Early childhood is a critical period for establishing healthy eating behaviors, yet many preschoolers in the United States are not meeting dietary recommendations.
Now, new research suggests the best way to develop healthy eating habits is to consistently expose preschoolers to healthy food choices. This allows a child to become familiar with good food without pressure.
In the new study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, investigators discovered repeated exposure to healthy food choices helped children understand the benefits of healthy eating and increased their consumption of healthy food items.
Moreover, researchers learned a parenting technique of providing child-centered nutritional verbal support – such as “Whole grains help you run fast and jump high,” was beneficial when introducing new foods.
“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, Ph.D., Department of Human Development, 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.”
Ninety-eight families were recruited from two early education programs for children 3-6 years old. One center participated in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and served snacks, breakfast, and lunch. The second served only snacks and children brought lunch from home. Tomatoes, bell peppers, lentils and quinoa were introduced during the study.
Children were assigned one of the foods for repeated exposure, one for child-centered nutrition phrases plus repeated exposure, and two foods for no intervention.
Two days per week during the six-week study, trained research assistants operated tasting stations in the classroom. Children visited the tasting stations individually and were offered one food to taste. On the day when child-centered nutrition phrases plus repeat exposure were used, the research assistant introduced food-specific phrases into the conversation.
Phrases used included “Whole grains help you run fast and jump high,” and “Fruits and vegetables help keep you from getting sick.”
While interacting with the children, the researcher took notes on how the child responded to and commented about the food. Children who tried the food were asked to select a face that showed how they thought the food tasted.
At the conclusion of the intervention, the foods were provided to the classes as a snack and researchers measured what was eaten by each student.
Results showed the repeated exposure and the child-centered nutrition phrases in addition to repeated exposure only increased these preschoolers’ willingness to try, preference, and consumption of the study food.
Those hearing child-centered nutrition phrases consumed twice as much of these foods following the intervention, but their stated liking or willingness to try the food did not increase.
“Mealtime conversations can be a time to encourage food exploration and develop healthy eating behaviors with young children,” Lanigan said.
“Both parents and child care providers would benefit from learning and using developmentally appropriate, accurate nutrition messages when introducing new foods.”