Any parent can tell you that sweet foods are an easier sell to kids than, say, sprouts or salad. But with more than a quarter of New Hampshire struggling with obesity, researchers at Keene State College are working on innovative ways to get children as young as three years old hooked on vegetables.
Before we talk about today’s finicky eaters, though, lets understand how kids interacted with food tens of thousands of years ago. Back when everyone had a hand in the family’s grocery shopping.
"If you were part of a hunting and gathering society, and at the age of 3 you had enough dexterity to be one of the gatherers, you were sent out to the fields or the woods to forage your food," says Dr. Karrie Kalich, a nutrition professor at Keene State College. "You would always be fearful that you would pick something that was poisonous."
Kalich says food neophobia, or a fear of new food, was a survival technique. Kids were taught that strange plants like, say, broccoli, could kill them.
That's an excuse still widely used today.
Kalich says that an inborn fear of unknown foods, and a natural aversion to bitter tastes, makes getting children to eat vegetables a constant battle.
The research shows you’ve got to start early.
"Looking at when children develop food preferences, most of it happens prior to the age of five, so if we are really serious about preventing the obesity epidemic, we’ve got to start young."
In 2006, Kalich created the Early Sprouts project. It’s a pre-school curriculum that focuses on nutrition, healthy cooking, and gardening.
At the Child Development Center on Keene State’s campus, kids are picking over the remains of this year’s harvest. They field trip to the garden, and then use the ingredients to make healthy snacks.
There’s a lot of sensory exploration going on during the lessons. Teachers push kids to examine what they’ve grown.
"The carrots are wider at the top, then skinnier skinnier skinner at the bottom!" says an educator.
Cleaning and chopping the vegetables helps pre-schoolers develop motor skills. Around the age of three, children also start to pay more attention to what their peers are up to. If Bobby isn’t complaining about his green beans, chances are his classmates won’t either.
"There’s a social emotional component to it that has been really exciting for us," says Carol Russell, an Early Childhood Teacher in Keene. "Kids feel very accomplished when they are able to do things. When they pull that carrot out of the ground, and there’s that joy of look, I did it."
All that joy does come with a price tag: about $35 per student for lesson plans and ingredients. Twenty-three New Hampshire pre-schools use the program, and thanks to a near $1M National Institutes of Health Grant awarded last month, 21 more gardens will now have seed money.
One of the reasons Early Sprouts works is that it’s strategic. Kalich says lots of schools have gardens. But this model uses repetition and redirection to keep kids open-minded.
"Often times, when children taste a new food, their natural reaction is ‘yuck.’ We always respond with, you don’t like it yet. And what it does is, it doesn’t discredit their reaction to the food. It honors that they didn’t like it the first time they tried it. But it also gets the child to think about the fact that they might like it the next time, which is the truth, because we know the more often you try it, the more likely you are to like it."
To increase exposures, Early Sprouts relies on parents. Each week, kids take home recipe kits along with the needed ingredients to make healthy snacks, like Chinese Green Beans and Carrot Muffins.
Today in class, it’s a yogurt ranch dip made from scratch.
"Mmmmm," says one of the students.
That’s a sound our hunter-gatherer friends never got to hear.