The changing seasons are always magical, but something about the transition from blistering-hot summer afternoons to cooler fall days triggers a boost of energy in our family. Suddenly we're itching to get out into nature and run wild.
Along with pickle-making and our chicken harvest, apple picking is pretty much the only thing on our Fall Family Bucket List that we follow through with every year. With a decade of experience (gosh, now I sound old), I've learned a few things, which any family can learn from.
1. Invite friends and family.
Invite a bunch of friends and families with kids of their own. The more the merrier — especially for this laid-back excursion. The kids will invent their own games, and you'll get caught up on valuable adult conversation.
2. Do a little planning.
A little planning goes a long way. Call ahead to your preferred orchard and find out which apples are ripe (pie, sauce, munching, etc.). Ask about closing times, any planned activities such as wagon rides or musical events, and bathroom facilities.
3. Dress in layers.
Learn from my mistakes and dress everyone in layers. In the past we've been caught off guard, but now we pile on light layers for the unpredictable September weather and stay comfortable. Bug spray is a must if it happens to be shorts and T-shirt weather.
4. Start early or go late.
If you have very young children, head out early in the day, as they're typically at their best in the morning. As a bonus, you'll beat the crowds. Another good option is waiting until after nap time and arriving as most people are leaving the orchard. In this case, pack a picnic supper, stay until sundown, and enjoy that magical golden hour.
5. Pack a picnic.
Speaking of picnics, pack a light meal to complement the apples. I like a hunk of strong cheddar, crusty bread and butter, Serrano ham, new carrots, salt and vinegar chips, and dark chocolate. Also bring a wide-mouth Mason jar of homemade caramel sauce for dipping apple slices. Most farms will sell a variety of apple ciders, so grab a jug of fresh-pressed cider for the kids and sparkling cider for the adults. Together with a mound of apples, this al fresco orchard feast will make up one of the best meals of the year.
6. Don't forget a knife (and wet wipes).
A good knife is essential for prepping lunch, and don't forget some wet wipes for post-caramel apple mess.
7. Save the apple picking for last.
Do what I do with my gang and let them run off their steam after the picnic, only picking apples toward the end of the outing. Explore the corn maze, do wagon rides and the mini farm. Get the cider doughnuts or apple crepes — you know you want them. Settle in to pick apples once the kids have thoroughly explored their environment and can now focus on the task at hand.
8. Bring the big camera.
Take a family photo; as laborious as it is to round up the kids, it's worth it down the road. The orchard is a beautiful backdrop, so bring the big camera and do it properly.
9. Pick with purpose.
Once you are ready to get down to picking, you need follow my anti-bruising strategy. Apples bruise much easier than most people realize and then they deteriorate rapidly afterward. Aim to pick one basket/crate for saucing and cooking and one for long-term storing. Then let the kids pick the saucing apples. This way you won't sweat it when bruising and bashing occurs — and it will, despite our dear children's best efforts. Apples are sweeter at the crown of the tree where they've gotten the most sun, so use the ladder strategically and send up the tweens to pass the apples down. Other than that, have fun picking.
10. Keep the fun going at home.
Lastly, don't end the experience in the orchard, but carry it on into the kitchen and make a batch of applesauce or dried apple rings. Get everyone involved; kids are great laborers for peeling pie apples. Be sure to bring a bottle of cider home to enjoy after your little explorers are in bed. Cheers!