Teaching children about nutrition drives them to voluntarily eat more vegetables, according to a study undertaken at Stanford University in the USA.
The findings showed that young children are capable of understanding a conceptual approach to nutrition, and that children who were taught about healthy foods were more likely to choose them for snacks.
The researchers, psychologists Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman, said people often assume that explanations of complex, abstract concepts will be too confusing for young children, but that children have a “natural curiosity” and want to understand how things work.
“We sought to harness this curiosity by creating a framework for guiding children to understand more deeply why they need to eat a variety of healthy foods,” the researchers said.
The researchers created five storybooks that emphasised key concepts about food and nutrition, including the importance of variety, how digestion works, the different food groups, characteristics of nutrients, and how nutrients help the body function.
A different book was read each week in two preschool classrooms during snack time for about three months, while two other classrooms had snack time as usual.
Later, the children, aged 4 to 5 years, were asked questions about food, nutrition and bodily functions to assess their grasp of the concepts outlined in the books.
The researchers found that the children who had heard the nutrition books more than doubled their voluntary intake of vegetables during snack time after the intervention. The amount of vegetables eaten by the children who did not hear the books remained the same.
Children who had heard the books were also more likely to demonstrate knowledge of digestion and the role nutrients play in the body.
The researchers also said their method was more successful in encouraging children to eat vegetables than general nutrition education.
“What sets our materials apart from other approaches is the care we took to explain to children why their body needs different kinds of healthy food. We did not train children to eat more vegetables specifically,” the researchers said.
“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 behaviourally-focused nutrition interventions with the hope of boosting healthy eating more than either technique alone,” they said.