Involving kids in growing, planning and cooking food can empower picky eaters and improve the diversity of diet for the whole family.
Erin O'Dwyer

9 May 2019 - 2:01 PM  UPDATED 9 May 2019 - 3:26 PM

Robyn Paterson used to tear her hair out trying to feed her daughter Keeley. The little girl would eat nothing green and try nothing new – a story that will be frustratingly familiar to many parents.

“She was happy eating plain food,” says Robyn Paterson, from Taylors Hill, in Melbourne’s north west. “Bread with no butter, plain potatoes, nothing mixed together, it was really hard.”

Life changed for the better when Keeley went into grade 4 at Parkwood Green Primary School and enrolled in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program. She was a reluctant starter but gradually began to try new foods – foods that she had grown herself in the school veggie patch and which she then helped prepare in the school kitchen. Now 11, she is healthier and happier.

“Her diet changed because she was willing to give new foods a go,” says her mum. “She ate risotto with pumpkin and chicken, and when she made pita bread at school, she wanted to make pita bread at home. Her diet is much broader now. We make muffins together and she’ll make a vegetable soup. Having ownership over the process made the difference.”

Involving kids in growing, planning and cooking food can empower picky eaters and improve the diversity of diet among children and their families, says Josephene Duffy, chief executive officer of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation (SAKGF).

Duffy says kids who grow their own food become invested in eating it.

“They go home to their parents and say, ‘I want to eat this delicious food that we’ve grown at school and I want you to help me make it’,” Duffy says.

SAKGF’s kitchen garden program began as a pilot program in 2001, in response to the childhood obesity epidemic. One in four children are overweight or obese in Australia. It’s nearly one in three among adults. Says Duffy: “Children with obesity generally become adults with obesity. Our program is about introducing good food habits while kids are still young, curious and impressionable, and embedding that throughout their lives.”

Supported by Medibank, he program now operates in almost 2000 schools and pre-schools around Australia. Ideally children tend an organic vegetable garden at their school or centre once a week, then prepare and share delicious dishes in a purpose-built or flexible kitchen space, using the fresh seasonal produce they’ve grown.

Fresh produce, jams, sauces and pickles can be taken home or sold at the school gate to raise money for the school.

In response to better information about gut health, SAKGF now also ensures school recipes include kimchi, sauerkraut, sauces and pickled vegetables.

“We know that good gut health is becoming a more substantial piece of information in understanding overall health,” Duffy says.

“It makes sense from a gardening perspective as well. We teach kids to think creatively about what you can do with a glut of cabbage or how to get through the winter months. Not everyone likes sauerkraut at first. But we try to encourage a sense of experimentalism and creativity and having fun.”

Fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi, fresh fruit and vegetables and most importantly a diversity of food keeps the 100 trillion microbes – a whopping 2kg – that live in our guts, happy.

A healthy bacterial gut colony – otherwise known as the gut microbiome – has been linked to improvements in irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and stroke. A recent paper in Nature showed there is also increasing evidence to suggest good gut health is associated with improved brain function – from memory and social function to depression and neurodegenerative disease.

For Melbourne gastroenterologist Dr Nathan Connolly, the entry of the term ‘gut microbiome’ into common parlance is welcome. Although concrete scientific evidence connecting a healthy gut microbiome with improved health outcomes has been slow to emerge, he believes it is only a matter of time. He points to the Flemish Gut Flora Project - one of the world’s largest studies on the microbiome – which he says will be a game-changer in understanding how disturbances in gut flora can increase the risk of disease, from inflammatory bowel disease and diabetes, obesity and atherosclerosis to cancer.

“We can’t let the hype take over, we have to always look at the evidence,” Dr Connolly says. “But until then, you can’t ignore it. And in the meantime, looking at dietary change in conjunction with evidence-based medicine makes good common sense.”

Try these tips for incorporating gut-friendly food into the family diet to improve health for adults and kids alike.

Chicken soup for the soul

When it comes to changing eating habits for parents and children, nutritional scientist Dr Verena Raschke-Cheema directs her patients to the way we used to eat generations ago.

“We always had stocks and soups sitting on the stove,” says. “When we stopped eating those we lost important building blocks such as gelatine and collagen which are essential in maintaining gut walls.”

Chicken soup, made from scratch, once a week, provides the vitamins and minerals essential to rebuild the gut wall and prevent damage to the lining of the intestines, she says.

To prepare, caramelise onions, add ginger and garlic, then carrot, celery, a bay leaf, and a whole chicken. Cover with water, add apple cider vinegar, 1/2 tsp of turmeric, ½ tsp of coriander powder and herbs such as thyme and parsley to taste. Simmer for an hour, add salt for additional flavour, then serve. 

“Add leafy greens and vegetables that require less cooking towards the end,” Dr Verena says. “Try adding some buckwheat noodles for variety.”

Let them eat kraut

Fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut build diversity in gut bacteria. “You don’t need to make kimchi or sauerkraut yourself,” says Raschke-Cheema, “there are some fantastic products out there now. Also, with fermented foods, it is safer to start with very small amounts, such as a teaspoon, and see how the body reacts.”

Keep it tart

Raw milk kefir or natural yogurt also promotes healthy gut flora.



Medibank is proud to partner with the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation National Program. The school-based healthy living program is working from the ground up to educate children about the importance of healthy eating for a lifetime of better health.  Click here to learn more about the Medibank and Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation.



Make Kids Happier

After Jeremy lost his mother to Type 2 Diabetes-related complications, he sought to change the lifestyle and food habits of his whole family. He wanted to be able to watch his kids grow up and enjoy the future together. Watch more on Better Bodies, part of Dr Michael Mosley's Reset, which you can stream now on SBS On Demand. This program was created in partnership with Medibank, editorially produced independently by SBS.