Parents often wonder about how they can make their children eat healthy foods. Approaches can range from being a bossy “veggies are good for you!” to “if you eat your veggies, you’ll get a new toy!” to even hiding veggies in brownies! While these kind of appeals perhaps work for some children at least some of the time, new research suggests that teaching children about the nature of food may improve their vegetable intake.
In the study, Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman of Stanford University hypothesized that, because children are avid learners who are eager to learn about how the world operates, that children may benefit from knowing why eating a variety of good foods, such as vegetables, is a good thing to do.
In the first part of the study, half of the children were in classrooms where teachers read multiple books about food that had been specifically designed to teach concepts about nutrition. For example, one book described nutrients as “tiny things we can’t see, but which are important for our bodies.” Another book emphasized the importance of dietary variety (“Just one kind of food is not enough. People need to get nutrients from all types of foods.”) The other half of the children heard storybooks based on the USDA’s Team Nutrition guidelines.
After children had been exposed to the storybooks for a few weeks, Gripshover took them aside and asked them a variety of comprehension questions:
- The children who had been exposed to the storybooks were more likely to report that it was important to eat more than just one kind of healthy food,
- 47% of the children who had been exposed to the storybooks drew on the idea of nutrients to explain their answer,
- Children gave a puppet a different food rather the same food, suggesting that they had learned that individuals really do need to consume all types of food in order to be healthy.
After children’s compression was tested, Gripshover went into the actual classroom and observed children’s food intake during snack time. It was found that the children who had been exposed to the storybooks ate more vegetables than the children who just heard about the USDA nutrition guidelines. Specifically, children who heard the storybooks increased their vegetable intake from around five pieces, to eleven.
The researchers see considerable promise in this procedure, and note that they showed a “transformation from a view of food that includes little beyond eating, swallowing, and excreting to a view that food contains diverse, invisible nutrients that are excreted during digestion and carried around in the blood.”
By capitalizing on children’s eagerness to understand how things work, parents and teachers may be able to increase vegetable intake.
Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.