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May 08, 2019

Repetition is key to establishing healthy eating habits among children

Child-centered nutrition phrases and exposure can improve new food exploration

Healthy Eating Children
Healthy Food File Art/for PhillyVoice

Everyone should be able to afford healthy food.

Getting children on board with eating healthy foods is a matter of repetition and persistence, according to new research published by Philadelphia-based Elsevier.

Establishing healthy eating behaviors is critical during early childhood, but it's often difficult to convince children of the benefits of a well-balanced diet.

A new study of children between the ages of three and six shows promise that a structured, repetitive approach to teaching children about healthy foods can be an effective way to shape their habits.

"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, a human development expert at Washington State University. "This study shows the value of creating consistent nutrition phrases to use in the home and in child care and health care settings during meal time."

Researchers recruited 98 families from two early education programs. The first group participated in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), serving snacks, breakfast and lunch. The second group served only snacks and the children brought lunch from home.

During the study, children were introduced to tomatoes, bell peppers, lentils and quinoa.

The 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.

Tasting stations were set up at each of the centers two days per week during the six-week study. Trained researchers greeted the children individually at the stations and offered the kids one food to taste.

On days when the researchers provided repeated exposure plus child-centered nutrition phrases, they would say things such as, "Whole grains help you run fast and jump high," and "Fruits and vegetables help keep you from getting sick."

Researchers took notes about how the children responded to and commented about the food, asking them to select an emoji-style face to described how the food tasted. At the end of the intervention, the foods were provided to the classes as a snack and researchers measured what was eaten by each student.

Results from the study showed that repeated exposure and child-centered nutrition phrases (in addition to repeated exposure) increased the kids' willingness to try and show preference for specific healthy foods. Those who heard the child-centered nutrition phrases consumed twice as much of these foods after intervention, though their stated liking and willingness to try the foods 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."

The study was published this month in the Journal of Nutrition Education & Behavior.

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