A new study by Elsevier has found that teaching children healthy eating habits through repetition is the best way to help them understand the benefits of increased consumption and nutrition. This study is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
“Because preschool children rely on other people to provide food, it is important to understand best practices to improve healthy eating,” said lead author Jane Lanigan, PhD, from the Department of Human Development at Washington State University Vancouver. “This study shows the value of creating consistent nutrition phrases to use in the home and in child care and healthcare settings during meal time.”
The study recruited 98 families from two early-education programs that taught 3- to 6-year-olds. The first program took part in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which served kids breakfast, lunch, and snacks. And the second program only served kids the food they brought from home.
The researchers introduced tomatoes, bell peppers, lentils, and quinoa and assigned kids one of the foods for repeated exposure, one for repeated exposure plus child-centered nutrition phrases, and two foods for no intervention.
During the six-week study, kids took part in tasting sessions two days per week. In these sessions, children would visit stations and were offered food to try out. On the days that child-centered nutrition phrases plus repeat exposure were in use, researchers introduced kids to food-related phrases like “Whole grains help you run fast and jump high,” and “Fruits and vegetables help keep you from getting sick.”
Children were then asked to describe the food they were tasting by selecting a face that showed how they think the food tastes. The foods were later given out to kids as snacks and researchers noted which foods were selected.
They found that repeated exposure, as well as repeated exposure with child-centered nutrition phrases, increased the kids’ willingness to try foods and positively shifted preference and consumption. In fact, those who heard the child-centered nutrition phrases consumed twice as much of the foods after the intervention even if their stated liking or willingness to try remained at the same level.
“Mealtime conversations can be a time to encourage food exploration and develop healthy eating behaviors with young children,” Dr. Lanigan concluded. “Both parents and child care providers would benefit from learning and using developmentally appropriate, accurate nutrition messages when introducing new foods.”