Top Tips for Gardening with Kids

Featured image for the article: "Top Tips for Gardening with Kids". Pictured is a toddler digging in a garden.

Summer is fast approaching (thankfully!) and so getting your toddler, or older kids, outside for some fresh air and to burn off all that energy is probably top of your mind. You might even be starting to plan out what you’ll do as a family this summer. Maybe you have some day trips, sports or activities, or full-on vacations planned for the wonderful summer months! But, one thing I’d like to suggest to you as being a really fun, family activity, for outside, is gardening.

Okay, I know, it may sound daunting to start a garden, especially one where the goal is to have your toddler be completely involved. That may seem like a lot of prep, organization, and keeping your toddler from trampling all of your hard work. I get it – I’m not a gardener myself – but I still suggest it because the benefits are so great! Especially if you have a picky toddler, and even more so if they’re picky about vegetables. Getting them outside, in the dirt, with hands-on experience and exposure to those vegetables is going to improve the likelihood of your toddler actually eating those same vegetables – maybe without you even having to ask them!

Since I’m still learning about gardening myself, I brought on my dietetic intern, Caitlin, to the podcast to chat about her experience as a gardener and mom to a picky toddler. She shares all the details on the podcast, which you can listen to here, and I’m going to be sharing her top tips and info below!

A bit about Caitlin and her motherhood journey so far: 

Caitlin is currently in her last year of her dietetics program at Mount Saint Vincent University, and is completing her last internship placement this summer! She knew she wanted to be a dietitian when she started discovering how much food meant to her, and how much it played a part in her daily rituals. And not only that, but how making healthier food choices made her feel so much more energized and at her best. She found out she was pregnant with her son, Asher, in 2014, while in her second year of her degree and took a couple years off with him before returning in 2016.

Outside of school, she loves being a mom and wife, family means everything to her! She loves hiking, or doing just about anything outside, and as a family they love the summer so they can spend as much time as possible outdoors. 

Caitlin’s experience in feeding a picky toddler:

They definitely have had their share of picky eating in their household, and she also honestly shares that they still do – but it’s much less worse! This is something they’ve learned is a continuous work in progress. Some days are fantastic, others aren’t. And she describes her situation as being very similar to those of My Little Eater’s™ clients. 

When they started solids with Asher, everything was great, he basically ate anything they offered him with no complaints, and was a big eater actually. She was home with him, and provided most of his meals, so she always tried to provide variety, she offered foods that were high in iron, and nutrient dense.  

She started noticing some pickiness develop when he was around 14 months old. He started being more selective with what he would eat and started refusing to eat some of his favourites. They started seeing him throw food that he didn’t want to eat off his plate and highchair. He ended up not wanting to come and sit at the table because he wasn’t interested in what was being served, and just straight up threw fits if he was at the table and not given what he wanted. This got worse once he got a bit older, and was able to express himself with words, because he then would refuse all meals and just ask for those typical “snack foods”, you know the ones that are marketed for kids, like yogurt pouches, goldfish, and puffs. 

She’s completely honest in that, even though she was studying nutrition, she was still stumped on the details of how to feed a toddler, or how to deal with these types of situations. All the guidelines out there will tell you when to start solids with your baby, and what foods to offer, but they don’t prepare you on how to actually increase the chances they will eat it, because in the long run, she just couldn’t make him eat anything. Caitlin went through all of this before she was aware of the Feeding Toddlers course, and says that “All of these tips and tricks that you’re providing to your clients, I wish I had back then because it would have been a God-send!”. 

To make matters worse for her, he was small for his age, and was on the lowest percentile for his weight. The comments from other people started to get to her too, and she started to worry that he wasn’t eating enough because of his picky eating. They ended up seeking help from a feeding clinic, which unfortunately really didn’t help matters because it didn’t truly tackle his behaviour at mealtimes. So, they kept pushing through, and things did get better as she learned how to manage his behaviours a bit. She particularly started to notice some improvements once he started daycare. And they truly got better when she started volunteering with My Little Eater™, and started learning not just what to feed, but HOW to feed and HOW to handle mealtimes better. 

He’s currently 5 1/2, and he does still struggle with some foods. He’s always struggled with being introduced to unfamiliar foods, and especially with vegetables and meat. But, he’s a much more adventurous eater, and will at least try new foods. Typically, meat always had to be breaded, or have some sort of a coating on it, or dipped in ketchup. But, they’re now at a good place where he’ll eat a variety of meat! 

He’s also increased his vegetable intake so much (which she attributes some of that success to gardening!). When they first started their garden three years ago, he wouldn’t even put vegetables on his plate, wouldn’t touch them, and definitely wouldn’t eat them. He can now have them on his plate, and enjoys helping her pick which veggies they’ll eat with meals.

Why she started gardening and the changes she noticed in Asher:

Caitlin started her garden about 3 years ago after completing a research project in one of her classes on how gardening can increase the vegetable intake of children – and she was sold! She’s very passionate about supporting local when she can, and is fortunate enough to live near many farmers markets, and local farmers, and one of her favourite things to do is take a weekend drive to the farmers markets and get the produce she needs for the following week. Given how cold it is here in Nova Scotia for a big portion of the year, it’s easier to do this in the summer and early fall. Experiencing the quality of the vegetables she was able to get from markets, as compared to a big box store, helped to inspire her to start sourcing her own vegetables. She is so thankful to have taken that leap, and has never looked back! 

Growing their garden is a family activity, from start to finish. They built raised garden beds – they started with a 12 foot x 12 foot garden, which has now been doubled. Making sure Asher is involved has made such a difference in the likelihood that he’ll try new vegetables, and a part of this is because he’s having so much fun helping. He loves planting the seeds, he gets so excited watching them grow, and even more excited harvesting the veggies when they’re ready!

For some perspective, we’re talking about a kid who went from despising the existence of spinach, to picking it fresh from the garden and eating it without even being prompted to, or being asked to try it. Same with beets. He used to hate them, she couldn’t even put them on the table without him making a disgusted face, and now he eats more beets than she does every summer! They’re one of his favourite vegetables that they grow, and she actually sees a huge decrease in how many beets he’ll eat in the winter, because they’re store bought and just don’t taste the same, they’re much more bitter. And those are just a couple of the veggies he loves now! He also became more familiar with the different veggies. This helped him overcome his fear of the ones that were new because he knew the names, the look of them, and she can honestly say he’s tried everything he’s grown in their garden (which is over 15 types of veggies!).

Caitlin feels a sense of pride knowing she grows a large portion of their vegetables when she can, and it seems that he has this same pride and excitement. And I have to agree. We know that kids that are in the kitchen, let alone a garden, feel a sense of pride in what they help to make. It’s hands-on, they feel like they’ve done something to help, they produced something, and they had a role to play. So when the food finally shows up on the table it’s like: “Look what I made, look what I did, look what I grew!” 

Tips for gardening for beginners:

Gardens are so rewarding. They may seem like a lot of work in the beginning, but I promise it’s so worth it! Caitlin doesn’t claim to be an expert, and when she started she began with a lot of research! Gardening is somewhat of a science. 

The things she says are most important to figure out are: what you want to plant, when to plant it, and ensuring you have good quality soil. 

Starting the seeds:

Plants need warmer temperature and sun for 6-8 hours a day to help them grow. Frost can completely destroy some plants. But, some plants will do okay in colder temperatures, like spinach, carrots, and broccoli, for example But others have to be strategically planted after the risk of frost has passed. Typically for them, they start seeds inside if possible so they are strong enough when the weather is warm outside. They just planted their broccoli, tomatoes, yellow beans, peas, squash, and pumpkins this past week, and are keeping them inside until it’s warmer. She keeps them on a window sill to ensure they get enough sunlight, and waters them every morning. 

Usually when you buy seeds, the packages will tell you if you can start them inside or if they have to be planted directly into the garden, and it will also give you some insight on the spacing you need for each plant you want to have. So typically, they start the vegetables mentioned above inside, about 6-8 weeks before the last frost and, depending on the weather, can plant them in their garden bed by the middle of May. She encourages everyone to take time and figure out what you want to plant a few months in advance so you can plan things out better, and don’t miss the window of opportunity to get those seeds started! Sometimes you can even squeeze in multiple crops for certain vegetables, if you plan it accordingly. 

Prepping the soil:

Preparing the soil is so important for proper root development. There are typically two types of gardens, one is a raised bed, which is just a big wooden frame above ground, and is what Caitlin has, and the other is a traditional garden plot. 

They chose to do a raised garden bed because their soil quality is poor, and very sandy, which allows for water to pass through too quickly and dries plants out fast. It also allows for nutrients from the soil and fertilizer to be washed away faster. If you’re looking to start a garden, she suggests always checking your location first, and assess the soil quality. If you find you have really sandy soil, or soil that has a texture similar to clay, which is hard and sticky, she recommends opting for a raised bed, or at least building up a higher level of soil in your traditional garden. 

Step-by-step instructions of how Caitlin got her garden started:
  1. Remove any grass and sod with a shovel, and ensure any big rocks are also removed.
  2. Build your garden box, they chose a 12 inch high box. This gives them more control over their soil quality. 
  3. Research how to create a good soil mix, and purchase different components separately (a garden centre can help you with this). They currently have a mixture of about 60% top soil, 35% compost/manure and about 5% peatmoss/mulch. 
  4. Dump some of each component into your garden bed, until it’s about 4 inches deep, and then till it well, until mixed. 
  5. Repeat step 4 until your garden bed is full. 

When in doubt, try to find reputable sources online that can help you tailor your garden soil to your needs, or ask at a local garden center!

What are the easiest veggies to grow?

The easiest, in Caitlin’s opinion, are greens! Think:

  • spinach
  • romaine/lettuce
  • kale

These can be started fairly early in the spring, and frost has never really affected hers much, even if they have a late frost.

Next, she would recommend trying cucumbers, beans, and beets. They always seem to be overrun with these plants, but wouldn’t have it any other way! 

What Caitlin is planting right now, and how she recommends getting started ASAP:

Right now, they’re prepping their seedlings so they’re ready to be planted in the warmer months. They’re doing: broccoli, beans, peas, squash, pumpkins, zucchini, roma tomatoes, tiny tim tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, English cucumbers, onions, carrots, beets, spinach, kale, and romaine. 

They mostly grow things during the summer months, but things that don’t mind the cold can be started right now. They will plant their spinach and carrots within the next week, while it’s still a bit chilly, because they can tolerate the cold. She also started her broccoli now because she finds it grows best when the weather isn’t too hot, and she gets the biggest heads by planting at this time. For the majority of the rest of the veggies, she has to wait until the frost is gone to plant them outside, but they do have them started inside, and will harden them to the outside when it becomes warmer. By this she means that as temperatures start increasing, she will begin bringing the plants outside for short periods at a time before returning them back inside her house. This allows the plants to become accustomed to the different temperature outside so that they can thrive once transplanted – who knew!

She also recommends doing a couple rounds of veggies that can grow in cooler weather, for example, she will do two rounds of spinach each year, one in early spring and one in late summer/early fall, because they do well in the cold. Plus, she loves spinach!

How can toddlers and preschoolers help in the garden?

Getting them involved in the garden is such a great experience for them! With Asher she found it created a better connection with his food. He learned to appreciate where it comes from, and loves watching it grow. Letting him be a part of the entire experience helped him become more familiar with each vegetable as they grew, helping eliminate his fear of not knowing what they were. As they grow, he gets exposure to texture, and gets to interact with them on his own terms, without the pressure to eat them. 

When they first started, she found that gardening helped foster his curiosity, and continues to do so now. We all know toddlers are learners, they love to know everything, and gardening can be a fun way to help this curiosity grow. 

Caitlin involved Asher right from the start. You can buy toddler sized garden tools, like spades, rakes, and even watering cans. With Asher, he helped make the mounds and rows that they use to separate the different vegetables. This was one of his favourite parts because what toddler doesn’t love playing in the dirt?!

Toddlers can also help plant the seeds. If you’re starting some seeds inside, just grab some small plant pots, or one of those premade garden trays with soil packs in them, and get them to poke the holes where the seeds would go. When they get older, and more coordinated, they can help plant each seed individually outside too. Just offer some guidance as to where the holes should be so your plants have proper spacing and enough room to grow!

When the seeds are planted, they can help monitor their growth and take care of the garden daily. She and Asher water their garden every morning, and night if needed. She found a toddler sized watering can for him, and he loves doing this everyday! Nothing is more exciting for him than seeing them grow! You can even get them to help weed the garden, it may not sound like fun, but if they get to be outside playing in the dirt, toddlers will usually be happy about that, no matter what. And just to note on the time commitment for this as well, for those of you thinking this sounds pretty daunting (I was wondering this myself), Caitlin spends about 10 minutes daily on the garden, and about an hour over the weekend weeding – that’s it!

Once the veggies are ready, get them involved in the harvest! Let them pick whatever vegetables are ready. Simply let them know which vegetables are ready to be eaten, and bring a container along for them to place all the goodies in. They usually do nightly harvests when things are plentiful, and cook them for dinner that night! 

Once you harvest them, let them get involved in the cleaning. This may be messy with a toddler, but let them help you as much as they can. You can get scrub brushes that you use to clean the vegetables with, and let them scrub off the dirt. Now that Asher is older, he can harvest the veggies and brings them right inside to clean. She makes sure he has a scrub brush handy by the sink so he can be as independent with this as possible. 

Bottom line, keep this fun, keep them involved, and keep them exposed! I often talk about food exploration, and the importance of keeping food fun, and what better way to get them exposed to veggies than by letting them dig them out of the dirt, and explore each one as they prepare them for you – so much sensory input happening with this! And the bonus too is that this is not like what they experience at the dinner table, so they don’t tend to approach the foods in the same way. There’s no pressure, no directions to sit still or chew their food or try a food, etc. It’s just about being in the dirt, exploring and learning about the vegetables, and there’s no pressure to actually eat them because it’s essentially play time.

What if you don’t have room for a garden – what can you plant indoors?

Caitlin doesn’t typically plant many indoors, but recommends trying to start with leafy greens, because they’re fairly easy to grow indoors as they don’t take up a lot of space. Herbs and spices are also great options, or you can look into the hydroponic planters. She says you can even grow a tomato plant indoors, if you have the space, and they typically yield a lot of tomatoes so that would be really helpful too! You just have to take into consideration the amount of sunlight that the plants will be getting inside.

Let’s try to remember to start small, even one plant is going to be something that could make a difference for your toddler, if that’s what you can do right now. They may not start eating right away, or love the taste right away, but remember that this is about the exposures, and the experience, and it could be a turning point for your toddler to start viewing vegetables in a different way.

A little story about my son, Jonah, is that when he was in preschool they grew a garden there, and they had planted radishes. So when I would pick him up from preschool his pockets would be overflowing with radishes – seriously! They were falling out of his pockets, and he was munching on them like they were apples. The daycare teachers were laughing because they could not get him to leave the radishes there, or not pick as many, etc. He was obsessed! And to this day that is still his favourite veggie, and I really think that has to do with the fact that he grew them himself, and he had such a positive exposure to them at such a young age.

If you’re looking for other ideas on how to increase your toddler’s food exploration, and activities to do with your toddler to expose them to new foods, check out my Feeding Toddlers online course! I include ideas for food exploration, with handouts, along with all my top tips and tricks for preventing and reversing picky eating behaviours. 

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meet edwena

Registered pediatric dietitian, mom of two and lover of all things related to baby and toddler feeding!

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