Stephanie O’Neil’s two children are picky eaters. But when she can’t get her 4-year-old daughter to touch her vegetables at the dinner table, O’Neil sends her outside to the family garden. There Autumn grabs fistfuls of spinach and kale and eats with abandon.

O’Neil has taken what she’s learned from her own kids and applied it to a series of free kids’ garden clubs ( where she teaches children ages 2 to 8 how things grow and lets them pick the vegetables themselves. Here’s the twist: Some of these clubs are located at restaurants, and whatever the kids grow is delivered directly to the chef for use in the restaurant’s kitchen. Some of the produce goes full circle, ending up on the children’s menu.

The Sea Dog Kid’s Garden Clubs are located at the Sea Dog restaurants in Topsham and Bangor; the South Portland location gets weekly produce deliveries from the kids but does not have its own garden. Other garden clubs are held at the Freeport Grill and at O’Neil’s home in North Yarmouth.

“I just want to be the voice for families and children in this really interesting time that Maine is in, when people are so food-educated and so agriculture-educated,” O’Neil said. “I want to be on the forefront of that for kids, and make sure that they have that sense of themselves with the food and the land.”

ROOTS OF THE PROJECT: O’Neil learned the ins and outs of organic gardening at her uncle’s farm in North Berwick. When she and her husband bought their four-acre gentleman’s farm in North Yarmouth, it already had apple trees, pear trees and a big farm field in back. They gardened and, until the kids came along, sold produce at farmers markets. Soon their produce was attracting neighborhood moms, who wanted to stroll around the gardens with their kids and sample some organic produce, so she started a weekly garden club at her house. “Within three weeks, I had 30 kids showing up,” O’Neil said.

IT’S NOT JUST GARDENING: “We have a story time under the oak tree on a picnic blanket reading some kind of garden story, usually Dahlov Ipcar’s “Hardscrabble Harvest,” or something like that, something farm specific,” O’Neil said. “When they get here, we go and feed the chickens, and take the eggs, and then we do a garden walk. We look at what has grown and what is different from the week prior. There’s always something new to discover, something new to harvest. The kids love the fact that what they’re doing is going to a restaurant. When they pull a bean, they say ‘How do I do it? Can I collect it? Can I do it now? Is this going to be OK?’ They take such good care of it because it’s going to a restaurant.”

EXPANDING PALATES: O’Neil designed snack time to help kids get over their picky-eating habits. On green bean day, for example, the little gardeners will harvest green beans and put them in their own mason jars. They’ll gather dill to put in the jar, and finally they’ll pull some garlic. O’Neil then shows them how to make dilly beans and gives samples from last year to taste (the beans need time to pickle). “I don’t expect everybody will like dilly beans, and they don’t,” she said. “But they try it, and that’s all I want is for someone to try it and give it a chance.”

CONVERTING A PICKY EATER: “It’s all about repetition,” O’Neil said. “You don’t have to do anything special except just keep putting it in front of them. Eventually they’re going to warm up to it, or at least try it. And when they try it, there’s a 50-50 chance they’re going to love it.”

WORKING WITH CHEFS: “The chefs have embraced it so much,” O’Neil said. “They were a part of our garden planning in the spring. The chefs always come out to our garden clubs, and they always prepare a wonderful farm-to-table lunch for the kids after every garden club. Every week they put out a beautiful spread of sandwiches and crudités and fruit plates and things like that. It’s been so welcoming.”

The feeling is apparently mutual. These days, to a 4-year-old, a chef is “right up there with the fireman,” O’Neil says. “They see the chef with the white coat, and they’re like ‘Whoa. Awesome,’ ” she said.

MOST DELICIOUS SURPRISE: “Every day it puts a smile on my face to see a little kid pull a carrot out of the ground. (Gasps) ‘Can I eat it?’ ‘Yeah, you can eat it.’

“We go crazy with carrots. We plant atomic red and deep purple carrots and yellow carrots, rainbow carrots galore.”

A PEA? WHAT’S THAT? One day a Massachusetts family with two boys visited the Freeport garden. O’Neil had the kids pull and shell peas.

“The two boys were, like, ‘What is this?'” O’Neil recalled. “I said ‘They’re peas. Just eat them.’ ”

They looked to their mother, and she reassured them it was OK.

“They ate the peas, and the 7-year-old said, ‘This is so good. What is this?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s a pea.’ He asked his mom, ‘What is this?’ And she said ‘It’s a pea, you know, like the peas from a can.’

“He was stunned.”

LATEST FUN CROP: “This year we plowed a new field in the spring,” O’Neill said. “We wanted to plant something really memorable that kids could connect with at the Sea Dog restaurants. So we actually planted a huge field of popcorn corn.”

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