A Kids’ Garden Grows Healthier Eating Habits

New study shows that kids who spend time in the garden develop a love for vegetables and fruits.

July 20, 2009

Plant the seed: Kids who learn to garden grow to appreciate healthy food.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Teach a kid to grow a carrot, and she’ll probably eat more of them, according a new study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The study found that kids who are involved in the process of growing their own food are more likely to have healthier diets.


THE DETAILS: Children in 4th through 6th grades attended a YMCA summer camp program called “Delicious and Nutritious Garden,” during which they worked in the garden, taste-tested fruits and vegetables, and used them to make their own snacks. At the end of the 12-week program, 98 percent of kids said they liked the taste tests, 93 percent said they liked the cooking aspect, 96 percent liked working in the garden, and 91 percent said they actually enjoyed learning about fruits and vegetables.

WHAT IT MEANS: One of the conclusions of the study was that food and nutrition professionals should use this sort of “seed-to-table” education program to educate kids about healthy eating. But at a time when state budgets are chopping away at many extracurricular school activities and household budgets are pinching every penny, gardening classes for kids might seem like a luxury. Which is why parents need to step up.

Here are a few affordable ways to get a kids’ garden going:

• Buy your own seeds and sow ’em. In a perfect world, every school would have a program like the Edible Schoolyard, started by celebrity-chef Alice Waters, or Seeds of Solidarity, a farm-to-table program in Orange, Massachusetts, that educates low-income and at-risk kids about how to work on a farm, grow food, and cook the food themselves. But a kids’ garden in your own backyard can be just as educational. “People think that a garden has to be huge, that it has to be tended every day,” says Cindy Thomashow, MS, director of the nonprofit Center for Environmental Education. “They think it’s almost as big an investment as having a pet, and tend to shy away from taking the responsibility. It’s really not.” Turn over some soil and invest in some basic garden tools, and you’ll benefit too, she says. “Watching kids bite into a vegetable that’s just been dug from the dirt is really amazing.” Besides, what kid doesn’t love playing in the dirt? Throw in a compost heap and a few earthworms to help decompose the food, and you may never get your kids back into the house. See Start a Lazy Garden for an easy start-up plan. And go to OrganicGardening.com for expert advice from planting to harvest.

• Start a conversation at the next PTO/PTA meeting. The most successful gardening and food education programs at schools have been started by single individuals “who understand the need for kids to know where things come from,” says Thomashow. Getting the support of other parents is a good way to start the push for gardening and nutrition programs. Thomashow recommends starting at the top, talking to cafeteria managers and principals first about what you’d like to see, then working on teachers. Money is often the biggest barrier for a school when it comes to maintaining a kids’ garden, she says. But, she adds, “money [barriers] can be overcome by volunteer work and donations.” And having other parents on board provides ready and willing volunteers.

• Instill a little environmental education at home. You can start now to teach your kids about gardening and proper nutrition. “Food is one of the easiest ways to jump into environmental education,” says Thomashow. Take your kids with you to the farmer’s market and get them to talk to the farmers, and ask questions yourself. When kids see you’re interested, they’re more likely to follow suit. Older kids might be interested in the movie “The Story of Stuff,” which you can watch online. It doesn’t focus exclusively on food, but is a good way to teach them to care where things come from.

• Consult the experts. If you want to get your child’s school, or another community group, involved in a kids’ garden or related projects, the groups listed below provide curriculum and planning materials:

• National Gardening Association’s kidsgardening.org
• California School Garden Network
• Center for Environmental Education