Are Elementary Schools Teaching Children to Prefer Candy but Not Vegetables?

By Baxter, Suzanne Domel | Journal of School Health, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Are Elementary Schools Teaching Children to Prefer Candy but Not Vegetables?


Baxter, Suzanne Domel, Journal of School Health


Children attending public schools generally are in school almost seven hours a day, 180 days a year. While students have options for obtaining food in schools, the most prominent federally supported program is the National School Lunch Program. In general, approximately 93,000 schools and residential child-care institutions participate in this program, and about 25 million children participate each day.[1] The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture recently initiated Team Nutrition nationwide to support the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children.[2] Team Nutrition was designed to provide students with nutrition education messages that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and to promote student acceptance of meals meeting the new menu standards.[2]

Increased vegetable and fruit consumption is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines as well as the 5 a Day -- for Better Health program.[3,4] Moderation in sugar consumption is also recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.[3] Despite widespread endorsements for eating more vegetables and fruits, most American adults and children consume too few.[4,5] Intensive school-based interventions to increase vegetable and fruit consumption among elementary school children have resulted in only small increases in total vegetable and fruit consumption, with most increases coming from fruits rather than vegetables.[5-7]

At a national conference on healthy eating for children held in March 1995, Mullis, et al[8] commented, "We are at a critical time for children in our nation's history. Our children are at risk from lifestyles that can lead to chronic disease, such as coronary heart diseases, cancer, and diabetes. The time for action is now.... We know that dietary patterns are established early in life. Data suggest that American's children eat more fat and less fruit, vegetables, and grains than recommended. We know that these trends need to be reversed if future generations are to be healthier, but how is the key question." Clearly, something needs to be done to help children eat more vegetables and fruits and less sugar.

This commentary addresses the role of behavior and learning in liking and eating vegetables and sugar (specifically candy). Results from research with preschool children concerning development of food preferences and social context of eating are presented. Practical applications for elementary schools are discussed to help elementary school children eat according to the Dietary Guidelines for vegetables and sugar (specifically candy).

DEVELOPMENT OF FOOD PREFERENCES

Preference involves the liking for specific items and/or choosing one thing (eg, vegetables) over something else (eg, chips).[9,10] Measures of children's food preferences should predict whether or not those food items will be eaten when made available.[9] Research with upper elementary school children indicates they prefer vegetables less than fruits[10-12]; fewer of them select and eat vegetables rather than fruit when given a choice during "offer versus serve" school lunch[13]; and mean percent plate waste for school-lunch menu items is highest for salad followed by vegetables, excluding potatoes.[13] Predominant beliefs among fourth- and fifth-grade students include that vegetables taste nasty[12] and "if it's good for you, then it must taste bad,"[11,12] which is related to parent or adult requirements such as "I don't care if they don't taste good, eat your vegetables because they're good for you."[12]

Research with children indicates that food preferences are determinants of consumption[14,15]; therefore, not eating vegetables could be related to low preferences. Research indicates that preschool children's food preferences and food acceptance patterns are largely influenced by repeated exposure to food, and by the social context in which food is offered.[16]

Many preschool children are neophobic, or afraid of things that are new, including new foods. …

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