Providing fruits for snacks and serving vegetables at dinner can shape a preschooler’s eating patterns for his or her lifetime.
To combat the increasing problem of childhood obesity, researchers are studying how to get preschoolers to eat more fruits and vegetables. According to Washington University researchers, one way is through early home interventions — teaching parents how to create an environment where children reach for a banana instead of potato chips.
“We know that parents have tremendous influence over how many fruits and vegetables their children eat,” said Debra Haire-Joshu, Ph.D., a professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and at the School of Medicine. “When parents eat more fruits and vegetables, so do their children. When parents eat and give their children high-fat snacks or soft drinks, children learn these eating patterns instead.”
Haire-Joshu and researchers at the Saint Louis University School of Public Health tested a program that taught parents in their homes how to provide preschool children easy access to more fruits and vegetables and examined whether changes in what the parents ate affected what their children consumed. The study was published in a recent issue of Preventive Medicine.
Past research has shown that diets high in fruits and vegetables are associated with a lower risk of obesity and that children learn to like and eat vegetables before age 5.
In this five-year study in rural, southeast Missouri, 1,306 parents and children between the ages 2-5 participating in Parents As Teachers, a national parent education program, were randomly assigned to two groups. One group enrolled in the High 5 for Kids program, and the other group received standard visits from Parents as Teachers. In the High 5 for Kids group, parents first completed a pretest interview about fruit and vegetable consumption.
Parent educators then visited the home four times, providing examples of parent-child activities designed around nutrition, such as teaching the child the names and colors of various fruits and vegetables and having the child select a variety of fruits and vegetables for breakfast. At each visit, parents also received materials and informational handouts with suggestions for improving feeding practices and the food environment in the home.
Results of a follow-up survey showed that parents in the High 5 for Kids group ate significantly more fruits and vegetables, and a change in the parent’s servings of fruits and vegetables also predicted a change in the child’s diet.
Although the High 5 for Kids program was effective in improving fruit and vegetable intake in children of normal weight, overweight children in this group did not eat more of these foods. Haire-Joshu said many children today are taught patterns that lead to obesity.
“We want families to provide their child with an environment in which they not only learn how to eat healthy but have the opportunity to practice what they learn,” she said. “And by partnering with Parents As Teachers, we now can disseminate this program to their sites nationwide.”