Grow healthier eating habits: The benefits of gardening with children

November 14, 2016 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Recently, dinnertime has become a lot more interesting in my household. Game changer: my nine-month-old son is eating solid foods.

So far, pears and sweet potatoes reign supreme, and anything green –beans, peas and avocado, is met with a refusal of shivers and gags.

Children not eating their vegetables is an age-old issue, and it’s not improving.

One night while browsing for baby food recipes, I found myself down an internet rabbit hole about today’s children’s eating habits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of our plates should consist of fruits and vegetables – about 5-9 servings daily – but nine out of 10 children aren’t eating their daily recommendation.

I myself was a picky-eater. The dinner table was a battleground and vegetables, peas especially, were my enemy.
But taste buds change and you learn to try new foods as you get older. Nowadays, there’s not a vegetable I won’t eat. Thinking back, I remember the summer I grew to love them, literally. It was when my father and I started a backyard vegetable garden.

In a 2009 study, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (J Am Diet Assoc.) discovered that children who are involved in the process of growing their own food are more likely to eat their fruits and vegetables.

Proportionally, school gardens are on the rise in the United States. Like the J Am Diet Assoc. study, similar studies have shown that school gardens increase both fruit and vegetable consumption and preference, as well as improve academic achievement, help students develop a sense of ownership and responsibility, increase self-esteem and help to foster relationships with family members.

For the past 18 years, students at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland, NY, have been reaping the benefits of a school garden. Middle and high school students have the opportunity to volunteer in the school’s organic garden and have a hand in the growing process, from planting to picking.

Christina Jager, a school counselor at the middle school, acted as the garden’s coordinator this past summer. Together, Jager and her student volunteers harvested and donated over 3,000 pounds of produce to local food shelters and soup kitchens.
Jager knows a thing or two about the benefits of gardening with children.

“It’s a great way to teach children where their food comes from and to help them gain the satisfaction of growing something themselves,” she said.

“I’ve seen that engaging youth in growing food from ‘the soil to the salad bar’ encourages them to consider their food choices…a child who takes pride in helping the kale bed thrive is far more open to trying and liking a kale salad,” she continued.
In Jager’s garden, there’s no issue with children eating their vegetables. She shared, “it’s been a delight to see the children savor cherry tomatoes right off the plant, or raw corn, still warm from the sun. In the garden, kids don’t need encouragement to eat their veggies, they need to be reminded that a few peppers need to end up in the [donation] box. How cool is it that they’re excited to bring home a bag of mini-eggplants, declaring that they’ll find a recipe online to try out?”

Just ask Athena Wu, a seventh-grade garden volunteer. When asked about her favorite part of working in the garden, she replied with a smile, “eating.”

Aside from getting children excited to eat and try new vegetables, a garden offers an opportunity to integrate every discipline, from math, science, reading, environmental studies, nutrition and health.

“We’re also learning a lot, which is cool,” said Wu. “Did you know that squash can get sunburned?” she said, explaining that the different shades of squash can be attributed to their time in the sun.

“I found out that chipmunks and squirrels love to eat sunflowers, and spraying a spray bottle of water and a bit of cayenne pepper on the plants will keep them away,” fellow seventh-grader Annie Urig said in between bites of corn. Students also learned that raw corn is not only edible but enjoyable.

Jager shared that the garden frequently sparked thoughtful discussions, with topics ranging from cultural attitudes toward uniformity in the appearance of our produce and related wastefulness, to food scarcity.

“In the garden, we’re able to make real-life connections with academic concepts, or find approaches to all sorts of garden problems, like chipmunks,” she joked. “The garden space is rich with opportunity to learn and to enjoy delicious foods.”

Whether or not your school district has a gardening program, it’s easy to get children involved in the growing process. Check out these quick tips from Christina Jager:

Start an herb garden

  • Herb gardens are great for kids – and parents that don’t have green thumb – because they’re virtually foolproof, and it doesn’t matter the season.
  • Growing herbs doesn’t take much work – some soil, lots of sunlight, and water. The process, from seed to skillet, is similar to growing a garden. Let children relish in trying new flavor profiles they had a hand in growing!

Start a vegetable garden

  • Let children choose some of the seeds to plant, and guide them to make regionally appropriate choices.
  • Guide them in exploring and researching other decisions that go into a garden, like what fertilizer to use, pest management (go organic!), co-plantings, etc.
  • When gardening with groups of kids, don’t forget to plant some “fun!” Break up the “hard work” like weeding into manageable challenges – for example, with a race to clean out a raised bed.
  • Don’t forget to hang out in the garden and enjoy the space!

Aubree Kammler is working on getting her son to eat more vegetables…one silly face and airplane spoon at a time. 

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