Using Books to Encourage Healthful Eating by Young Children

By Byrne, Elena; Nitzke, Susan | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Using Books to Encourage Healthful Eating by Young Children


Byrne, Elena, Nitzke, Susan, Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences


Using books to foster positive behaviors and attitudes is not new to the fields of education and developmental psychology. Books have been used to help children through difficult transitions such as starting school and life-changing events like divorce or death. They have also been suggested as tools for promoting behaviors such as potty training and table manners (Coplon & Worth, 1985). A substantial body of research has been devoted to content analyses of popular children's literature in the interest of examining the possible latent messages contained in story lines and illustrations. Significant attention has been paid to social issues such as racial and genderrole stereotyping, and achievement behaviors (Campbell & Wirtenberg, 1980; McArthur & Eisen, 1980). However, less attention has been devoted to investigating messages conveyed about food. One content analysis of food in popular children's books showed that most books (73 %) made at least one mention of food, either in text or illustration (Byrne & Nitzke, 2000). However, among food groups, vegetables were mentioned least often (7% of all mentions). In addition, foods portrayed as "fun" were significandy more likely to be of lower rather than higher nutrient density.

Many nutrition education resources are available for educators, caregivers, and parents that suggest developmentally-appropriate, foodrelated activities coordinated with themes of children's books (Hertzler, 1999; Evers, 1995; Barcher & Rauen, 1996, F & N Information Center, 1995; Manna & Symons, 1992). However, little evidence is available to show how much influence children's books may have on their attitudes and behaviors about foods. This matter is particularly important for foods that children tend to resist such as vegetables, or unfamiliar foods in general. Research findings about children's intake of vegetables show that only 36% of youth aged 2-19 meet the recommended 3-5 vegetable servings/day (Munoz, et.al., 1997). However, 23 % of the vegetable consumption measured for the nationwide sample has been attributed to the intake of french-- fried potatoes (Krebs-Smith, et.al., 1997). For children aged 2-5 years, consumption rates of nutrient-dense dark green and deep yellow vegetables are an average of 0.1 serving/day, the lowest of all vegetables (Byrne & Nitzke, 2000).

We studied the impact of positive and negative messages in books with a sample of 3-5 year-old children from nine Head Start preschool classes. Willingness to taste a novel vegetable was assessed at pretest and after children heard a story with either a positive or negative message about the main character's preference for the vegetable, kohlrabi, or a story that did not mention food. Significantly more children in the positive message group tasted the kohlrabi (90%) compared to controls (61%) after two readings of the book. Two factors that were found to be most predictive of willingness to taste the novel vegetable were: 1) participating in the positive-message group, and 2) stating an intention to taste the vegetable again. The positive message treatment was found to maintain the higher-than-expected willingness to taste kohlrabi that was observed at pretest.

The developmental stage of preschool-aged children suggests that nutrition education should emphasize hands-on, decision-making activities. Integrating these activities with books may produce a synergistic benefit, though empirical evidence has yet to clarify this relationship. Evidence shows that positive contexts tend to foster positive attitudes about foods. Thus, under optimal conditions, books could help promote positive attitudes about vegetables. Effects observed in our kohlrabi study may have been limited by the strictly controlled book-reading protocol that was necessary to minimize variation between groups. In a more "natural" setting with parents and caregivers, children are usually free to ask questions and control the reading pace as well as the number of exposures. …

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