Last updated: Sep 23, 2016

Want your kids to grow up loving fruits and vegetables? Teach them to garden: It may have lasting impacts on their food preferences, says new research.

According to the study, college students who garden—or who learned to garden as children—eat more fruits and vegetables than those who don’t. The findings were based on a survey of 1,351 students conducted for the “Get Fruved” project, a collaboration between eight American universities aimed at improving the health and diet of students across the country.

One of the first steps for Get Fruved (which is short for “Get Your Fruits and Veggies”) is to better understand the influencing factors behind health behaviors of high-school and college students. Previous studies have shown that young children are more likely to try fresh produce when they spend time in a fruit and vegetable garden, says Anne Matthews, PhD, so her team wanted to see if this association might remain as kids get older.

Matthews, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida, used survey data from all eight Get Fruved schools to look for such correlations. She and her colleagues divided the results into four groups: students who gardened while growing up; students who garden now; those who did both; and those who did neither.

They found that 30 percent had gardened as a child, and 38 percent gardened at the time of the interview. And compared to students who said they never gardened, these green-thumb groups reported eating more fruits and vegetables: an average of 2.9 cups a day, versus just 2.4.

The results were consistent across the board, says Matthews: “It was the same for males, females, black, white, whether they were from West Virginia or from Maine. No matter what, actively being out in a garden increased their likelihood of eating more fruits and veggies.”

The researchers also asked students if they were exposed to gardening growing up, but did not actively participate themselves. “We found that if your parents gardened but you did not, just watching them did not make a difference in how much fruits and vegetables you eat in college,” says Matthews. “Hands on experience seems to matter.”

The study’s abstract is published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and it will be presented at the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Exhibition in October. Its findings suggest that school gardens and farm-to-school programs may not just benefit children while they’re involved, says Matthews, but that they may shape life-long healthy behaviors.

That’s important for parents to know when they’re deciding what hobbies and programs to introduce to their children, she says, and for school officials to consider when making choices about classroom curriculum and after-school options.

“To me, the most meaningful output of this research so far is that there are potentially long-term nutrition and health benefits of these programs,” she says.

The study also sends an important lesson to young adults who have never gardened and don’t eat a lot of produce: It’s not too late to make a change.

“A lot of universities have gardens where students can get involved, or they might even have classes where you learn about sustainable farming practices,” Matthews says.

While gardening does seem to make a difference, even those with green thumbs in the study still have room for improvement: According to the U.S. government’s My Plate recommendations, adults ages 19 to 30 should aim to eat 2 cups of fruit and 2-1/2 to 3 cups of vegetables every day.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that getting your hands dirty will turn you into a green-bean lover. But Matthews is optimistic: “It might be as simple as saying, ‘I grew this—I’m not going to throw it away or let it dry up on the plant; I’m going to figure out how to cook it and make it taste good.’”

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