Gardening With a Picky Eater


GardeningKidsCan garden participation trick a picky eater into trying new things?

By Meagan Howell

There are few pleasures in life more satisfying to me than a finely-made salad, a Brussels sprout roasted to perfection, or the sight of a purple eggplant shining in the sun at a farmer’s market. A love of cooking and eating naturally led me to gardening. Shortly after my husband and I bought our first house, we grew our first vegetable garden. Our new baby would sit on a blanket, yanking at the grass and watching with big eyes while her papa dug the beds. We were all tickled by those first efforts. I remember gazing out of our kitchen window at the Swiss chard leaves veined in scarlet, relishing the thought of sharing all this bounty with my tiny daughter. Growing vegetables and growing a baby went so darn nicely together.

In that first year of Frances’ life, I would lovingly steam and puree kale, sweet potatoes, and beets, then freeze them in ice cube trays. I admired those nutrient-packed cubes as if they were jewels I had fashioned for my perfect baby, who would only grow more perfect playing amongst the cabbages, fueled by a rainbow-hued diet. Ah, the delusions of early parenthood!

For a short while, the vegetables did go over pretty well. But after her first birthday, as is the case with many picky eaters, it was a slow and steady slide downhill – a hill that ended just as toddlerhood hit in a sad, colorless valley of depressingly plain foods. Frances increasingly rejected anything we put in front of her, with noisy protests, until I watched in horror one night as a friend, unable to bear it any longer, jumped up from the table (at which we were guests) to rinse the tomato sauce off my daughter’s spaghetti and return it to her in a more pure and acceptable state. The noise stopped. My sense of failure and disappointment did not.

Despite the fact that our family eats dinner together every night and has enjoyed many a garden and CSA membership, my daughter’s relationship to food has continued to be tenuous at best. Apparently much of this is genetic. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007 researched food “neophobia” (fear of new foods) in 5,390 pairs of twins. The study’s authors determined that picky eating is 78% due to genetics and 22% due to environmental factors. My husband was a severely picky eater as a child. I was not. Frances is; her brother is not. What we do at home matters, but the genetic deck is undeniably stacked.

Since that 22% does mean something, we keep on trying. I have labored over recipes a la Sneaky Chef, slipping pureed spinach into brownies and sweet potatoes into grilled cheese (both flopped, and created an air of suspicion around new recipes: did you hide a vegetable in this too, Mama?). I’ve cut vegetables into animal shapes and served them with various dips. We’ve made a rainbow chart that Frances gets to fill in whenever she eats something of a particular color. We often cook, bake, and read recipes together, quite happily. But when it comes to sitting down to dinner, things can be tense.

So what about the garden? After a year’s hiatus due to a move, our family planned last summer’s ambitious garden together with great anticipation. My son was old enough to wield a plastic trowel, and after poring over all the beautiful pictures in seed catalogs, Frances chose the things she wanted to grow in a plot that we named The Children’s Garden. Green beans, cucumbers, and carrots, along with zinnias and cosmos. When the seeds arrived, we sorted and labeled them in diminutive plastic bags that were full of the promise of summer family meals to come. Perhaps these might be free from arguments over what constitutes an actual bite of peas! Maybe my daughter would forget her old ways and start asking for second helpings.

The garden is a great thing, but it does not cure picky eating. Remember the genetic business? The truth is that a picky eater is a picky eater is a picky eater – at least for now. Even Michelle Obama admits that getting her daughters to eat their vegetables can be a struggle, despite their involvement in the White House garden and having excellent chefs prepare their meals. But though a kid’s enthusiasm for broccoli may not change much in a single growing season, gardens do have an effect on the health and sensibility of kids that is undeniably positive.

Dalyn Huntley serves as treasurer on the board of Grow Annapolis, a nonprofit group that helps design, start, and support community gardens. She is also mother to three young boys. Two of the three, by her admission, are picky eaters. Dalyn’s family has a vegetable garden at home, as well as a plot in GrowAnnapolis’ downtown community garden on Compromise Street. According to her, all three boys love to garden, and the older they get, the more impact it has on their eating.

“They’ll eat beans from the garden, but not from a store,” says Dalyn. “When they were younger I’d just set aside a spot for them to dig in and pretend plant. Now my nine year old is the one who pushed us to do a plot in the community garden this year.” A community garden brings new elements to a child’s understanding of food: it becomes a shared project, connecting them not only to food systems and the natural world but to their neighbors and the broader community. GrowAnnapolis is currently planning their first sustainable food garden for a school, in partnership with Annapolis Parks and Recreation, at Annapolis Elementary School. A garden-themed summer camp will be held at the school where kids will be able to help plant, weed, harvest, and who knows – maybe even eat the vegetables they help grow.

Having a place for children to develop their own relationship to growing things justifies the labor and commitment gardening requires. More than once last summer I noticed my daughter munching furtively on sugar snap peas or strawberries while no one was looking. If I said one word about it, she’d stop. As long as I can refrain from wresting whatever independence she has in the garden from her, I suspect she will only grow in her connection to it. When Frances picks a bean from the vine, she is the one in charge. Especially when it grew from a seed she planted. Not a single grown up sullied that snack.

So while it isn’t a silver bullet for picky eating, growing a garden is worth it for this family. When a kid gets involved in growing food – be it with family, friends, neighbors, or teachers – she has a newfound stake in the health of her body, her community, and the environment. Frances truly celebrated when we yanked the first dirty orange carrot out of the soil last summer, dancing around with it in the backyard. She didn’t eat it, but she communed with it. Which is good enough for me.

Gardening with kids is like planting seeds: the work you do now will continue to grow, flower, and fruit in unknown ways, well after our picky eaters get over their fear of asparagus. When you think about it, an intuitively ecological, creative, and wonder-filled sense of the world is worth so much more to the health of a child than a recipe that sneaks in an unnoticed tablespoon of pureed spinach.

Lately my picky eater and I have been checking out the new seed catalogs. Purple artichokes? Yes! Spicy jalapenos? Even better! I may be the only one eating them, but that’s okay. It’s going to be a good summer.

Meagan Howell lives in Annapolis and blogs about family life at