Communicating Healthy Eating Messages to Preschool Children

Healthy Food Choices in Schools March 29, 2016 Print Friendly and PDF

children outside eating apples

Talking to young children about their health can be challenging—is it better to grab their attention by warning against unhealthy practices or to encourage healthy ones?   Preschool children are just developing their skills, especially nutrition and physical activity habits, and at this age they are particularly moldable. Considering this, health messages designed for preschoolers may need to look different than messages used to reach older school age students. A few ideas are included below and should be taken into account when planning and offering lessons for these youngsters.  

1. Focus on benefits of eating healthfully. 

Because preschool children are beginning to build their knowledge and skills, positive or gain-framed messages may be more appropriate. These messages focus on the benefits of a healthful eating. For example, “Proper nutrition helps you grow big and strong!” 

2. Understand your audience’s developmental stage and use age-appropriate messages. 

In the preschool setting the idea of MyPlate, the standard message used for nutrition education, may not resonate.  In addition to, or in place of, the MyPlate message, the idea of Go, Slow, and Whoa foods seems to align with the age and stage the preschool children exhibit. Go foods are foods that can be eaten almost anytime, slow foods are ‘sometimes’ foods, and whoa foods are those that need to be eaten sparsely.  

3. Preschoolers need healthful eating messages reinforced in multiple ways. Hands-on opportunities to gain and apply knowledge and skills are key.

Family-style meals are a way to reinforce, build skills, and role model. Utilizing a family style meal in preschool settings allows for practice discussing and decision making each time a meal is shared. These same concepts can be reinforced in school gardens. When the children are involved with the foods they grow and help prepare too, they tend to be much more likely to try a new food.

In summary, preschoolers need positive, realistic approaches with attainable steps toward healthier eating behaviors, and they learn best with hands on and applicable messages geared to motivate them to create good eating habits from the start. There are many opportunities during the school week to expose children to healthy eating messages. Below are a few ideas.

In the classroom: 

  • Discuss the benefits of healthy eating during nutrition lessons.
  • Talk about the healthy properties of fresh fruits and vegetables during school garden activities.
  • Offer examples of healthy snacks during snack time and classroom celebrations.
  • Ask students to draw pictures highlighting their favorite healthy food and the benefits of eating it – display the posters in the classrooms or on the school building halls and walls. 
  • Find more ideas here: Integrate Healthy Food into Curriculum Articles. 

In the lunchroom: 

  • Add positive health messages to menus, such as why adding more vegetables and fruits to one’s diet each day can be a benefit.
  • Encourage staff to remind students to try new foods, but that eating foods still remains the choice of the child.
  • Hang colorful, positive posters in the cafeteria that highlight eating healthy foods.
  • Emphasize what can be gained by eating healthy. 

At home: 

  • Review the lunch menu weekly with your child and talk to them about the foods on the menu. 
  • Talk to your child about healthy foods, and set simple goals, and make a chart for him/her to check off each time a goal is met.
  • Encourage children to ask for vegetables and fruits for that they have tried and like at school.  
  • More ideas here: How to Talk to Your Kids about a Balanced Diet

Contributors

Liz Smith, OSU Extension, SNAP-Ed Regional Program Specialist

Sources

Fitzgibbon, M.L. Stolley, M.R. Schiffer, L. Van Horn, L. KaufferChristoffel, K. & Dyer, A. (2005). Two-year follow-up results for Hip-Hop to Health Jr.: A randomized controlled trial for overweight prevention in preschool minority children, Journal of Pediatrics, 146,6 18-625.

M.L. Fitzgibbon, M.R. Stolley, A.R. Dyer, L. Van Horn, K. KauferChristoffel. A community-based obesity prevention program for minority children: rationale and study design for Hip-Hop to Health Jr.   Prev Med, 34 (2002), pp. 289–297

Wansink, Brian and Lizzy Pope (2014). When Do Gain-Framed Health Messages Work Better Than Fear Appeals? Nutrition Reviews, 73(1), 4–11.

United States Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health. (2013) EatPlayGrow™, Creative Activities for a Healthy Start. Retrieved from www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/tools-resources/eatplaygrow.htm   

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.