“Extension on the Go” podcast by Debbie Johnson. Episode 80: Eat Smart Teaches Preschoolers about Health and Nutrition
BLUE SPRINGS, Mo. – Kids in child care are no longer limited to learning shapes and colors. Now they are learning how to eat smart.
At 48 child care centers in the state, children are developing healthy eating habits through the Eat Smart program.
In partnership with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, University of Missouri Extension provides nutrition and health specialists to help child care centers meet the Missouri Eat Smart Guidelines.
Nearly a third of children ages 2-5 are overweight or obese, according to Robin Gammon, MU Extension registered dietitian. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says childhood obesity has doubled in the past 30 years.
By the time children reach kindergarten, they’ve already developed eating habits that can carry into adulthood, so it’s important to influence eating habits early, Gammon said.
Since 2010, MU Extension nutrition and health specialists have been working on the Eat Smart program to help child care centers improve their menus and the nutrition environment. They also provide nutrition workshops to the staff and teach them how to incorporate nutrition education into their lesson plans.
“Thousands of kids are eating healthier food and developing healthier habits because of the program,” Gammon said.
It takes an average of 18 months for child care centers to move from processed, fried and canned foods to “made from scratch” foods and fresh fruits and vegetables, she said. Gradually, kids become interested in trying new foods such as broccoli or cauliflower once they see their fellow classmates and teachers enjoying the food.
Gammon calls it the “herd effect” and she hopes that students will then influence their parents and other family members to eat healthier by asking for foods they have tried at day care.
Shelley Gifford, director of Little Einstein’s Learning Center in Blue Springs, said she had child development training but didn’t have a nutrition background, so she was grateful for the coaching and hands-on technical training from MU staff.
Through patience and persistence, Little Einstein’s children have learned to make better choices. Gifford has incorporated food discussions into everyday learning activities such as planning and growing a garden at the center.
MU Extension nutrition specialist Susan Mills-Gray said meals are served family style, with children serving themselves at the table from common platters so that they control what and how much they eat. They also benefit from learning manners and social skills. Children help set the table and assist with clearing dishes when the meal is finished.
Outside food is not allowed at Eat Smart centers, so cupcakes, cookies and cakes are not permitted, even on birthdays and holidays. “We don’t always have to celebrate with cake, cookies or candy,” Gray said.
Children are never punished or rewarded with food, Gray said, and they are encouraged to drink water.
To learn what child care centers in your area have been recognized as “Eat Smart,” visit www.health.mo.gov and search “Eat Smart.”
You may also contact the MU Extension nutrition specialist in your county by visiting extension.missouri.edu.