Nutrition | Preschool | Child Health + Development | Ages 3–5

Preschools teach kids (and parents) to eat right

At the Kent Child Development Center this spring, kids are starting a small community garden. They will begin in the classroom by planting carrot seeds, and will transfer their seedlings later to the playground. And during a special "Literacy Night" family dinner, the group will read Ruth Krauss' classic, The Carrot Seed, and parents and kids will plant carrot seeds together. Throughout the summer, the children will harvest their crop and share the fruits of their labor with their families.

"For children, a lot of learning is doing," says Adrienne Dorf, a nutrition consultant with Public Health -- Seattle & King County, who provides child care centers with nutrition and feeding information.

Between the ages of 3 and 5, children become very cognizant of the process that begins with a seed and results in the growth of a fruit or vegetable, says Leah Capili, child development center program manager for the Children's Home Society of Washington, Northwest Region. "You can really show how you start at the beginning and it comes full circle."

Preschool is not just a place for young learners to finger-paint and use playdough. A number of early learning centers have fortified the curriculum with activities and parent education programs to teach families about foods that help them thrive.

It's a critical issue: Washington state has the fifth-highest rate of hunger in the country, as well as growing rates of childhood obesity. In Washington, according to the U.S. Census and the Children's Alliance, more than 104,000 families experience hunger, and another 280,000 have chronic anxiety about not having enough money to buy food.

Recently, three child development centers received grants from the Group Health Community Foundation to educate children and their parents about choosing a healthy diet: the Children's Home Society of Washington (Kent), Denise Louie Education Center (Seattle), and the First A.M.E. Child and Family Center (Seattle).

Educators say a hands-on approach is what gets kids interested in healthy fare. Some preschools take children on field trips to the produce market or grocery store. When children experience the continuity of food by growing their own fruits and vegetables, or shop, buy and prepare food, Dorf says, "They can take ownership and get involved." It is an approach "that has been most successful" in encouraging children to try new good-for-you foods, she adds.

Cooking in class helps give kids the feeling of achievement, Capili says. In the fall, children from the Kent Child Development Center visited a pumpkin patch and then baked pumpkin muffins and toasted seeds. The result? A sense of wonder: "Wow, I made this today!" and the idea, "We could do that at home." The school attempts to achieve that feeling "through the child's eyes as well as through an adult lens."

At some preschools, the educational menu includes nutrition training for parents. At an upcoming session, First A.M.E. Child and Family Center parents will learn how to serve healthy food on a budget. Program Manager Miguel Castro will distribute nutritious, protein-packed recipes made with affordable ingredients such as eggs and beans, in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. Castro says, "Our families are low-income so meat, chicken or fish are not going to be available to them." And because many of the community's time-pressed parents work and go to school, the recipes will be designed for a minimum of prep time.

The Denise Louie Education Center also serves a large number of immigrant families. In the United States, the parents may have difficulty finding the foods they grew up with, their bodies don't adjust well when they eat a new diet of pizza and pasta, and they can't continue cooking the way they did in their home countries, says Susan Valdez, director of family and community partnerships. Meanwhile, the lure of fast food, with the immediate gratification of burgers, fries and soda pop, proves irresistible. She says that when new immigrants come to this country, "They and their children start eating the American way, and we are supersized."

Even at the preschool level, kids can learn the effects of soda on their smile. In one lesson at Denise Louie, which has seen significant increases in dental problems over the years, teachers submerged teeth in soda pop as kids watched the pearly whites turn brown or disintegrate. "When you are 5 you should not be going for oral surgery," Valdez says. "They need to make the connections between what's good and maybe what's better."

The eat-right ethos plays out in both parent education and the in-class curriculum, with educators encouraging a balance between foods that are healthy and fun. "We are trying to educate parents gently in how to maintain their own cultural identity with food and be more healthy, and when trying to assimilate some of the American food into their lifestyle," Denise Louie's Valdez says. "We want the children to feel pride about what they are eating at home so they continue it."

Similarly, First A.M.E. hosts an annual ethnic dinner in which the school provides food representing every country that the children are from, and produces a cookbook of international recipes illustrated with the children's drawings.

Back in the classroom, the simple act of sharing a meal offers a range of learning opportunities. "Preschoolers can be open to new foods, especially if they are in an environment where the teacher is sitting and eating with them," Dorf says. And in facilities where the meal is provided, as in Head Start programs, kids can watch their peers take helpings from a bowl that's passed around and often, on a second passing, they might give a new food a try.

Depending on the particular preschool, the challenges of conveying the good-nutrition message are many: income and time pressures, and possibly, language and culture. Recently, Denise Louie offered a class for grandparents because in intergenerational households, Valdez says, a grandparent who is home with the children might have a lot of influence over food choices, and show love by giving candy.

At a time in kids' lives when habits take root, preschools can play a key role in spreading the food-as-fuel message. According to the Group Health Community Foundation, young children need balanced, nutritious meals to promote brain development and a stronger immune system, while avoiding nutrient deficiencies. For instance, iron is the most common deficiency in young people, and when kids are anemic, they get sick more easily, have trouble learning and do poorly in school.

Dorf advises parents who are choosing a preschool program to ask the administration, "What are your policies around feeding and mealtime?" Questions about the curriculum and good-nutrition strategies will also reveal the school's views. Dorf says, "There's got to be a philosophy of the program they recognize as important. So much can happen at mealtime."

Michelle Feder writes about a wide range of subjects and has a 3-year-old son.

Tips for Nutrition-Packed Snacks

Here are some pointers from Adrienne Dorf, a nutritionist with Public Health -- Seattle & King County, to tide kids over between meals:

  • "Kids like to dip," Dorf says. Raw fruits and vegetables can scoop up spreads made with lowfat yogurt, providing a fun introduction to new foods.
  • Make a parfait, alternating fruit, yogurt, and granola.
  • Spin a pinwheel: Spread cream cheese on a tortilla, and put raw spinach, carrots, and deli turkey inside. Cut it into easy-to-eat pieces.
  • cracker choices such as Ak-Mak,stone-ground wheat and graham crackers are better choices than the typical Ritz.
  • String cheese in single-serve plastic makes an easy and fun treat.
  • Encourage water rather than juice.

For more ideas, Group Health nutritionist Rhoda Litvin-Keller recommends Dole's Web site,, which includes tips for encouraging kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. The site offers a recipe for "Trees in a Broccoli Forest," that serves up a veggie tree with carrots as tree trunks, broccoli for leaves, and a dip for dunking. She says, "Presentation is a big thing for little kids so (it's about) making it look like fun."

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