How foraging for food can bring kids closer to nature

This age-old practice has mental health benefits—and might help picky eaters try new things.

When 16-year-old Violet Brill looks out her window, she doesn’t see only grass and trees—she sees a whole feast. Her father, legendary plant expert Steve “Wildman” Brill, introduced her to the world of wild edibles as a baby, toting her along on his foraging tours from the time she was just two months old.

“I just started picking it up,” Violet says, “kind of like the way kids learn to recognize celery and carrots.”

Until the advent of agriculture about 12,000 years ago, our hunter-gather ancestors relied upon wild vegetation for nutrition and medicine. In the millennia that followed, farms and grocery stores replaced that primal knowledge. But in the past decade or so, a renewed interest in foraging for edible plants has begun to emerge—an interest that has truly blossomed during the pandemic.

“I think we’ve had a lot of time to slow down, get outdoors, and look around,” says Adele Nozedar, author of Foraging for Kids. “The growth in foraging has been exponential in the past year.”

Steve Brill agrees. “People have been doing a lot more cooking,” he says, “and they’re becoming more interested in nature and ecology and the environment.”

Why forage?

Kids are natural-born foragers. Take them out into the woods and they’ll happily gather fallen leaves, pluck berries from bushes, or root around in the undergrowth for hidden treasures. “Foraging is definitely a gateway to nature,” Violet Brill says. “Kids learn quickly that it’s not just a bunch of green stuff outside. All those plants have a purpose.”

And by encouraging a love of nature, foraging also encourages a love of the environment. “Having a strong connection to the land means you’re more likely to protect it,” says Dave Hamilton, author of Family Foraging. “And you can’t get much more connected to the land than eating from it.”

Plus, foraging brings good news for parents of picky eaters: When kids search for and pick their own food, they’re more likely to be invested in it. Foraging for wild edibles encourages kids to try new, nutritious foods—especially kids who tend to turn their noses up at the vegetables on their plates.

For instance, Hamilton remembers taking a group of boys camping and asking them to gather enough lambsquarters for dinner. They came back with three days’ worth of the greens, which he turned into a pesto.

“They absolutely loved it,” he says. “There’s something empowering about finding your own food, especially for kids.”

Finally, foraging—and the romping around outdoors that comes with it—is just a lot of fun. When you set out on a foraging adventure, you never know what you may find. Maybe it’s a big patch of blackberries or a hidden stash of tender ramps, or even a bright orange salamander wriggling beneath a damp log while you’re looking for mushrooms. It’s also a safe, socially distanced way to boost kids’ moods, providing them with an opportunity to get out into nature and reconnect with others. (This article shows how getting kids into nature can boost their brainpower.)

Foraging 101

Learning to forage is easier than ever. Here are some guidelines to get your family started.

Keep it simple. Begin by learning to recognize just a few, easy-to-identify plants that don’t have any dangerous look-alikes. Dandelions, garlic mustard, and common plantain all tend to grow in grassy backyards and local parks, so they’re especially prolific. Other wild plants, like ramps, garlic mustard, staghorn sumac, wood sorrel, and blackberry are found in abundance in forests, fields, and even along the side of the road.

“Don’t feel like you have to have an entirely wild food meal,” reassures Hamilton. “It could be that you forage for the same two, three, or four plants for the first couple of years. There are baby steps to this.”

Gather your gear. Foraging doesn’t require fancy equipment, but it’s wise to dress for the adventure. Long pants tucked into socks or worn with a pair of rain boots protect from brambles and ticks. A pair of gardening gloves can help harvest prickly plants like nettles and berries, and scissors or garden clippers are handy for snipping leafy greens.

Collect your harvest in paper and resealable plastic bags—the former are best for things like mushrooms, which need to breathe. Finally, a good plant identification guide— either a book or an app—is essential.

Start a foraging journal. Recording their foraging adventures reinforces plant recognition and helps remind children where and when certain plants can be found. In their journals, kids can draw pictures of the plants they harvest; bring a small magnifying glass to examine a plant’s characteristics, or snap pictures with your smartphone.

Kids can document how the same plants change throughout the seasons, a tally of the various plants they gather, and maps of foraging locations. They can also store leaf pressings, plant rubbings, or simply their thoughts on their experiences.

And remember, safety first! As every veteran forager will tell you, never allow your kids to eat any wild plants unless you’re unequivocally sure of what it is. Going on a guided foraging tour can be an excellent way to develop some basic knowledge.

During the tour, take pictures of the plants your guide points out, and have your child take notes on the plants’ traits so that you can identify it on your own the next time. “You can’t beat someone saying to you, ‘This is what you need to look for, it has this, it has that,’” Hamilton says.

But beware: Foraging is habit forming! “As soon as you learn to identify a plant, you’re going to start seeing it everywhere,” says Violet Brill. Hamilton agrees: “Once you catch the foraging bug, there’s no turning back.”

Foraging resources

Whether you’re looking to identify common plants, take a foraging class, or simply figure out what the heck to do with the big bags of nettles you brought home, this list of resources will help.

Foraging With Kids by Steve “Wildman” Brill
This book includes 76 easy-to-find wild plants and includes activities, science and history, games, and recipes. Brill also has an identification app called Wild Edibles.

Family Foraging by Dave Hamilton
This book arranged by season features 30 of the most commonly found wild edibles in North America along with beginner’s tips, color photographs, and simple recipes.

Foraging for Kids by Adele Nozedar
Part coloring book, part foraging guide, part recipe book, this volume spotlights 50 easily identified plants.

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