Go Ahead, Play With Your Food

August 13, 2010

Getting kids to eat their vegetables is easier when they’re entertained and involved by the experience.

Getting kids to eat their vegetables is easier when they’re entertained and involved by the experience.

A study described in the June issue of the Journal of Nutrition & Dietetics found that children’s vegetable intake doubled and the types of vegetables they ate increased from two to four after being involved in a program comprised of 11 activities, including multimedia, role models and play to promote healthy food consumption.

The study found that watching spinach-loving Popeye cartoons, parties including tasting sessions, and teaching the kids to cook promoted vegetable intake in the children. Supermarkets can benefit from the findings with in-store demonstrations and classes for children, as well as displays that foster parent-child cooking activities.

The research highlights the importance of involving children in food-tasting get-togethers that allow them to actively participate. Activities that bring children into the experience -- like measuring, pouring and stirring while preparing a meal -- also help them in learning names and colors of the food items and developing hand-eye coordination.

“We got the children planting vegetable seeds, taking part in fruit- and vegetable-tasting parties, cooking vegetable soup, and watching Popeye cartoons,” said lead researcher Professor Chutima Sirikulchayanonta of Mahidol University in Bangkok in a journal news release.

The eight-week study monitored the fruit and vegetable consumption of 26 kindergarteners before and after they participated in the program. Parents confirmed the increased interest, saying their children talked about vegetables more often and were proud they had eaten them in their school lunch. The study also illustrates the impact adult role models have on children, as evidenced by the change in behavior after teachers sat next to them and ate the same foods.

Sirikulchayanonta said there was no significant change in the kinds of fruit eaten by the children, but this was probably because they were already eating more fruit than vegetables at the start of the study.

Studies have shown the food habits and eating patterns picked up in early childhood ‘track’ into later childhood and adulthood. Sirikulchayanonta said focusing on healthy food choices at an early age can have a major impact on the future health of adults.

In the U.S., as changes to school lunch programs roll out across the country school officials and parents can incorporate these activities bringing children into the movement to nutritional change. Incorporating the study’s activities could include:

  • Involve school-age children of all ages in the process of bringing healthy foods into the schools;
  • Teachers and parents should become involved, sitting with children at lunch eating the same foods and modeling healthy eating behaviors;
  • School officials should send notices home, listing foods children will be introduced to and providing tips for parents to encourage their kids to eat fruit and vegetables.

While the results in the pilot study positively increased fruit and vegetable consumption in the kindergarten, further longer-term evaluation and assessment of the impact on the home environment are required. Still, the findings illustrate that teaching nutrition education and instruction on healthy eating habits combined with social support from teachers and families may improve and sustain fruit and vegetable eating behaviors.