Consistency is the key to teaching preschoolers to eat healthy

Consistency is the key to teaching preschoolers to eat healthy

By Kristelle Bechayda

One of the challenges that every parent can relate with is their children’s eating behaviors. In the Philippines alone, over half of the Filipino mothers consider theirs to be picky eaters, as stated in the statistics presented by dietician and nutritionist Kate Di Prima a few years ago.

Lucky for us, there is now an easy way to address this concern. According to a study recently published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, repeating the right words and phrases can help parents encourage their kids to eat healthier foods and get over their picky eating behaviors.

According to the authors of the study, saying ‘Lentils will help you run faster’ will make it easier for preschoolers to understand the food’s benefits and pick what they want to eat.

“Previous studies have shown that adults struggle with how to talk to young children about food,” explained lead study author Jane Lanigan of Washington State University in Vancouver.

“Conversations are sometimes inaccurate or not helpful or even harmful in terms of helping a child learn to eat healthfully,” she told Reuters Health by email.

Testing it out

The study was conducted on 87 preschoolers from two early childhood education centers with the goal to find out whether repeated exposure and correct phrasing would help them try four foods that are generally disliked by children: tomatoes, bell peppers, lentils and quinoa.

Apart from that, the parents were also surveyed about their children’s eating history, meal environment at home, nutrition knowledge, and parental income and education.

During the exposure tests, the foods were presented separately in small plastic containers. The tomatoes and green peppers were raw and chopped into bite-sized pieces, while the quinoa and lentils were cooked with no added spices. Children were encouraged to smell, touch, or lick a sample food that they refused to eat, and were told they could try and spit it out if they wanted too.

Afterwards, a tasting station was ran in the classroom two days a week for the next six weeks where one food was being offered to taste. On the second day, a researcher would include food-specific phrases in the conversation two times during the tasting, like “Fruits and vegetables keep you from getting sick.”

Applying it in meal-time conversations

Significant results showed a month after the experiment ended when parents reported that their children consumed twice as much of the foods introduced in the experiment as they did previously.

“Parents asked for our ‘recipe’ because they couldn’t believe their child would eat lentils or quinoa,” Lanigan said. “The funny part is we prepared the foods with no added spices or flavors to maintain consistency. There are much more appealing recipes.”

The authors added in their report that repetition gave the children multiple experiences to become familiar with the food and explore it without the expectation of eating it. This may have led them to an increased willingness to try, like, and eat the food.

They also advised that meal-time conversations at home can be a way for parents to encourage food exploration and develop positive eating behaviors.

“We all struggle to eat healthily given our current food environment, and developing ways to get children to try healthy foods that may not be as immediately appealing as a sugary treat is important to encourage children to develop healthy eating habits early,” said Alison Miller of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“I think it’s likely helpful for parents to talk about the benefits of healthy food with their children in a child-friendly way, and also to model it,” she added. “But also, all children have a different ‘temperament’ when it comes to eating, so don’t get too worried about your child being a picky eater unless they’re not growing.”

Story from Reuters.