Colorado State University Programs Devoted to Developing Healthy Habits in Preschoolers Awarded Nearly $3 Million Grant

Two innovative programs at Colorado State University  — featuring caricatures of a hamburger, orange, wedge of gouda cheese, bean, radish, glass of milk, tortilla and carrot — were recently awarded nearly $3 million from the Colorado Health Foundation.

The grant funding these caricatures brought to life supports two companion programs developed in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Food Friends Get Movin’ with Mighty Moves helps instill healthy attitudes about exercise in preschool-aged children. It partners with another program focused on getting kids to overcome picky eating, called Food Friends: Making New Foods Fun for Kids.

The programs strive to instill healthy habits in children to prevent them from becoming overweight or obese as they get older. Food Friends and Mighty Moves work by getting 3-5 year olds to try new foods, develop gross motor skills and increase the likelihood that they’ll enjoy a wider variety of foods and physical activity throughout their lifetimes. The grant allows the programs to expand into Head Start and preschool classrooms and daycare homes across the state.     

"There is some preliminary research that indicates that kids who are awkward stand on the sidelines and don’t participate in physical activity are often the same individuals who haven’t developed strong gross motor skills," said Laura Bellows, one of two researchers who received the grant. "These are the same individuals who may grow up to be adults who are less active and may be more prone to becoming overweight. We believe that if you can increase motor skill performance at an early age, it may lead to an increase in life-time physical activity and a decrease in the incidence of obesity."

With super-hero characters setting the stage, the Food Friends’ Mighty Moves get the youngsters moving through music, bean bag games and activities such as imaginary trips with the super heroes.

"Study results of Mighty Moves are quite promising," said Jennifer Anderson, a leading researcher who began to develop the program with Food Friends several years ago. Both Anderson and Bellows are nutrition specialists in the College of Applied Human Sciences. "We know that children who participate in Mighty Moves improve gross motor skills by the end of the program. That means they can balance longer, walk on a straighter line, and catch and throw balls better than they could before the program."

Mighty Moves takes children on imaginary field trips with Food Friends characters. In one scenario, they help Chef Charlie make breakfast by jumping out of an imaginary toaster like toast, melting like butter, and walking around like a scrambled egg. Through these exercises and by emulating each Food Friend, who has a "super-power," the children work on a specific motor skill. They emulate the characters, like Bella Bean, who likes to sing and dance, or Tina Tortilla who likes to jump around town. When the children master these skills, they achieve their own super powers with a caping ceremony. The children also get to take home a cape and activities to keep them moving after the school bell rings.

The highly-interactive Food Friends program exposes children to new foods and focuses on developing healthful mealtime behaviors. Food Friends brings unfamiliar foods representing all food groups, including fresh fruits and vegetables into the classroom. Bellows and Anderson work with teachers to "find the Mikey" – the child who is most willing to try new things – to take the first bite and model the behavior to his classmates. The food activities are designed specifically to get children past food neophobia, a stage children experience between 2 to 6 years when they are afraid to try new things.      

"We know that 90 percent of children are willing to try new foods by the end of the Food Friends program," said Anderson. "Parents report that their mealtimes are more enjoyable because their child is not so picky."

The grant will expand the program to 900 classrooms and 600 day care facilities across the state, reaching about 50,000 3 to 5-year-old children and their families. Employing what Anderson and Bellows have dubbed "pester power," the children can take home activities and their new knowledge to encourage their parents to try new food and get moving at home. The program provides bilingual materials for parents interested in learning more and enjoying the activities at home with their children. The grant will fund the development of a website for parents.

At preschool age, the children targeted by the program are already beginning to form healthy and unhealthy habits around food. In fact, Bellows said that they’ve learned that many children they’ve  encountered have never sat down at a table for a meal.

The programs focus on healthful food activities for 12 weeks and motor skills, physical activity and movement for 18 weeks. Activities are built into educational programs a few days a week and both programs reinforce school readiness skills.

The Mighty Moves component was recently added to Food Friends, which was developed by Anderson at Colorado State. Food Friends has focused solely on expanding children’s willingness and interest in trying new foods and has been implemented in preschools in Colorado and seven other states, along with Canada and Australia.  

The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences. The Food Friends concept was developed 10 years ago. A year ago, it initiated a university spin-off company called Food Friends Inc. to meet high demand for the programs.