Category - Julie Swank

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Summer Kids Gardening and Eating Adventures
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Stealth Health – Tales From the Toddler Dinner Table

Summer Kids Gardening and Eating Adventures

By: Julie Swank

Warm summer days have finally arrived in Northern Vermont and it’s been a fun family project to get our garden started for the year. My son has been lugging buckets of water to his favorite plants and helping plant seeds…everywhere. If you’ve spent any time with a toddler, you know that you can’t always plan where the plants and holes end up in your garden, but the time spent exploring and learning about plants is endlessly worth any of the garden “surprises” that happen along the way.

After many years of teaching in the garden and on the farm, I’m convinced kids will eat almost anything if they get a chance to grow it themselves. Even a bold-flavored radish can be enticing when picked glowing and colorful from the ground yourself. This vegetable devouring transformation doesn’t always happen overnight. Something happens organically (pardon the pun) as time passes in the garden and kids watch these amazing living things turn sunlight, water, and soil into something they can eat and enjoy. Spending time tucking a seed into the earth, waiting for the sprout to grow, to watching the kale grow up and unfurl curly leaves – who says plants aren’t magic?

Connecting food through stories and books is another way to inspire healthful food adventures. My son and I have been enjoying a book about a father and son making a pizza with ingredients they harvest in their garden. It still amazes me how even pre-literate kids can remember so many details from books. If that story involves characters eating a new tasty crunchy vegetable, all the better!   

Theme gardens or beds are a great way to connect the dots for little ones to understand how food grows from the ground. If you haven’t planted your garden yet, consider popping in some starts or seeds that you can cook together later into a tasty treat with your little helpers.  Then read a story in the shade on a warm day after all that hard work – what could be better? Here are my favorite pairings for garden plantings based around meals and some stories to go along!

Stir fry bed: Pac choi, carrots, broccoli, napa cabbage, peas, and beans. The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin. Don’t let the title fool you, this is a veggie-positive story!

Salsa bed: Tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, and cilantro. Add a jalapeño pepper plant to the mix if you have really brave kiddos – they’re one of the mildest chiles.
Green is a Chile Pepper, by Roseanne Greenfield Thong

Salad bed: Lettuces, green mixes, radishes, edible flowers (calendula, nasturtium, viola, pansies, Bachelor’s button).
Jack’s Garden by Henry Cole or Up in the Garden Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner (a Vermont author!) have beautiful pictures and descriptions of the cycle of a garden through the seasons.

Pizza garden – Tomatoes, peppers, basil, onions. If you can find wheat seeds, plant a row or strip for the “crust.”
Pizza Day by Melissa Iwai

Check out your local library or bookstore to find these books. Happy summer gardening, reading, and eating!


Julie Swank is a farmer, a school garden and nutrition educator, and most recently a mom, which has put all of her skills to the test to keep her busy two-year-old healthy and fed. She loves to connect people to their food by sharing advice from the kitchen and getting hands in the soil on the farm.  You can find her in the kitchen cooking meals for her son’s preschool, Four Seasons of Early Learning, and tending gardens in Greensboro, VT.

Stealth Health – Tales From the Toddler Dinner Table

By: Julie Swank

If he had his own way, my son would subsist entirely on pancakes. In his words, “with syrup AND jam.” As a garden nutrition educator, I’m embarrassed to admit this, since I work hard to convince kids they love kale and beets over more sugar-laden food options. And here’s my own son double fisting pancakes drenched in syrup. 

I have to remember that I, as the well meaning adult in this picture, am in charge of helping my young one develop his palate to enjoy many different tastes and flavors. But a child’s love for all things carbohydrate and sugar can leave even the most determined parent feeling defeated from time to time at the dinner table. 

This is a good place to introduce the idea of stealth health, from the “if you can’t beat them, join ‘em” category of parenting advice. While it’s still important to introduce foods raw or solo for young kids to get a taste for them, sometimes you need to get creative to get all the nutrition you can into their growing bodies. I’m taking a page from my mom on this one, who had many vegetable pancake variations, most of which were not well received by my younger self. Corn, zucchini, and carrots all made appearances at the breakfast table, met with many a complaint from me to “just have normal pancakes.”

Well, here I am as an adult who loves many different kinds of veggies, so my mom’s persistence paid off. We’re in for the long haul teaching food habits to kids – food preferences are MUCH easier to shape at a young age.  However, this might not always look perfect. For example, my son tasting a bite of spinach and spitting it out onto my plate…but his excited “I tried it!” is a step in the right direction. We’ll work more on manners, but exposure to many different tastes in the toddler years will help our young ones become adventurous eaters as adults. 

Here are some fun ideas from the stealth health kitchen:

  • Pasta and pizza are often easy “wins” with kids – who doesn’t love them? Purée steamed kale or broccoli, roasted beets, or other veggies into the tomato sauce for extra nutrients. This also works for meatloaf or meatballs – add 1 cup of puréed veggies to your regular recipe. 
  • Take it from brussels sprouts, they got a lot more popular once they met bacon. Use small amounts of cheese or bacon to make a previously unpopular vegetables shine. 
  • If you’re desperate, you can always hide veggies! I often slip the kale and spinach under the cheese in a pizza. Also, grated or sliced veggies (raw or cooked) can easily be tucked into sandwiches and wraps without too much of a fuss.
  • Give in a little bit to a toddler’s love of sugar by roasting root vegetables like parsnips, carrots, and beets to bring out their natural sugars. Cut them in wedges and have “rainbow french fries”!

This pancake recipe is popular in our house and a great way to sneak some extra nutrients into breakfast without your picky eaters noticing. Enjoy! 

Carrot Apple Pancakes

  • 2 large carrots, grated
  • 1 large apple, grated
  • 1 cup plain yogurt + ½ cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 ½ tsp. baking soda
  • 2 Tbs. granulated sugar
  • 1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
  • ½  tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp ginger (dried or fresh)
  • ½ cup raisins (optional)

Mix flour, baking soda, sugar, raisins, and spices together in a bowl.  Separately, whisk eggs, milk, and yogurt together and then stir in the grated carrot and apple. Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients, being careful to not overmix (this makes pancakes tough). Fry on a pancake griddle, or in a little oil on a skillet until crispy and risen a bit. 


Julie Swank is a farmer, a school garden and nutrition educator, and most recently a mom, which has put all of her skills to the test to keep her busy two-year-old healthy and fed. She loves to connect people to their food by sharing advice from the kitchen and getting hands in the soil on the farm.  You can find her in the kitchen cooking meals for her son’s preschool, Four Seasons of Early Learning, and tending gardens in Greensboro, VT.