For many parents, figuring out how to get kids to eat vegetables can become a truly daunting task. A recent study from Stanford University offers a new solution to moms and dads struggling with picky eaters: try teaching kids about nutrition first.
The research, published last month in Psychological Science, found kids eat vegetables when they know how a healthy, varied diet positively impacts their bodies.
Despite their young age, preschoolers are capable of comprehending a conceptual approach to nutrition, said Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman, the Stanford psychologists behind the study.
“Children have natural curiosity— they want to understand why and how things work,” they explain. “Of course we need to simplify materials for young children, but oversimplification robs children of the opportunity to learn and advance their thinking.”
Gripshover and Markman developed five storybooks that illustrated key concepts about nutrition, including dietary variety, the digestive system, food groups and how nutrients keep the body strong and healthy.
For about three months, a different book was read each week during snack time to one classroom of preschoolers, while the other classroom had snack time without the books. Later, the students were asked questions about nutrition.
The results suggest that the basic nutrition lessons from the researchers' storybooks helped create healthy eating habits for kids involved in the study. Children from the first classroom were more likely to understand how different nutrients from food help their bodies function. These kids also more than doubled their voluntary intake of vegetables after the three-month period, while the eating habits of their peers in the second classroom stayed the same.
Though more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of teaching kids about nutrition outside of snack time and over greater periods of time, Gripshover and Markman said they are optimistic about the findings.
“There is no magic bullet to encourage healthy eating in young children,” the researchers said. “We view our approach as unique but possibly complementary to other strategies. In the future, our concept-based educational materials could be combined with behaviorally focused nutrition interventions with the hope of boosting healthy eating more than either technique alone.”