Nutrition Spotlight: Fiddlehead Ferns

Fiddlehead ferns are among the most abundant greenery in Maine. The circular greens are actually the curled young fronds of ferns. Each spring, new fern growths emerge as curled leaves, creating spiraled disks at the tips of each stalk. This is the edible part of the plant. They grow in New England and along the coast of Canada, and in Maine, they are typically available from April to mid-May. 

Nutritionally speaking, these funny looking ferns are pretty great. Fiddleheads contain about 22 calories, 3 grams of carbohydrates, 2.8 grams of protein, and 0.2 grams of fat per half cup. They have a high beta-carotene content, and they provide a great amount of vitamin C, niacin, and potassium.  

Fiddleheads have an interesting taste. Many describe the fern as grassy with a hint of nuttiness, while others say it is a combination of asparagus and young spinach. Some say the flavor is similar to an artichoke. In most cases, though, the plant will take on the flavor of the cooking method; if you have any picky eaters in your house, you won’t have to worry about this green. 

Price and Availability 

Fiddlehead ferns often cost just $2.50-$2.75 per pound, depending on the region and harvesting method. What’s more, you can forage these plants in your backyard, go home, and clean off the brown, papery skin to enjoy a free, home-grown meal. The activity can be labor intensive, but it’s a great excuse to spend the day outside, especially if you have young children.  

Harvesting 

When gathering fiddleheads, you only want to keep the first one or two inches of the stem attached to the coil. Everything else should be broken off and thrown away. It is best to take just two or three coils from each patch, as taking more can destroy the whole plant. Luckily, these greens are widely available.  

There are many varieties of ferns in Maine, but the ostrich and cinnamon ferns are the only two that are edible and safe to eat. Others may be poisonous. However, if you spend a few minutes acquainting yourself with their visual differences, you shouldn’t have a problem distinguishing between them. 

Preparing 

Fiddleheads should be cooked thoroughly before eating. Raw fiddleheads can carry food-borne illnesses, and they may cause stomach pains and cramping when ingested in very large quantities. These ferns should be washed, added to a small amount of water (lightly salted) and cooked for about 10 minutes. The plant is best served with melted butter or vinegar. Some people prefer to cook their fiddleheads until soft, then spread them on toast. You can add them to pastas, salads, and quiches – just as long as they are thoroughly cooked before adding.  

Additional Benefits 

Fiddlehead ferns are widely available and grow naturally across the state. This is an excellent food to use as an educational tool for young children. If you see fiddleheads in your backyard, on the side of the road, or in a public space, take a moment to show your children where their food can come from. Often, if children associate specific foods with a fun activity, like biking, hiking, or spending time with family, they are more likely to eat that food. Fiddleheads are healthy and extremely low in calories, so do what you can to instill this interest in children.  

Menu Planning and Nutrition Resources in Maine

Getting children to eat healthily isn’t difficult, but it does take a bit of planning. Luckily, Maine has several resources designed to help parents and other adults strategically plan healthy meals. Whether you’re looking for menu guides, nutritional information, or state food and nutrition support, any of these organizations and initiatives may be able to help. 

Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) — This federally funded program is administered by states to ensure that eligible children have access to nutritious, healthy meals. The CACFP serves adult day centers, child care centers, at-risk after school programs, emergency shelters, and family day care homes. Maine’s Child and Adult Care Food Program provides several useful links from the USDA to help both families and formal institutions meet nutrition guidelines. They also provide meal count worksheets, portion menus, and meal pattern guidelines.  

Full Plates Potential – This initiative strives to solve childhood hunger in and around Maine. Their website has important food and nutrition resources, but their primary efforts are in advocating for child nutrition program grand opportunities, like school breakfast programs, summer food programs, and other community-based campaigns. They strongly believe – and have the data to back it up – that children benefit from regular, healthy meals, whether that means having breakfast in the classroom or providing nutritional education over the summer.  

USDA Team Nutrition Resource Catalog – This online resource is designed to teach kids about nutrition, the benefits of being physically active, and why it is important to eat healthily. It offers nutritious and delicious kids meal ideas while partnering with other organizations to build healthier environments across the state.  

Healthy Meal Plans for Kids – This medically reviewed set of recipes and meal plans from Healthline is a great planning tool for busy parents. The resource provides meal plans that provide adequate nutrition for several ages, including 6 year olds and 14 year olds – arguably the most difficult ages for instilling healthy eating. The recipes are simple and affordable, making this a helpful option for working parents.   

Nourish Interactive – This site has printable menu and meal planning resources for kids between 2 years old and 10+ years old. They provide fun food worksheets, information about kids cooking and activities, and special kid nutrition activities centered around holidays, like Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. If you’re looking for something to keep your kids busy while you cook, this website has the tools to help.