How to Get Kids to Eat Their Vegetables

May 17th 2015

Laura Donovan

Kids often reject the taste and look of healthy foods, particularly green veggies, but new research from Cornell University might have some answers on how to get young people to improve their diets.

Published in Acta Paediatrica, the study reveals that high school kids are more likely to consume produce if they harvested the veggies themselves in school gardens. According to the findings, the subjects were more than four times more likely to make themselves a salad in the school cafeteria when garden-grown vegetables were placed in the salad bar.

"We see great promise with this research," said co-author Drew Hanks. "The first hurdle in increasing vegetable consumption is simply getting kids to put them on their plate."

Looking at a high school in upstate New York, the researchers observed 370 students who bought lunch from the cafeteria. Selection of salads increased from 2 to 10 percent when the salad bar included veggies grown by students, with students consuming two-thirds of the salad on their plates. Although the amount of wasted plate food increased, so did salad consumption for the entire student body.

"This is a small study, but it suggests gardens can help children's diets, even in the snow belt," lead author Brian Wansink, Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, told Science Daily. 

Jane Hirschi, who recently published a book on the educational and personal benefits of garden-based learning, told The Huffington Post last month that school gardens are "amazing places for kids to learn basic academic subjects, to understand what science and the natural world are all about."

Hirschi added it's just as important to give children access to gardens as it is to teach them about technology in our evolving society.

“There’s a public feeling that all schools should have those [technological] resources, that kids need to be literate in technology or they’ll be missing something big,” Hirschi told the publication. “Ecology is the other half of that, it's a yin-yang relationship. We need to make the case that kids need both, not one or the other.”

Let's Move! and the White House garden harvesting day

First Lady Michelle Obama, who has been trying to combat childhood obesity with her Let's Move! campaign, invited elementary school students to participate in the fall 2009 harvesting of the White House Kitchen Garden, nudging the kids to eat their vegetables in the process. 

Several months earlier, Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House.

"My hope is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities," she told The New York Times. "A real delicious heirloom tomato is one of the sweetest things that you’ll ever eat. And my children know the difference, and that’s how I’ve been able to get them to try different things."

Michelle Obama suggests cutting down on processed foods in favor of fruits, veggies, and exercise. President Barack Obama is also on board with the Let's Move! campaign and did a promotional video for the movement with Vice President Joe Biden last year:

The societal impact of poor eating.

The First Family and schools all over the U.S. have good reason to be alarmed about youth eating habits, as childhood obesity is more than twice as bad for children and has quadrupled in teens over the last few decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Low-income children and adolescents are also at a higher risk of obesity than their non low-income counterparts.

Last week, ATTN: reported that the societal cost of obesity could cost more than $1.1 trillion, according to findings the Brookings Institute and the World Food Center of the University of California-Davis. Studying the 12.7 million obese children in the U.S. and current literature on obesity, researchers found that the individual cost is almost $100,000 per obese adult, with the lifetime costs exceeding $1.1 trillion if the kids remain obese into adulthood.

"If all 12.7 million U.S. youth with obesity became obese adults, the societal costs over their lifetime would cost $1.1 trillion," Brookings Institute research associate Matthew Kassman said of the findings. "Even if it weren't morally incumbent on us to care about the life and health of our fellow citizens, our research indicates that we have a clear economic incentive to do so."