Gardening is a fun, hands-on activity that can transform your child’s relationship with food and consequently improve picky eating.

Any interaction with new food, whether it’s in the kitchen or outside in the dirt, is beneficial for an extreme picky eater. Activities like gardening can help them feel more comfortable with food and can even pique their curiosity, which are key to building their motivation to try eating a new food. 

With spring right around the corner, it’s an ideal time to begin gardening to improve picky eating. Here are six reasons to garden with your picky eater.

Improve Picky Eating with Gardening

6 Ways Gardening Can Improve Picky Eating

Gardening Allows for Pressure-Free Interactions with New Foods

Unlike the kitchen table, the garden is a stress-free zone for extreme picky eaters. Encountering food when there is no expectation to eat is hugely beneficial for picky eaters. It allows them to freely engage with food in a way that feels comfortable to them. Allowing your child to explore food at their own pace and develop trust is essential for building a positive feeding experience and is a foundational step in helping them learn to eat new foods [1]. 

 

Gardening Can Help a Picky Eater Engage with Food

Research shows that sensory-based education like gardening is associated with an increased willingness to try new foods, especially new fruits and vegetables [2, 3]. Gardening is a hands-on experience that naturally creates opportunities that can improve picky eating. Children who garden are known to have higher intake of fruits and vegetables compared to kids who don’t. Plus, time in the garden allows for conversations about new foods that might not occur naturally at mealtimes such as discussions about how foods look, feel, and smell. 

 

Gardening Can Boost Confidence

Gardening can help your picky eater build a sense of responsibility, which is associated with improved self-confidence. Gardening can also help your child have successful and positive interactions with new foods. Positive experiences with new foods can make them feel more competent at mealtimes and can increase their interest and ability in choosing and interacting with food in the future [4]. Increased comfort and feelings of responsibility can lead to a more positive feeding experience, for both you and your picky eater. 

 

Gardening Creates Curiosity About Food  

Growing food in a garden can develop a child’s sensory development and curiosity about food, benefits which can last into adulthood [5]. If your child is excited about taking ownership in the garden, capitalize on their engagement by introducing new foods and then discussing and exploring them using all of your senses. They can even taste if they’re ready. Include your child in decisions about what they want to plant and where. Boost their engagement by asking how large they think their harvest will grow and what they think will be ready to harvest next. Your child might even want to track progress in a journal or through photos. 

 

Increases Positive Family Time Around Food

Spending time in the garden together or growing herbs on the windowsill is a great way to spend time together as a family and enjoy positive food experiences with your child. Take advantage of this time together to simply enjoy the experience. Be mindful that your interactions with food in the garden can impact how your child engages with food. Naturally explore the foods you grow and model how you taste and cook with the food you have grown together. Your child will notice and this can inspire them to follow your cues and taste new food, too.

 

Gardening Relieves Food Stress and Positively Impact Mood

Spending time gardening may ease a child’s mood and is associated with reduced stress in both children and adults [6,7]. When a picky eater is feeling anxious or stressed, it can lead to low appetite, decreased willingness to try new foods, and associations of stress around food. Stress impacts both your and your picky eater’s mealtime experience and can make eating new foods even harder for your child [8]. When a picky eater encounters new foods outside of mealtimes in a comfortable setting, they often feel less resistance to trying a new food. 

 

 

Recap

There are so many reasons to garden with your picky eater. Picky eaters usually shy away from interacting with non-preferred foods. Yet, gardening can improve picky eating and is a fun, low-pressure way to transform your child’s relationship to new foods. In addition to increasing your child’s motivation to try new foods, gardening provides your child with the opportunity to have positive interactions with new food. Gardening can also boost your child’s feelings of confidence and investment in new foods, which also leads to improvements in eating.  

 

 

References: 

[1] Castle, J., Jacobsen, M. (2013). Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass. 

[2] Kähkönen, K., Rönkä, A., Hujo, M., Lyytikäinen, A., & Nuutinen, O. (2018). Sensory-based food education in early childhood education and care, willingness to choose and eat fruit and vegetables, and the moderating role of maternal education and food neophobia. Public Health Nutrition, 21(13), 2443-2453. doi:10.1017/S1368980018001106

[3] Savoie-Roskos MR, Wengreen H, Durward C. Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Intake among Children and Youth through Gardening-Based Interventions: A Systematic Review. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017 Feb;117(2):240-250. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.10.014

[4] Finnane JM, Jansen E, Mallan KM, Daniels LA. Mealtime Structure and Responsive Feeding Practices Are Associated With Less Food Fussiness and More Food Enjoyment in Children. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2017 Jan;49(1):11-18.e1. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2016.08.007

[5] Davis KL, Brann LS. Examining the benefits and barriers of instructional gardening programs to increase fruit and vegetable intake among preschool-age children. J of Envir and Public Health. 2017 

[6] Lee MJ, Oh W, Jang JS, Lee JY. A pilot study: Horticulture-related activities significantly reduce stress levels and salivary cortisol concentration of maladjusted elementary school children. Complement Ther Med. 2018 Apr;37:172-177. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2018.01.004

[7] Van Den Berg AE, Custers MH. Gardening promotes neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress. J Health Psychol. 2011 Jan;16(1):3-11. doi:10.1177/1359105310365577

[8] Walton, K., Kuczynski, L., Haycraft, E. et al. Time to re-think picky eating?: a relational approach to understanding picky eating. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 14, 62 (2017). doi:10.1186/s12966-017-0520-0