What preschoolers know about healthy eating

November 13, 2013 by Susan Rosegrant
What preschoolers know about healthy eating

When you hand a preschooler a donut, does she know it's junk food? The answer is yes, says University of Michigan researcher Kristen Harrison.

Harrison, professor of communication studies and faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research, studies predictors of early-childhood obesity by investigating the impact of family TV exposure on what preschoolers and what these young kids think about healthy eating. She believes the information may help predict the kinds of decisions preschoolers make about food as they grow older.

She says that doing research on 3- and 4-year-olds can be challenging, since kids that age can't necessarily verbalize what they're thinking or what they know. Her solution? The Placemat Protocol.

Harrison created a giant plastic placemat with six pie-shaped sections, each labeled with a different food group, such as beverages or milk and dairy. Preschoolers are asked to assemble a meal they would most like to eat if they could eat anything by placing plastic toy foods—three healthy and three "junky"—in each of the different food sections on the placemat. The kids are then be asked to put together a healthy meal.

Placemat Protocol is an innovative, powerful, and fun tool to gauge preschoolers' perceptions of healthy meals and to teach them how to improve the nutritional value of their meals. Children create pretend meals on a real plate using life-size, realistic food models arranged on a large, colorful floor mat. Credit: Kristen Harrison

Harrison and colleague Mericarmen Peralta conducted the Placemat Protocol with 250 children at 18 preschools in Washtenaw, Wayne and Jackson counties over a two-year period. They asked them questions about food brand recognition and obtained measurements. They also interviewed parents about family characteristics, including how much commercial television the family watches and what their child eats.

They found that preschoolers who watched more TV were more likely to eat foods that could lead to obesity and more likely to assemble meals consisting of junk food.

The results are important, Harrison says, not only because they show that TV ads are giving kids the wrong idea about what foods are healthy, but also because kids who eat too much at an early age and put on extra pounds are more likely to grow up obese.

"The next step, of course, would be to see if those perceptions in actually predict their choice behaviors over time," Harrison said. "Because when it comes to obesity, prevention is where it's at. Parents are struggling with their own situations—they're constrained by family circumstances. But if you can get the to make choices that in the long run are going to benefit them, that's the way to go."

Explore further: Parents with heavy TV viewing more likely to feed children junk food

Related Stories

Parents with heavy TV viewing more likely to feed children junk food

June 6, 2013
If your preschooler thinks a cheeseburger is healthy, you may want to reconsider how you watch TV. A recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan found commercial TV viewing, as opposed to commercial-free digitally ...

Parenting and home environment influence children's exercise and eating habits

June 18, 2013
Kids whose moms encourage them to exercise and eat well, and model those healthy behaviors themselves, are more likely to be active and healthy eaters, according to researchers at Duke Medicine.

Fast food companies still target kids with marketing for unhealthy products

November 5, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—In 2012 the fast food industry spent $4.6 billion to advertise mostly unhealthy products, and children and teens remained key audiences for that advertising, according to a new report by the Yale Rudd Center ...

New insight on relationship between parents, preschoolers and obesity

February 8, 2013
While sugary drinks, lack of exercise and genetics contribute to a growing number of overweight American children, new research from Washington State University reveals how a mom's eating habits and behavior at the dinner ...

Taste rules for kids and healthy food choices

July 16, 2013
Sweet and salty flavors, repeat exposure, serving size and parental behavior are the key drivers in children's food choices, according to a July 15 panel discussion at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual ...

Eat healthy -- your kids are watching

May 30, 2012
If lower-income mothers want kids with healthy diets, it's best to adopt healthy eating habits themselves and encourage their children to eat good foods rather than use force, rewards or punishments, says a Michigan State ...

Recommended for you

The environmental injustice of beauty

August 16, 2017
Women of color have higher levels of beauty-product-related chemicals in their bodies compared to white women, according to a commentary published today in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The authors say ...

Heavily used pesticide linked to breathing problems in farmworkers' children

August 15, 2017
Elemental sulfur, the most heavily used pesticide in California, may harm the respiratory health of children living near farms that use the pesticide, according to new research led by UC Berkeley.

Taking a stand on staying mobile after 80

August 14, 2017
(HealthDay)—If you want to stay as fit as possible well into your 80s, the answer may be as simple as standing on your own two feet.

Binge-watching 'The Walking Dead?' You might feel like a zombie yourself

August 14, 2017
Binge-watching is a great way for young adults to catch up on multiple episodes of their favorite television series like "The Walking Dead" or "Game of Thrones," but it comes at a price.

Bugs on the menu at Swiss supermarket

August 14, 2017
Switzerland's first insect-based food aimed at humans will go on sale next week following a revision of the country's food safety laws, a supermarket chain said Monday.

Why social smoking can be just as bad for you as daily smoking

August 14, 2017
"Everything in moderation." It's a common justification made for behaviors that may fall outside the realm of healthy. Whether it's a drink or two or indulging in a favorite dessert, consuming small quantities, rather than ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.