking.

Try to get kids to experience food where it all begins, the garden. There are many ways to be involved. Of course, having fruit and vegetable plants in your yard allows for easy access. However, if you don't have space for a garden, try to have containers on your deck or patio, small herb pots in the kitchen or rent a community garden plot. If you really don't have a green thumb, a visit to a local orchard, farm or greenhouse can be an exciting learning experience. Select plants that grow quickly such as lettuce, beans, strawberries or cherry tomatoes. Seeing fast results will help keep it exciting for kids. Assign them gardening chores such as weeding and watering.

Once in the kitchen, there is a variety of chores that little ones can help with. Kids of any ages can help with washing. Fill a deep bowl with water, and allow younger kids to "scrub" vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. Or if your child is old enough, allow them to stand by the sink and use the faucet to wash produce.

Older children can help cutting and slicing. If they do not have the ability to use a sharp knife, they may be able to use a plastic knife and slice soft items such as bananas, mushrooms or soft cheese. My little one insists on helping stir. Be sure to provide close supervision when allowing little ones to stir hot items.

Kids can also help portion out items for meal time or items to be packed and stored for later. Place one ear of corn on every plate, put a scoop of potatoes on every plate, layer yogurt and berries in cups for breakfast yogurt parfaits or select two snacks from the cupboard and place them in your lunch box for tomorrow. If you want the kids away from the food for a moment, have them count out plates, silverware and glassware, and set the table.

Give children a choice when it comes to their meals. When offering a choice, be sure to include specifics: make it a this-or-that question, not an open-ended question. Ask "would you like spaghetti or tacos? If we're having tacos, would you like lettuce, tomatoes or both?"

By asking a this-or-that question, you still have control of the meal, but you provide your children with a sense of ownership over the selection. Keep meals fun and exciting. Plan a theme such as picnic night. Throw a blanket on the floor and sit down for an indoor picnic.

Remember to follow food safety rules. Wash hands before and after touching food. Use sharp items or hot items only under close supervision. Avoid foods that may be a choking hazard for small children. Once these rules are in place, don't be afraid to have fun, explore and get a bit messy.