When Dirty Hands are a Good Thing

What if we told you we have two sure-fire ways to get your children to eat more vegetables? That’s parenting gold right there. Get ready to cash in because we have answers. The first sure-fire way: Involve children in the cooking process, starting with meal planning and grocery shopping and ending with washing the dishes and taking out the compost. The second sure-fire way to get your children to eat more vegetables: Grow a vegetable garden together.

First, A Little Story

As the one-time manager of a school garden program at a local middle school I saw first-hand that kids — even tweens! — are much more likely to try foods that they grow themselves. I put the assertion to the test with one of the most visually off-putting recipes: sauteed greens. One warm spring afternoon I set up a camp stove in the garden and had a pile of freshly harvested and washed rainbow chard. “This is what we will taste test today,” I announced with confidence.

Oh, the faces they made in response! But then I started cooking. First, they were transfixed on simply watching the process — as a longtime fan of cooking shows, I fully understood. But the real transformation came when the aroma of warm garlic began to waft through the air. “Ooo, that smells goooood,” was whispered throughout the small crowd. And then I added a splash of soy sauce, and finally, the tiniest pinch of red pepper flakes, and voila! A pile of bright green mush that smelled divine.

Everyone got a plate with just enough to taste. Before the moment of truth, we engaged the senses: What did the chard look like before cooking and then after? What does it smell like raw and how does it smell now? What is a word that describes a raw chard leaf, and one that describes the cooked version? What do you think it will taste like? Have you had something like this before?

Finally, much to their chagrin, it came time to taste it. Granted, a peer situation has its advantages (and dares are always useful with middle school kids, especially if there’s a gross factor at play), but each student, one after another tried a bite. And another and another. And then came the surprised delight and requests for seconds. Imagine that happening at your dinner table each night — requests for vegetable seconds. Cool.

And as wonderful as that benefit is, ending the struggle to feed kids healthy foods is just one of the many benefits of vegetable gardening with children. Growing food helps them better understand and feel good about themselves and where they come from — I know it sounds lofty, but you’ll see. Growing food helps children better understand the environment and how to care for it, and growing food benefits children’s bodies, minds, and their emotions.

Grow a Sense of Self

Not only did the middle schoolers I worked with actually enjoy sauteed chard, they talked about how proud they were to have grown something they could eat. If you have never grown food before, the respect for nature and the pride gained is so much richer and deeper than expected.

After a particularly physical day in the garden, one of the boys from that same group held his soil-caked hands up high and as he looked lovingly on them, with a big smile he said, “I love when my hands are all dirty with soil like this.” I asked why. “Because it makes me feel more Mexican.” Another girl said, “I love working in the garden because it makes me think of summers with my grandma.” Working the land has a magic about it. These kids were connecting their work in the garden with who they were as people, who they were culturally. This group was mainly Latino, but ask around. Ask friends of any background who grew up on farms or friends who are part of families in which food and eating together is an integral part of their lives. Who we are as people can be inextricably linked to the food we eat.

Here are a few ideas to get this started:

Keep a garden journal together. Draw pictures, write journal entries, and take notes. These will become a treasure in themselves.

Find a family recipe to cook together that features one of the vegetables or herbs you’re growing. If one doesn’t exist, create one together and prepare it regularly. These sensory memories will stay with your child for a lifetime.

Use your garden area as a place for other activities: read in the garden or have a picnic lunch there. Set up a nearby bird oasis complete with a feeder and bath. Take a bird identifier book out and learn the names of the birds who visit the garden. The more time children spend in the garden, the more memories are made and the deeper the bond becomes. Never mind the fun!

Working in the garden together, growing food together, and then even preparing that food together creates a bond that is hard to find with other activities. Every step of the way is about nurturing and nourishment, and so much magic and love can come from that. Gardening not only provides a foundational life skill, it establishes a tradition within your family and an activity that you can do together no matter anyone’s age.

Grow Appreciation

Watch for yourselves. Plant a radish seed and watch your child’s eyes light up the first day they check on it and a sprout has appeared. “It’s growing! It’s growing!” Even as an adult, seeing those sprouts break through the soil and then day after day, watching it grow into food is still awe-inspiring. To be actively engaged in growing food gives children a very real understanding of where food comes from and how to grow it.

And with the awe of it all comes the logic and science. Children begin to see in practice, not just in textbooks, what happens when plants do or don’t get water or sunlight or air. What happens to the carrots when they’re sowed too closely together? What happens if a caterpillar takes up residence in the garden? There are endless questions and opportunities for learning, for problem-solving, for failure, and for delicious success in the garden. And lo and behold, just when they think they’re just having fun, they’re learning science!

Growing food and eating what they grow is the most intimate way for children to learn to appreciate the environment and how we are all connected. And with that appreciation come the practices that lead to a healthier Earth: composting, adopting organic gardening practices, reusing, and recycling.

Some more ideas:

To help them get acquainted with their spot of nature, go on a hunt in the garden. You can hunt for insects and identify them, hunt for textures, smells, shapes, colors — whatever your child is developmentally ready for. It’s especially fun to do a flashlight hunt in the early evening.

Plan for lots of observing in the garden. Identify any problems — pests, discolored leaves, vegetables that aren’t growing or taste “off.” Take a trip to the local library for some research to see if you can solve the problem together.

Visit a farmers market and talk to the farmers! It’s not every day that kids get to talk with the people that grow their food. Talk with your child on the way about questions they might have. At the very least encourage your child to introduce themselves to the farmers and say thank you for the work they do.

Make garden art from items in your recycle bin, or find other items that can be used as tools for gardening. Mason jars filled with water work just as well as plastic watering cans and second-hand spoons work especially well for little hands that love to dig.

Grow Strong Bodies & Minds

Children will eat or at the very least taste (and that’s a start!) food that they grow. Don’t believe me? There is research demonstrating this. And with increased vegetable consumption comes an increase in nutrients for their bodies. And with that comes better health and thereby fewer sick days, which means fewer missed school days, which means better success at school…. See where I’m going here? It’s a circle — OK, a wonky, all-over-the-place circle, but still a circle that connects everything together.

The connections continue. Along with what they’re putting in their bodies is the movement children are doing while they garden. Although gardening doesn’t provide a lot of aerobic exercise, it does contribute to flexibility and muscle development. And a bonus: Heavy work like lifting soil bags and pushing full wheelbarrows not only strengthens but calms the body too.

Children who garden are outside. And being outside means less screen time and better brain development, which leads to improved academic skills and thereby increased enjoyment of school and better grades and stronger self-esteem. Whew. And I haven’t even mentioned the research that shows children that spend time in nature experience less stress and an improvement in their mood. And really, couldn’t we all benefit from that?

Even more ideas:

Taste, taste, taste! Everything — leaves, flowering broccoli, lettuce that has bolted. The good, the bad, and the bitter have all kinds of things to teach us. Children often feel less reluctant or under pressure to try new foods when they’re actually in the garden. Take advantage of that, and by all means, lead by example.

Take a few minutes before and after to do some fun stretches. This will keep bodies flexible and warmed up for activity.

Breathe. Spending time in a garden can be really restorative. Be intentional when talking with your children about how they feel before and after they’ve been in the garden. And a few minutes of meditation never hurt anybody.

As evidenced by the brainstorming notes pictured above, this only scratches the surface of the benefits to be gained from gardening with your children. And it’s fine if your sole motivation at this point is to end the struggle to get your child to eat more vegetables. If you start, all the other benefits will come.

Look for an upcoming post on the nitty gritty of starting a garden — don’t worry, it’s much easier than you may think. Even if you don’t have a yard. Nature does much of the work. In the meantime, check out these resources for more motivation:

PBS’s list of top gardening books for kids

Kids Gardening

Junior Master Gardener

Let’s Move

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