Identifying Age-Appropriate Nutrition Messages for Preschoolers

Approximately one in four preschoolers in the United States are overweight or obese, and poor nutrition in early childhood has enduring consequences to children's cognitive functioning. Preschool, therefore, is a critical period for children to begin to make their own dietary decisions to develop life-long healthful eating habits. A new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that preschoolers who learned how to classify food as healthful or unhealthful were more likely to say they'd choose healthful food as a snack.

"Few studies have considered the active role preschoolers have as they develop an understanding of healthful living," says lead author Jody S. Nicholson, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of North Florida. "At this age, they're unable to explain why they know something is healthful or how the body processes food, but they can identify that fruit, vegetables, and milk are good for them."

Study participants included 235 preschoolers aged 3 to 6 who were enrolled in six Head Start centers in a large southeastern US metropolitan area. All preschoolers were recruited from a larger study evaluating the nutrition curriculum Healthy Habits for Life. An assessment tool was created with 26 printed pictures of foods and drinks that are snack items preschoolers could be offered. The snack items were divided into 13 pairs and were differentiated as high contrast (eg, carrots vs donuts) and low contrast (eg, crackers vs chips). During individual interviews, preschoolers were asked to identify the snacks pictured and which item in the pair they'd select for a snack.

After analysis of the data, preschoolers' ability to categorize food was predictive of hypothetical food choices. Easy food pair comparisons with high contrast showed a consistent pattern of more preschoolers being able to name the food than to classify it as healthful and to be able to classify it than to say they would choose it as a snack. Low-contrast pairs seemed to be outside preschoolers' ability to differentiate. Novel food items such as kiwi and a granola bar were identified by less than 10% of preschoolers. Older preschoolers could identify healthful foods and categorize food, and were more likely to report they'd choose more healthful foods for a snack. This finding is consistent with the cognitive skills that improve during preschool years.

"Preschoolers may not be able to detect small differences between food to classify them as healthful and unhealthful, and the labels of 'good' and 'bad' food aren't always accurate," Nicholson says. "Using one-dimensional descriptive phrases, such as how often food should be consumed, would be more accurate and developmentally appropriate."

This study extends current research on helping preschoolers with the complex task of categorizing food to make better choices. Children's cognitive development should be considered in research and practice so that programs are created to match children's abilities and developmental capacity. Future research could further the understanding of the relationship between food knowledge, classification, and choices by examining mealtime choices and not just stated snack preferences.

— Source: Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior