"I would especially like to thank my mother," writes Robert K. Henderson in his acknowledgements for The Neighborhood Forager, "who suffered the raised eyebrows of others when I forgot my lunch in Grade 6 and foraged one from schoolyard weeds." This makes me laugh out loud - and remember when my six year old daughter began showing some newly-found neighborhood friends the weeds in our yard that were edible. Yes, some people will think you and your kids are odd. (But they'll be delighted if they ever get lost in the wilderness with you.) That's one caution.
A much greater caution, however, is that children must learn that not every wild thing is safe to eat. As I've taught my daughter about foraging, I always emphasize, every time we set out to find wild edibles, that many plants are poisonous and can cause serious illness or even death. As some would say, I want her to give her "the fear of God" about wild food, even as I teach her how to identify edibles. In that vein, I would also never teach a child to forage for food that could easily be mistaken for something dangerous.
Where to Start
The best place to begin foraging lessons is in your own yard. If you have a vegetable patch, you might start there. All the veggies and fruits we eat were once wild. If your child is interested, do some Google searches to learn the wild history of some favorite foods. (Two good places to start are "History of Some Fruits and Vegetables" and "A Brief History of Some of Our Favorite Garden Vegetables.")
Next, start taking a close look at weeds in your yard. A couple of foraging handbooks for your region are vital here. Show your child how to carefully examine the weed's leaf shape, stalk, flower, and other characteristics in order to properly identify it.
My Favorite Beginner's Forage
In my opinion, there's no better place for any forager to begin than with dandelions. I doubt there is a region anywhere in the United States where dandelions are not prolific. Almost everybody has at least some in their yard (or can find them growing out of the sidewalk). They are very easy to identify, and there is no dangerous plant that can be confused for them. (Although it's not a bad idea to read up on plants commonly misidentified as dandelions, such as the "false dandelion.") Every part of the dandelion plant is not only safe to eat, but highly nutritious, too. Truly it's a plant even a young child can learn to identify and enjoy.
The roots of dandelions may not please many children, although I suggest roasting them like a carrot or parsnip. (In fact, roast them with other root veggies and your kids may not even know what they are eating until you tell them.) The leaves of dandelions will be a hit if your children enjoy kale and collards. You can easily teach a child to like the stems in salads or as a quick outdoor treat. They can also learn to apply to sap from dandelion stems to cuts and scraps, which is said to help them heal.
But it's those bright yellow flowers most kids will find most appealing. They can eat them fresh off the plant (after they are washed), in a salad, in fritters - and, in the ultimate kid-friendly foraging treat: Cookies.
The fact is, the flowers by themselves aren't that flavorful, so nobody is likely to taste them in the cookies. But kids enjoy the process of making them, and the yumminess of the cookies is likely to make them realize that even weeds can be fun (not to mention beneficial) to eat.
Dandelion Cookie Recipe
First, give each child a bucket or large bowl. After you've helped them identify dandelions, have them pick the flowers. There's no need to be fussy if the stems get picked, too; you can always remove them later. For these cookies, you really won't need that many flowers, but feel free to let the children gather as many as they like for other food exploration.
Now have the children dump the flowers into a colander. Run cool water over them. Explain that we do this in case there are any small insects on the flowers, or dirt, etc. Shake the colander to remove as much of the water as possible. You may now either pat the flowers dry or just let them dry naturally in the colander. I recommend the former, since the petals will tend to stick to little fingers in the next step if they are at all wet.
Once the children have about 1/2 cup of yellow petals in the measuring cup, they can stop and help you bake the cookies.
You Will Need:
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour (or 1 cup all purpose and 1/2 cup whole wheat flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 cups oatmeal, uncooked
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup dandelion petals
How to Do It:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. In the mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugars. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix well. Add the flour and mix well. Add the baking soda and cinnamon and mix well. Add the oats and mix well. Fold in the raisins. Fold in the dandelion petals a tablespoon at a time until well mixed.
After the kids have taken a bite and realize it tastes like a great oatmeal cookie, point out to them the little hairy things in the treat. Those are the dandelion flower petals! It's also a great idea to explain how nutritious the petals are.
P.S. I should add that I've found several dandelion cookie recipes on the Internet and have tried them. I created this recipe because none of us - adults or kids - like them.
Did you know you can turn dandelion leaves, flowers, buds, stems, and roots into tasty and healthy treats? Learn more about eating and cooking with dandelions in my #1 Amazon Bestselling paperback or ebook, The Ultimate Dandelion Cookbook.
For more information about harvesting and using dandelions, see these posts:
"Ah Sweet...Dandelions?" (including a recipe for cooking dandelion leaves)
"How to Make Dandelion Tea" (from the roots of the plant)
"Making Dandelion Jelly"
"Teaching Children to Forage" (with dandelion cookie recipe)
Eating Dandelion Flowers
How to Preserve Dandelion Greens
Dandelion Flower Fritters
Dandelion Leaf Noodles
How to Make Dandelion Wine
Dandelion Root Medicine: Where to Find It, How & Why to Use It
Dandelion Leaf Green Smoothie
Cautions: According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, very rarely, people have reactions to dandelion. If you're allergic to "ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigold, chamomile, yarrow, daisies, or iodine, you should avoid dandelion. In some people, dandelion can cause increased stomach acid and heartburn. It may also irritate the skin. People with kidney problems, gallbladder problems, or gallstones should consult their doctors before eating dandelion." Dandelion is a diuretic, which means it may also make other medications less effective. To learn more about this, visit the University of Maryland Medical Center website.