Growing up I loved helping my mother in the garden. Not only is gardening an excuse to get dirty, which many children love, it is also an opportunity to tend to something, watch it grow and in the case of food, eventually enjoy. Gardening involves science, math, geography, and environmental education. You get to be moderately active and outside (if tending an outdoor garden) — away from a television, smart-phone, and other electronics. It gives children a sense of empowerment, and opportunity to learn patience, problem solving, and if working with others can teach social skills, community, generosity, and more. Studies show that helping in the garden increases a child’s interest in food, nutrition, and increases curiosity and a willingness to try fruit and vegetables — especially those they have help in growing.
Gardening takes work. A lot of work. But the payoff is rewarding. Between our various activities, classes, travel, and leisure during the summer months, it is easy for our gardens to run away from us. But no matter the weather, my favorite plants to grow that do well indoors and out, are easy enough for a child to grow, and instant flavor booster for pretty much every dish: Herbs.
I cannot sing enough praises for herbs– and they work wonders in the kids kitchen as a way to explore new cuisines, flavors, and learn connections between those cuisines. Think about it: cilantro is used heavily in both south Asian and south American dishes.
Great for many reasons but four of my favorite include:
1) Many are perennials. Meaning they return year after year with little effort on your part.
2) Herbs pack a nutritional punch many are unaware of. Don’t be afraid to use them as the highlight of a dish!
3) Many can be harvested throughout the year. [ Yes, even in winter months.]
4) Many can be grown indoors!
What to Grow.
I’m going to briefly discuss some easy-to-grow indoor plants. Most of the students I work with live in cities with little outdoor space, or are in classrooms, so I’m concentrating here on windowsill gardens. Even if you have outdoor space, a windowsill garden is a fun rainy day activity to start, or to bring a little summer inside during the winter. You can jump to the bottom if you’re interested in fun and interesting ways to store and use your herbs.
Most herbs do very well indoors, but one that everyone seems to want to grow that does poorly indoors (and makes us think we have a black thumb) is basil. It is fickle with watering, gets long and leggy as it grows, and usually develops a few pathetic leaves past the ones it arrived with (if growing from a starter) before dying out. From experience in my kid cooking kitchen, basil– or as many of my students call it “the pizza plant,” is usually one of the easiest herbs to recognize and enjoy, but unless you’re a real indoor garden pro I recommend trying some easier growing herbs.
Right behind basil in the difficult category are cilantro, sage and rosemary. I have found cilantro difficult to grow indoors and out, which is really too bad because I think it’s a great versatile herb, and I use it often in the kid cooking kitchen.
So what is easy to grow?
I have found plants that require partial sun outdoors tend to do best indoors. Also, plants that naturally do well in containers are big winners indoors.
Bay. Not necessarily a kid favorite. It’s slow to grow and most people don’t tend to use it everyday. But it does well in containers and come cold weather, just think of all those chili and soup dishes you can use that bay in. I also love to steep my cheese sauce for mac n’ cheese with a bay leaf or two.
Chives. Pick up a small start plant from a nursery or split one from a friend for fast results. Seeds are pretty easy to get going though too. Chives are very rewarding. Both the blossoms and the stems can be eaten. When harvesting the stems you can cut them to the base and they’ll keep growing. They are great for kids because the flavor is a mild mix garlic-sweet onion flavor. It tastes great on eggs, from scrambled to deviled, inside frittatas, and more. Sprinkle chopped chives, or blossoms, over chicken, salads, or puree them into sauces. Freeze them, infuse them. Let your kids get creative.
Garlic. That stinky bulb is super easy to grow. Just stick a clove, pointy side up in some soil and watch it pop up! The tender greens can be clipped and used like chives. Just before flowering, clip it back for garlic scapes, then leave it alone (keep watering, but not clipping) for about 3 months to grow into a whole bulb.
Lemon Balm. In the mint family, lemon balm is difficult to find in the grocery, but an outdoor gardeners favorite. These very pungent lemony leaves are a huge hit with kids. In the kid cooking classroom my students go nuts for lemon balm. You can use fresh leaves to make a Lemon(Balm)ade, or iced tea. A simple syrup infused with lemon balm makes a refreshing sorbet or seltzer spritzer. Dried, it can be a rub on chicken or fish, or mixed into meatballs, and grain dishes like mint. One of the easiest and fun to watch ways to introduce a mint-family plant to your indoor windowsill garden is to take a cutting from an existing plant and stick it in water until it sprouts before transferring to soil. You can also just clip a segment of mint and stick it in moist soil. Mint is forgiving and likes moist soil so is great for kids with heavy watering hands.
Mint. Next to basil this is probably the most popular herb in the kid cooking kitchen. When you start sharing all the amazing things mint goes in — toothpaste, chewing gum, ice cream, iced tea, and more — kids are pretty interested in mint. The leaves are also extremely fragrant, as are the stems. An all around fun and great smelling plant. In class, many of my students enjoy chewing on the mint stems as they work (breath freshener). I like to infuse simple syrup and honey with mint to mix into tea or pour over fruit, a simple cake, or ice cream. Mint dries very easily and makes a great rub on lamb, and fish, mixed into rice or other grain dish, like tabouleh, and other Mediterranean dishes. (See lemon balm above for how to grow.)
Parsley. One of the hardest herbs to grow from a seed so I recommend a purchasing a starter, or splitting one from an established garden. Once growing though, parsley is easy to keep up with, very rewarding, and can be used in almost any dish.
Fun Ways to Use Herbs- Even for kids!
Bake Them. Kids love baking of any kind. From breads to muffins to cookies, you name it. Why not invent a new flavor by adding some chopped herbs? Basil-Cheddar Quick Bread. Rosemary-Yogurt Cake. Be creative. Use a bunch.
Bath Salts. (Not edible but a fun way to use those herbs.) Dry your herbs (see below), crush, then mix your favorite combo with Epsom salt for bath time. A great way to get kids (and adults) to enjoy bath time — with their own soothing herbal blend. It also makes a great gift! Be creative. How about thyme-lavender? Lemon balm-bay?
Blitz it Up. I mentioned herbs pack a nutritional punch– much more than people are aware. So how to make them the highlight of your dish rather than a garnish? My favorite way when they are fresh is in a sauce. Think about pesto on herbal steroids (if that’s possible). When my herbs go out of control, or any leafy greens for that matter, I make an herb sauce. In fact, you can probably find some green sauce in my refrigerator, or freezer, most days. My favorite is a 1-to-1 ratio of cilantro-basil. Or a 1-to-1-to-1 of ciltantro-basil-mint. But really, any combination of herbs will work. Use stems and leaves with those plump, watery herbs (like basil and cilantro), and leaves only for the woodier herbs (mint, rosemary, and oregano). Add a clove or two of garlic, salt to taste, and slowly add enough water to puree it until it all comes together. No cheese. No nuts. It’s a recipe that can’t go wrong and easy enough for kids to master with a push of a button. I douse chicken, lamb, fish, or beef with this sauce (before or after being cooked). Mix a heavy ladle-full into pasta, soup, meatballs, rice, or anything that might might be considered a side. I use it as salad dressing, or mixed into hummus, or even marinades. Mixed into, or on top of eggs for some “green eggs.” But my favorite quick recipe is picking up some calamari ($2 to $3 a pound fresh), cooking them with a dash of coconut oil over high heat for 2 minutes then tossing them with a wallop of the green sauce.
Dairy. Make a dry herb blend, see below, then roll a goat cheese log in it. Voila, your child has just made a tasty and beautiful addition to the appetizer tray or picnic. Or have kids chop fresh herbs, mix into room temperature butter or cream cheese and refrigerate or freeze. Spread on to bread or toast — or use as your butter in baking, or sauteing a savory dish.
Dry It. Those woodier herbs and flowers are a snap to dry. Think rosemary, oregano, chamomile, thyme, mint, anise hyssop, lavender. An easy method is to spread cheesecloth over a cooling rack (then place that over a cookie sheet if you need to transport it) and spread well washed herbs, stems and all. The cooling rack allows for air circulation and the cheesecloth catches smaller herbs. Once dry, kids can crush the dried leaves off the stems and into a bowl, then funnel into recycled spice containers, or small jars. You can also cut dry herbs with salt for flavored salts.
Dry Rubs. This is fun, makes a great gift, is a great way to invent and experiment with new flavors, and is a great way to go through a bounty of herbs. Think herbes de provence, the French mixture of herbs. You can tailor a mix to a specific flavor, like lavender-mint to rub onto lamb – or make general herb bouquet flavors that can be rubbed on protein before grilling, or used in many of the same ways the fresh blitz up, above, is used.
Flavor Water. It’s so simple a child can do it and can make drinking plain water more flavorful. Let fresh herbs steep in water for a few hours and voila. Flavored water. Sliced up cucumber is also a fun way to flavor water.
Flower Power. Herb flowers are edible (basil blossoms, mint blossoms, etc) and a beautiful way to jazz up a salad, dry rub, dairy mix, or infusion. Kids tend to love eating edible flowers too and its a great way to introduce them to various herbs since they usually have less intense flavors than the leaves.
Freeze in Olive Oil. Mix fresh chopped herbs with just enough olive oil to cover and freeze in small, single tablespoon-sized containers, or in dollops on a cookie sheet. Kids can help chop herbs and ladle into ice cube trays. Once frozen, transfer to a freezer bag to save space.
Infuse: Honey, Oil and Vinegar. I had a bumper crop of chamomile this year in my garden. There is always a jug of iced tea steeping in my fridge with a handful of chamomile, or some chamomile-lemonade, but my favorite mixtures by far are my chamomile olive oil and chamomile honey. The olive oil especially is floral, light and unexpected. I drizzle it over salads, chicken, dips — or simply use it as a dip. You can do this with any herb or edible flower. Use dried herbs. Crush in mortal and pestle (fun for kids) then funnel crushed herbs into honey, olive oil or vinegar. The quantity depends on the flavor intensity. Start with about 2 tablespoons per quart. You can use a single herb, or combination. Think chamomile oil, chive blossom vinegar, mint-oregano oil, sage-honey, and more. What child doesn’t want to make and share a homemade salad dressing with their own combo of infused honey-oil-vinegar.
Kebab It. Have kids help thread protein or vegetables on a rosemary, oregano, or mint “skewer” then grill it up.
Syrup. Combine one part sugar or honey with one part water. Heat until sugar dissolves then add a handful of herb(s), cover, and let steep about 10 minutes. Strain out the leaves. Use it on your pancakes, drizzle over cakes, muffins, or fresh fruit, mixed into plain seltzer, stirred into tea, or (almost) wherever your child can think it might be tasty.
Tea (Iced or Hot). Similar to Dry Rubs above, invent a flavor combination and go for it. You can steep fresh or a lesser amount of dry herbs to make refreshing iced or hot teas. Play with new flavors – clover-thyme, or lemon balm-mint.