by Denise Simon, MPH
Thanksgiving is a holiday filled with abundance, particularly of food. Usually there is a dish at the table for everyone, but this year, one young guest came up to me to share her critique of the meal. She said “I don’t like dinner, but I like these,” as she filled both fists with rolls. Her parents were quick to add some more vegetables to her plate to accompany the bread, and encouraged her “eat a rainbow,” meaning that she got a plate complete with squash, cranberry sauce, turkey, and peas.  This just made her laugh as she promptly sat down and began to push the food around on her plate instead of into her mouth.   This tiny guest demonstrated an age-old problem: how can parents encourage children, particularly those in “picky” phases, to try a variety of healthy foods?
In my own experience working as part of the Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Institute’s Obesity Prevention Program, I’ve sat with preschoolers during a snack time project, in which the children were given the opportunity to build a fruit and veggie kabob to eat. The purpose was to encourage healthful food choices through play. Some kids were willing to try their creation, but others placed a higher value on play, as they took to throwing food and having sword fights with their kabobs.

I wondered if it was just too much to introduce at one time. If the program had instead focused on cooking with familiar foods -- rather than introducing strange new foods along with the concept that food can be fun -- would it have been more successful? The rise in childhood obesity has led to many such intervention strategies that attempt to teach health, nutrition and fitness to children using active play with food or cooking, but the effect sizes of these interventions can be very small. To reach a larger audience, the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital provides resources for parents, children, healthcare providers and others who are dedicated to combating childhood obesity. Many providers “prescribe” subscriptions to ChopChop magazine for their young patients. ChopChopKids, the magazine’s publisher, is an innovative non-profit organization whose goal is to inspire and teach kids to cook real food with their families.

This past summer The New York Times blog Motherlode partnered with their Cooking section on a series called Kids Cook, which spotlighted recipes that are fun for kids to cook. They encouraged readers to get their kids involved in meal preparation.  There were uplifting stories each week in which a child took on a recipe with very little adult supervision and was proud of their results. The children frequently even tasted their own creations and would go on to finish the meal. It seemed like this could work as a way to encourage kids to try and enjoy new foods. Then I read the comments on each article from other parents who had tried that week’s recipe, and how messy their kitchens had become as a result. It may indeed be a hefty undertaking to permit a child full access to the kitchen.  It may often be necessary for parents to step in, particularly for younger children.  Still, perhaps cooking classes with families could be an intervention strategy for healthful eating that we have been overlooking.

 


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