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Kids activities are often available at the Market on the Square in Marshall, Texas.

With summer upon us, local farmers' markets and produce stands are open for business. This is a great way to practice social distancing in open air markets as we continue to deal with the COVID-19 Pandemic. Supporting our local farmers markets can be beneficial to all who visit them and purchase produce.

If you are a parent or caregiver, you may pause at the idea of visiting a farmers’ market with a young child. Perhaps you envision him or her running off in the open-air market, thinking it is a place to play and explore the outdoors. You may even be concerned that your child will misbehave or knock over items from stands.

Yes, a visit to the farmers’ market is different from a trip to a grocery store and may seem to require more effort than it is worth.

From one parent to another — it is worth a try. The first time may make you a little nervous but hopefully with a little preparation you can make it a positive experience for all. After all, it can be a fun learning experience that will find your child asking when you will be going again to the farmers market.

With some planning, a trip to the market can become a beloved family tradition that your child remembers far into adulthood, and one that could increase his or her acceptance of a variety of healthy foods.

Here are some strategies that make your visit to the farmers market more pleasant and enjoyable:

Have a plan. Prepare yourself as you would for any outing (bring him or her to the bathroom before you leave for the market, bring snacks, go at a time when they are rested and fed, etc.).

Make the first visit brief. Brief experiences can be valuable in exposing your child to new foods, whether a spur-of-the-moment stop at a roadside stand, or a planned visit. Research shows that children benefit from repeated exposures to a variety of healthy foods. Looking, touching, smelling (even without tasting) make children more familiar with the foods, and can make them more likely to try (and like) a variety of healthy foods over time.

Prepare your child ahead of time for behavioral expectations. An outing to the market is an important opportunity to outline your expectations and hold your child to them. Prepare your child by explaining that you are taking an adventure trip to the farmers’ market, and that they need to use their ears to listen and hold your hand to be safe. Next time give her the choice to hold your right hand or left hand. Our young toddlers and preschoolers may need frequent reminders of these expectations. Without getting upset or irritated, calmly remind your child what you expect them to do. Young children are learning how to make decisions and figuring out where the boundaries are. By giving simple choices that are ‘parent approved,’ you give them chances to learn to make decisions, but within developmentally appropriate boundaries that help them feel safe and help parents feel a lot better, too.

Be consistent and follow-through. Don’t say something you aren’t willing to follow through on. For example, if you tell your child that you will leave if they will not hold your hand, you need to be willing to do that, even if you aren’t done shopping.

Your child really does want to please you. Acknowledge appropriate behavior with immediate verbal statements like “I like the way you are using your ears and following the rules.” Tell your child what you want them to be doing, instead of telling them to stop what they are doing, such as “Please walk” rather than “Stop running.” Young children do not always know, or remember, what appropriate behaviors are, especially when they get someplace as fun as the farmers market.

Build anticipation. Prepare your child for an upcoming visit to the market in the hours, days, even weeks ahead by reading books about how food is grown. A few recommendations are Fresh Delicious: Poems from the Farmers’ Market by Irene Latham, Before We Eat: From Farm to Table by Pat Brisson and A Day at the Market by Sara Anderson.

My daughter’s preschool recently had a unit on seed planting and learned about the parts of a plant. Connecting these concepts from school to home to the market helps her begin to understand where food comes from.

Involve your child. Try doing a scavenger hunt where your child spots vegetables or fruits he or she has tried, or those he or she has yet to try. Games like “I spy with my little eye” are a great choice at a stimulating and content-rich place like an outdoor market to help the child focus their attention, and practice identifying colors, shapes and people.

Use the market visit as an opportunity to talk with your child about the names of fruits and vegetables, and where and how it might be grown (on a tree, under the ground, on a plant). Children can make connections to unfamiliar foods and learn about where their food comes from in this way.

You might also consider having your child help by bringing a bag that they can carry themselves. Let your child pick his or her own fruit or vegetable to explore and try together at home.

Practice social skills. As an example, we have plans to visit the market this Saturday. I will practice involving the child in the social interactions of greeting vendors, asking a question, and making a payment. I’m sure they will be excited to hand over the payment for your purchases.

Slow down. Try not to rush — take in the experience through all your senses. Imagine experiencing the market through the lens of your child. Even better, talk with your child about what you see, hear, smell, touch and encourage them to verbalize their observations, too.

Model openness to new foods and experiences. Food neophobia, literally the fear of new foods, is common in young children. We all want our children to accept fruits and vegetables. That means we have the responsibility to model an open attitude toward trying new foods to get them started. Breathe, smile, and try something new.

Involve your children in learning the importance of community. Going to the farmers market is also a great way to begin fostering a sense of community and supporting local businesses. Children can meet the farmers and you can model asking questions about where the food came from and how they came to be at the market.

Most market in the Upper East Side of Texas run through October -- check with local city offices for dates and times. 

Sources for the article include the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Melisa Rhodes, M.Ed. is a family and community health agent with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension for Van Zandt County. She is available to answer questions on farmers markets or other nutrition, food, health, or family related matters at melisa.rhodes@ag.tamu.edu or call (903) 567-4149.

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