New US research suggests that teaching young children an overarching conceptual framework for nutrition may be an effective strategy to get young children to eat more vegetables.
The researchers developed five storybooks aimed at revising and elaborating on what children already know about different nutrition-related themes, including dietary variety, digestion, food categories, micronutrients and nutrients as fuel for biological functions (1). Preschool classrooms were assigned to read the nutrition books during snack time for about three months, while other classrooms were assigned to conduct snack time as usual. Later, the preschoolers were asked questions about nutrition. The study results showed that children who had been read the nutrition books were more likely to understand that food had nutrients, that different kinds of nutrients were important for various bodily functions, that the stomach breaks down food, and that blood carries nutrients. These children also more than doubled their voluntary intake of vegetables during snack time after the three-month intervention, whereas the amount that the control group ate stayed about the same. When the conceptual program was pitted against a more conventional teaching strategy focused on the enjoyment of healthy eating and trying new foods, the results showed that both interventions led to increased vegetable consumption. Yet, the children in the conceptual program showed more know-ledge about nutrition and a greater overall increase in vegetable consumption.
The researchers commented that children are naturally curious – they want to understand why and how things work. While materials need to be simplified for young children, oversimplification would rob children of the opportunity to learn and advance their thinking. Further research is needed to determine whether the conceptual intervention encourages healthy eating habits outside of snack time and whether it is effective over the long-term. Conceptually based educational materials could be combined with behaviorally focused nutrition interventions with the hope of boosting healthy eating more than either technique alone.