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Cacao Pods to Cookies: Involving Children in Farm to Table Fun!

Cacao Pods to Cookies: Involving Children in Farm to Table Fun!
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“Forestero” variety cacao pods, ready to harvest.

Happy Summer 2013!

Welcome to Hawaii Outdoor Institute’s first blog of the summer. We will be updating this blog regularly to let you know about summer programs and to share ideas about our main passion: getting children outside.

Aldo Leopold once wrote; “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

Summer is a great time for working in the garden, so involving kids with family food gathering, cooking, and baking is an easy fit. What you grow will vary of course, but activities for involving children can be similar.

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Our 2-year-old loves to collect cacao pods and carry them like footballs.

1) Take kids with you to check on the harvest. What buds do you see? Are there any naughty bugs eating the leaves? We like to pick off the slugs and caterpillars and feed them to our chickens, but every family has their own pest control style. Teach kids to use a stick with slugs since they can carry diseases.

2) Teach your kids to know when something is ripe and ready to eat. Children as young as two can assist when they are taught what to look for, plus it trains them to not pick the green fruit for fun. “Is Nature done with that one yet? No, let’s leave that one for next time,” I often hear myself say.

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The raw beans are delicious to suck on.

3) Have fun  with recipes that use the food you’re growing. We’ve been successful with cacao, sweet potatoes, pineapples, bananas, and Mexican spinach, so those are the foods we’ve experimented with. When children can help with gathering, preparing, AND eating the food they experience the whole process.

Here is an example of the process in action. Because we live in Hawaii at 1,000 feet elevation, we have a humid yet cool climate for gardening. We have been successful with growing three different varieties of cacao (kuh-KOW), the beans for making chocolate. Cacao beans are sweet to suck on, but the bean itself is bitter. Raw or roasted, the beans contain more antioxidants than blueberries, red wine, or green tea. Turning the beans into a chocolate bar is a long, complicated process involving fancier equipment than we care to invest in, but we still enjoy the benefits of these healthy beans.

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Beans fermenting in an airtight container.

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Roasted cacao “nibs.”

We have a small orchard of about 50 cacao trees and have our children help us harvest them. We fertilize them with manure from our chickens, we check the leaves for pests, and we look for new blossoms and baby cacao pods. Because the pods grow on the trunk and branches, they are often at eye-level of young children. (Which can be a danger to the fragile flowers unless children are old enough to understand not to pick them.)

After gathering the pods, we split them open and the kids pull the beans out. We suck on a few of them because they are really good raw. We ferment the beans for a couple weeks, then dry them in the sun or dehydrator. Then we roast them. My daughter loves peeling things so she helps to pull the dry, roasted skin off the bean or “nibs.”

Then we eat the nibs plain like nuts or grind them in our Magic Bullet. We’ve made homemade cocoa with them in a coffee maker, but our favorite recipe is chocolate cookies with walnuts and white chocolate chips. When my kids are eating the cookies, exclaiming how delicious they are, it’s fun to remind them that we grew the chocolate ourselves.

Our 4-year-old with grainy-looking chocolate cookie.

Our 4-year-old with grainy-looking chocolate cookie.

No matter what you grow, make it a family affair. Getting your kids outside on a summer day to learn where their food comes from is a great way to bond and to instill in them the values of work and of healthy living.

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