Food Made Fun Makeitinto Youngster’s Diet

Tina Tortilla, Ollie Orange, Gerty Gouda, Howie Hamburger, Rudy D. Radish and a Colorado Nutrition Network program called Food Friends are getting pre-school aged children to try new and exotic foods.

The characters, featured as puppets in books and songs and on the plates of many preschoolers, are part of a curriculum to encourage children in Colorado Head Start programs to try new food.

However, Food Friends isn’t just an exercise of taste buds. Research shows that people form their eating habits during childhood and may face health problems as adults because of a lack of variety in their diets.

"It may seem strange that teaching children to choose a variety of foods is important," said Jennifer Anderson, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension food science and human nutrition specialist based in the university’s food sciences and human nutrition department. "But the benefits of a varied diet and an openness to trying new foods have an impact on mental and physical health. If children are open to trying new and different foods, they can form healthy, lifelong eating habits."

Anderson and colleague Laura Simpson, Colorado Nutrition Network program coordinator, targeted preschoolers in Head Start programs in metro Denver and the San Luis Valley with the Food Friends project.

"The main concept of Food Friends is to expose children to a variety of novel food,"said Simpson. "Exposure leads to familiarity, familiarity leads to preference and preference leads to eating habits."

Food Friends included a slew of fun for kids in a 12-week curriculum. Puzzles, songs, games, reading and puppets such as Ollie, Tina, Gerty, Howie and Rudy D. really did make a difference in eating habits, said Anderson. During the pilot projects in four Head Start preschools around the state, the program succeeded in getting all of the 3 to 5 year olds who participated in Food Friends to try foods they’d never tried before such as gouda cheese, daikon radish, dried papaya and water chestnuts.

Getting kids to try new foods can be exasperating, said Simpson. "It takes repeated attempts – about 10 tries, but sometimes as many as 15 – to get a child to eat a new food," she said. "Some parents might give up before then, but the trick is to make it fun."

Simpson says that the refusal to try new foods at a young age actually can be pinpointed to traits of a development stage. Food neophobia, an initial reluctance to eat new foods, is a normal development stage among children in preschool. Research shows children can overcome their reluctance to try different food if they have repeated opportunities to eat the food.

Simpson added that caregivers should be mindful that, when children play with food, it may indicate that they’re exploring it. As children are repeatedly offered a food, they may play with it less and eventually taste it.

For more information about Food Friends, contact Simpson at (970) 491-6763 or laura.simpson@cahs.colostate.edu.