Every week I look forward to my Thursday afternoons, where I get to spend 45 minutes with Mrs. Martel’s Kindergarten class, a great group of brave taste testers who always greet me with smiles and cheers of ”Ms. Lisa is here!” As I walked into their class last week I carried a whole butternut squash like a baby in one arm and balanced my book and the sample cups in the other. The students looked at me disgusted, saying "I hate squash,” a sentiment that spreads like wild fire among the other kids. I knew I'd have my work cut out for me to change their looks of horror into intrigue and excitement in just 30 minutes.
Squash is a wonderful winter vegetable or fruit depending on whether you are teaching from a nutritional or botanical perspective. Botanically speaking it’s a fruit since it contains the seeds. But dietitians actually classify many botanical fruits, such as squash, tomatoes, or eggplant as vegetables, because their sugar levels are much lower than what we think of as a traditional fruit. However, for kindergarteners squash is simply a mysterious orange vegetable that reminds them of the mushy baby food they used to eat. As a FoodCorps service member in Putnam, Connecticut, I teach nutrition and garden education classes with the main goals of connecting kids to real food, helping them understand where it comes from and how it can help them grow up healthy. Reaching kids at an early age improves the chances of this learning taking root and instilling passion and enthusiasm surrounding meal time.
It is so important to create a safe environment for the students when they’re trying new foods, which is why I design an entire lesson around one important vegetable. This alleviates the pressure that often surrounds the child when trying a new food at the dinner table and they aren’t allowed to leave until they do. I always start with a story about learning to love your vegetables or how they grow, and on this day it was “Sophie’s Squash” by Pat Miller. The students quietly listened as I read about a little who girl who befriends a butternut squash she picked out from the farmer’s market. One day her squash begins to rot. In hopes of curing her squashes illness, Sophie plants it in the ground right before winter. Come spring, all that’s left of the squash is a new tiny sprout. When I asked the students “What happened to Sophie’s friend?” I saw tiny light bulbs going off in their heads. That ‘ah-ha’ moment of understanding the new sprout originated from Sophie’s squash was truly amazing to watch.
After warming the students up to the idea of loving squash through a story, it was time to taste some. I had a hunch butternut squash might propose a challenge and therefore, brought reinforcements by offering a homemade veggie stamp to anyone who was willing to try a piece. This worked like a charm. Everyone’s hands went up for a taste of this locally grown vegetable. The first student bravely took a bite of the warm seasoned squash and declared, “I love it!” Then all 17 students tried their samples and a beautiful chorus of “yums” filled the room. One little girl named Luna cried “it tastes like French fries!”
As they gobbled up the squash samples, I showed them a full squash that I had cut lengthwise, exposing the different shade of orange in the center along with the seeds. They loved exploring it and comparing the rough outside to the soft inside, squishing it beneath their tiny fingers. Allowing the students to use all five senses to experience the new vegetable helped them find more ways they can describe it. Their focus shifted from how it tastes to what it looks, feels, and smells like as well as how the plant grows from a seed into the vegetable on their plate, helping establish a deeper connection between the students and their food. Their classroom teacher stared in amazement, watching students who are usually reluctant to try new foods eat the squash with me. It’s all about creating a space where the student is having fun learning about the food, and are given a context for it.
As I walked around the room giving the kids second and third helpings of this delicious vegetable, a sense of accomplish washed over me. Even if it was just one class and one new vegetable, I know I opened a door for these students. By the end of the year I’m sure we will be onto tasting tomatillos or cucamelons, which are some tasty exotic vegetables everyone should try.
- 1 large butternut squash
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Cut the butternut squash in two and scoop out the seeds. Wash the middle and cut away the peel with either a vegetable peeler or a knife. Always go away from your body.
- Chop the squash into fry sticks.
- In a bowl, evenly coat the squash fries with oil and spices.
- Spread fries out evenly on a baking tray so they are in a single layer.
- Roast for 25 minutes or until golden and crisp. Then enjoy!