5 Reasons Why Gardening Helps Picky Eaters Try New Foods
This is a guest post about gardening for picky eaters written by Amrie a gardener, registered dietitian, and owner of Amrie’s Homegrown.
When things get hectic in my household, you’ll often hear me announce: “Change of scenery!” as I shuffle everyone through the sliding door out to the backyard.
This almost always works to shift the negative energy. And it also works for introducing new foods!
When kids are invited to explore food in a new environment without the usual pressure, they are able to let down their defences and instead become curious.
Gardening for picky eaters is helpful because it offers low-pressure opportunities to explore foods that they typically wouldn’t accept. By interacting with food in this way, they are able to become familiar with foods in a way that feels safe instead of scary.
If digging in the dirt isn’t for you, stay tuned until the end for some good, clean fun that is just as beneficial!
Why Gardening with Picky Eaters Helps Them Try New Foods
1. Gardening Introduces Foods in a Low-Pressure Environment
If you have a picky eater, meal times likely come with a big helping of stress. Kids feel the stress of mealtime too, and this can lead to decreased appetite and reduced willingness to try new foods.
It makes perfect sense that kids would reach for their safe foods in these moments. It is a natural response to stress to seek comfort and familiarity. At the dinner table, that might look like a child asking for a piece of bread or yet another pile of shredded cheese as the peas get tossed to the floor.
If they have the chance to explore the peas in a different setting, they can instead become curious and explore the food. Any positive food experience counts as exposure and brings your child closer to possibly tasting the food.
From examining the dry and wrinkled seed, to watching the vine grow and reach for the sky. And finally the reward of flowers and fresh pods! Growing peas with kids brings excitement and a positive experience with nutritious food.
Next comes the chance to pluck the pods off the vine and fill a basket. Can you imagine your picky eater popping those pods open and filling a bowl with the peas?
They just might! Without the pressure of sitting at a table where they know they are expected to eat the food, kids can let their guard down and simply interact with it.
2. Gardening is an Invitation for Sensory Play
Using all of the senses isn’t always welcome at the dinner table. Oftentimes, that is what gets called “playing with your food.” The general expectation is that mealtime is for eating.
As simple and appropriate as that sounds, it also can create a sense of pressure for kids who are less than willing to try new foods. They know that the desired outcome is for them to eat the foods presented to them at the dinner table.
Sensory play with food gives kids the chance to experience foods using all of their other senses without the expectation of tasting. Some kids need repeated exposure to textures, temperatures, and even visual presentations before they are willing to taste a food. Gardening can provide these benefits of food exploration.
This kind of activity can also be helpful for parents and caregivers to brainstorm appropriate ways to talk about food. Focusing on how the food is experienced by the senses helps adults move away from labelling foods as good and bad and instead describe them as crunchy or soft, hot or cold, sweet or savoury.
3. Garden Play Increases Familiarity with New Foods
Have you ever dined at a restaurant or friend’s home and been unfamiliar with something on your plate? Did you dive right in to try it, or did you ask questions first?
Most people would first ask something like, “What is this called?”, “What does it taste like?”, “How are you supposed to eat this?”, “How does this grow?” They might poke it with their fork or move their plate around to view it from different angles.
Most adults don’t dive right in to try unfamiliar food, they search for familiarity first. Kids are the same! The more familiar an item is, the more comfortable it feels for finicky eaters.
Gardening is one way to continuously become familiar with new foods without the pressure or expectation to eat them.
Going back to our pea example, kids can plant the seed in the soil, watch as the vine starts to grow, send out its tendrils (the small curly pieces that wrap around a trellis), flower, and finally begin to fruit.
The snap peas are teeny tiny at first, growing larger each day until they are finally plump and ready to pick. Not only are they observing these changes happening over the course of several weeks, but you can also tie in activities such as:
- Counting how many snap peas you can see
- Print out coloring sheets (search for “snap pea coloring page”)
- Draw and label the parts of the plant
- Search for time-lapses of the plant growing online
- Cut out construction paper in the shape of vines, leaves, and snap peas and glue the pieces together on a large piece of paper
- Take photos of the plant and compare the changes over time
- Read stories about that plant or about gardening
- Ask the child if they’d like to teach a friend or relative about the plant
We often talk about how many times a child needs to try a new food before they will accept it. For picky eaters to try new foods, it is helpful to take a step back and remember that familiarity is built in many ways, not just through eating.
4. Foods Grown in The Garden are a Novelty
Parents and kids alike will marvel at how even the most common of vegetables grow. Growing unique varieties not found at most grocery stores is fun.
Did you know tomatoes come as small as a child’s fingernail? Round, pear-shaped, long, smooth, with folds…there are so many more tomatoes than we see at the grocery store. They also come in most colors of the rainbow and even patterns like stripes.
Growing a food that looks different than expected encourages curiosity. Will the yellow tomato taste the same as the red cherry tomato?
5. Gardening Creates Connection
Growing food can help young children connect with culture. Whether through growing a hard-to-find ingredient for a family recipe or learning about how seeds and food have played a role in a culture’s identity and survival, growing food comes with many stories that can teach kids about those who came before them.
Gardening also creates a connection with nature. With growing food comes an understanding of how soil, water, insects, birds, bees, and more affect how food grows. Not only that, but spending time outside in a garden is beneficial for mental health and physical well-being.
How To Start Gardening With Your Picky Eater
To help your picky eater try new foods, there are many ways to begin gardening. No matter your space or experience level, you can start today!
Consider appropriate clothing such as closed-toed shoes, long sleeves, and gloves for kids (or their adults) that may be averse to dirt or bugs or weather. Or start with one of the gardening ideas at the beginning of the list below.
From the most simple to most involved, here are some ways to start gardening with kids:
- Read books about how food grows
- Search online for videos about how food grows (there are some great time-lapse videos out there!)
- Do a window greenhouse experiment:
- Soak a large seed like a bean overnight. Then place it on a damp paper towel inside of a sealed plastic bag. Tape in a sunny window and watch it sprout into a seedling over the next several days.
- Attend a farm or garden tour locally
- Grow microgreens indoors
- Start an herb garden on a sunny windowsill
- Create a container garden on a sunny patio
- Rent a plot at a community garden
- Build a raised bed or grow in the ground at home
- Help your child’s school start and/or maintain a school garden
Celebrate The Harvest
No matter the outcome of your gardening efforts celebrate every win. Whether your child overcame their intolerance for messy hands or willingly touched a tomato as they pulled it off of the plant…these are all wins that lead to a more flexible eater!
And if your simple garden doesn’t produce a thing, remember sometimes the process is even more valuable than the final product. Gardening is a lot of experimentation and trial and error. Just like feeding picky kids.
Amrie DeFrates, RD