Study finds child-centred phrases help preschoolers try new foods
Using ‘child-centred phrases’ to explain the benefits of healthy food, and offering repeated opportunities for preschoolers to become familiar with healthy foods without pressure, helps them to understand the benefits of healthy eating and increases consumption, a new US study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior has found.
The study’s authors said that early childhood is a critical period for establishing healthy eating behaviours, yet many preschoolers in the United States are not meeting dietary recommendations.
“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, 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 childcare and healthcare settings during meal time.”
The study found that child-centred nutrition phrases encourages healthy eating in preschoolers, especially when introducing new foods.
The study involved 98 families recruited from two early education programs for children between three and six years old. One centre 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, capsicum, lentils, and quinoa were introduced during the study. Children were assigned one of the foods for repeated exposure: one for child-centred 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-centred 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 that the repeated exposure and the child-centred nutrition phrases in addition to repeated exposure only increased these preschoolers’ willingness to try, preference, and consumption of the study food. Those hearing child-centred 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 behaviours with young children,” concluded Dr Lanigan. “Both parents and childcare providers would benefit from learning and using developmentally appropriate, accurate nutrition messages when introducing new foods.”
To read the study in full, visit the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior website.