Minnesota is no stranger to farmers markets, with more than 50 in the Twin Cities. The popularity of these markets points toward a better understanding of the importance of good food -- not just how it tastes, but where it comes from and how it's grown.
But the markets offer even more: an educational site for the kids. (Just don't tell them it's a lesson.)
For Gunar and Erica Gossard of Minneapolis, coming to the Mill City Farmers Market is a way of life during summer. They shop there about three times a month and buy 75 to 80 percent of their fruits and vegetables. Daughters Nora, 6, and Maren, 5, are also big fans of their Saturday morning adventures, which include sampling the various fruits and veggies that the vendors hand out.
And while Maren admits to loving the mini-doughnuts they occasionally get at a nearby food truck, "we like the little tomatoes, too," says Nora. "Especially the bursty ones."
With so many enticing options displayed at each vendor's stall (right at eye level for the younger kids, what better teachable moment!), it's not too hard to get them to try something new. "Kids get to see what all the different vegetables look like and learn about some of the more unusual varieties that you won't find at the grocery store," says Laura Frerichs of Loon Organics. "Like romanesco, a type of cauliflower with lime green spiral flowerettes. Kids get really excited about it because it kind of looks like a vegetable from outer space."
Follow through at mealtime
If they find something that piques their interest at the market, it's a good bet they'll try it at the dinner table, which makes it a wonderful place to share a love of healthy eating with kids in a way that doesn't feel like a stern lesson -- or even a lesson at all.
"If I pick out a vegetable myself, I will definitely be more interested in eating it at home," says Grant Harstad, 12, of Eden Prairie, who came to the Mill City Farmers Market with his mom and friends. Even better? Get the kids to help you cook the food, which makes it even more likely they'll taste it.
For Lindsey and Emil Meindl of Fridley, though, the benefits of bringing their children, Mason, 2, and Wesley, 1, to the market goes beyond getting them to love vegetables. "It's important to show the kids where food comes from and who grows it," says Lindsey. "We want them to see that food doesn't just come in prewrapped packages."
The chance to talk to farmers who actually grow the food is an education in itself, both for child and parent. Being able to ask how the produce is grown, or even better, the farmer's favorite way to eat or cook an ingredient, is priceless.
"I love making kale chips," says Frerichs, who often makes the crunchy, addictive snacks with dinosaur kale, a variety she sells at her stall. "The recipe seems to be a gateway to greens for kids."
Susan Dietrich of Very Prairie, which sells a variety of handmade crackers, goat cheese and pies at Mill City, thinks there are life lessons to be learned at a farmers market that go beyond the food itself. "Most vendors only take cash, so kids learn that money isn't just a plastic card," says Dietrich. "This is a great place to teach them the value of money and help them understand how budgets work."
Very Prairie, which has a Graham Cracker Club and hands out homemade grahams to pint-sized shoppers (with parental permission), is a popular destination for families that return to the market season after season. "I have kids that are older now who have been coming here since they were newborns," says Dietrich. "The farmers market is a place they can learn about community, how to develop relationships and, really, how to shop. It's a different experience than they get by plucking items off a shelf and tossing them into a cart."
If the farmers market hasn't been on your radar this summer, make a point of giving it a try, whether or not you have children to bring along. (You can always borrow the neighbors' kids!) The lessons aren't just for the children.
Meredith Deeds of Edina is the author of "Everyday to Entertaining" and "The Big Book of Appetizers." Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.