As a dietitian, it probably isn’t surprising that I encourage people, including kids, to eat more fruits and vegetables. Most of us are aware that fruits and vegetables are good for our bodies. Although we may not be able to name them, we understand that fruits and vegetables provide us with important nutrients. So we try to buy them at the grocery store, encourage our kids to eat them, and often get discouraged when that expensive produce is thrown out. But what if I told you there were benefits to growing a garden for your children, even if that lettuce still ends up on the floor?
Now you might be asking why lettuce on the ground offers any benefit to our children, so let me back up and explain. As adults, we have had 1,000s of opportunities to be exposed to different foods, so when we see a raspberry, or a carrot, we know how each will likely taste. We probably even have memories associated with various foods. Our children, depending on their age, have had far less exposure to new foods. They may not know what that red squishy thing tastes like yet. And they don’t care that this bitter green stuff is good for their eyes. Just like you might be afraid to try an unknown food in a foreign county, it is completely normal for kids to be nervous or fearful around new foods. This fear doesn’t always look like fear, it can also look like yelling and throwing. So how do we help our children eat more foods? We expose them to more foods. Exposure doesn’t just mean tasting and may not involve their taste buds for awhile. It can start with touching, playing with, smelling, and observing. The more they are exposed to a food, and the more positive experiences they have associated with that food, the more likely they will be to eventually eat that food. Depending on the child (or adult), it can take many exposures and a variety of exposures to build that trust around a new food.
And this brings us to the first benefit of gardening with kids. Kids are exposed to the foods before they ever hit their plate. They watch them grow, they can see the colors change, be exposed to the various smells and textures. All of those count as exposures. It is natural for kids to get curious about something they have watched grow. I love to send my girls out to our garden and just observe as they pick a firm unripe tomato and then squish a red, ripe one. We have had many young friends happily sample peppery arugula, juicy cherry tomatoes, and sweet strawberries as they play in the back. It may not happen in a week or month, or even a year, but as kids are more exposed to fruits and vegetables, the more comfortable they become and the more likely they are to try them.
Now you might say, “yeah the exposure got my kids to try something and they spit it out.” Don’t stress, it happens. There are probably foods that you only like certain ways. For me, I always thought I hated cauliflower until I tried it roasted. This brings me to the second benefit of growing a garden. When you have a surplus, it’s easier to try new recipes and new ways of cooking something. Ever notice how creative people get with zucchini recipes in the summer? Growing a garden often leads to having more of a certain food than you would have bought voluntarily. That surplus is a great way to get creative and bring kids into the kitchen. Maybe they didn’t like the raw peas. Okay, let’s try them steamed. “I wonder what a little Parmesan would taste like. Should we try it?” Allowing kids to be part of that creative process and trying foods a variety of ways, increases the likelihood that they will have a positive exposure and be more likely to try that food again in the future. Plus, fresh garden food just tastes better, so your recipes will have a flavor boost.
The third reason I am passionate about gardening is because it impacts our relationship with food. Because of the wonderful farmers that work so hard to grow us food, we often lose appreciation for food. Sometimes that looks like a lot of food waste, and sometimes it goes further. I have worked with many clients that think of food as just calories or fuel. Often, food is the enemy and food that tastes good must be “bad.” It breaks my heart to see so much fear around food. Fear of the calories, fear of the “anti-nutrients”, fear of the sugars. Fear of eating too much or enjoying it too much. Yes, food is fuel for our bodies, but it is also more than just fuel. It is memories, traditions, and comfort. For me, food is a love language. It brings me so much joy to share food, to cook for others, to see the enjoyment on their face as they try one of my strawberries. Reducing food down to calories and then, for some, seeing those calories as the enemy is detrimental to our relationship with food. And while gardening isn’t the whole answer for healing a relationship with food, I think it can help. Gardening is a lot of work and a test of patience. I never appreciated a frozen bag of peas until I tried to shell a few cups of them. That appreciation and gratitude for the food is not only helpful in preventing waste, it also is helpful in building a loving relationship with food. We work hard to grow this food, and then in return it nourishes our body and brings us joy. One of my favorite scriptures describes the function of food as “to nourish the body and enliven the soul.” Gardening not only nourishes the body, it also enlivens our souls as we reconnect with nature, our food, and ourselves.
Yes the produce we grow provides our body with vital nourishment, and fruits and vegetables are a keystone to a balanced diet, but there are also other health benefits of gardening outside of the actual food grown. Gardening can be a great exercise, it helps build our immunity as we are exposed to a variety of bacteria, and it is great for our mental health. The Japanese recommend what they call “forest bathing.” It has long been observed that spending time outside is beneficial for our minds and bodies. Looking at the “blue zone” areas of the world–that is, areas with larger populations of people over 100 years old–a common theme from Costa Rica to the islands of Greece and Japan is that they grow gardens. So whether it’s a small farm, 600 square foot master piece, little grow box, or a few pots, gardening is a fun, health-promoting activity that goes far beyond just the food grown. Although let’s be honest, that is a pretty delicious perk!