Core Principles Series: Cultivate a Connection to Food

Contributed by Nancy Lim, Board Member, The School Garden Doctor

It sounded all too familiar.  “I don’t like broccoli,” a student named Mason told me as we were planting winter veggies in our class garden. “And I don’t like cauliflower either,” he added. Students could choose to plant broccoli, spinach or cauliflower. Reluctantly, he planted spinach, the only choice left.  After weeks of tending to the veggies, I noticed one day at recess that some children, including Mason, were picking and nibbling young broccoli florets with big smiles on their faces. Yumful! From that day on, Mason was a broccoli super-fan.   

If they grow it, they’ll eat it.  It will seem less bizarre if they are part of the growing process.

During my years teaching in a school garden I’ve noticed that students who participate in school gardens are more likely to try and even have increased preference for healthy fruits and veggies. (Parents showered big thank you’s for that!) The sensory stimulation–the smells, the colors, the tastes–in a garden is tremendous. There’s nothing like pulling out a carrot for the first time, biting into a juicy tomato, or smelling basil to get a child excited about eating what he helped grow. We adults know it can take multiple times of trying a food for a child to like or prefer eating it, so we keep harvesting and sampling.  

According to Nathan Larson, author of Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education, gardens are ideal environments to teach children about food. They learn exactly where their food comes from through direct experience. He reminds us that “we live at a time when many children do not know where their food comes from–much less how it is grown.” Unlike adults, most kids aren’t thinking of the big picture–how gardening helps create a healthy planet or their role in the local food system of growers and consumers. They’re just enjoying the little things, like the way their hands smell after harvesting herbs or the satisfying crunch of a freshly picked snap pea.

Unlike lectures or worksheets on healthful practices, gardens provide an experiential, hands-on learning environment, “where kids get the chance to smell the leaves of the tomato plant and eat carrots with the dirt still on,” says Curt Ellis, CEO of FoodCorps, a non-profit organization whose mission is to work with communities to connect kids to healthy food in school.

“Working in a garden is a real-world activity; it engages students and encourages them to explore and reason independently.” 

Curt Ellis, CEO of FoodCorps

Eva Ringstrom, Director of Impact at FoodCorps, goes on to say that repeated exposure can also build the emotional connections to food that are essential to behavior change. “When children spend weeks or months growing their food, they feel proud of and connected to it — which is key to trying new dishes with an open mind.”

A 2017 evaluation conducted by the Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University found that in schools that provide frequent, high-quality opportunities for hands-on nutrition learning, students eat up to three times more fruits and vegetables at school lunch — regardless of whether or not that food was grown in the garden.

A school garden provides ongoing opportunities for students to learn about growing healthy food. In my experience, a simple question like “what should we plant?” hooks students from the start and can lead to further discussions about ways we like to eat fruits and veggies and what parts of plants we eat. They will stay engaged during the growing process to eat the fresh-picked food – a well-deserved reward!

When you extend the hands-on learning to cooking what you grow, the food connections are strengthened. I usually start with tastings of different types of veggies, herbs or fruit that we planted. Then, I move on to making salads, another popular no-cook food experience. My students also loved making smoothies with strawberries and other fruit. If you have access to an oven, you could make apple chips (and send home the recipe for students to make it again at home). Haven’t tried making apple chips? Read on!  

Apple Chips


  • three varieties of apples
  • cinnamon
  • sugar


  • cutting board
  • knife
  • baking sheets
  • measuring cups and spoons
  • small bowl
  • aluminum foil


  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
  2. Wash apples.
  3. Cut apples into thin slices.
  4. Cover pans with foil.
  5. Place slices of each kind of apple in a row on your pan.  Repeat with the second pan.
  1. Add 1/4c. sugar and 1 tsp. cinnamon to a small bowl.  Mix.
  2. Put both pans in the oven and bake for one hour (one pan on top rack, one on bottom).  Switch pans on the oven racks.  Bake for another hour.
  3. Let cool for 10 mins.  Enjoy!

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