It will probably come as no surprise (since I have three kids) that my favorite part of dietetics school was coming up with fun ways to promote healthy eating to children. I love love love introducing new healthy foods to little friends.
In the words of Whitney Houston (and also Randy Watson, seen above), children are our future. Yet, the CDC reports that nine out of 10 children do not eat enough vegetables (1). Inadequate fruit and vegetable intake places children at risk of obesity, nutrient deficiencies, and all sorts of nastiness.
And how can our children rule the world without proper nutrition?
Anyway, one of my favorite activities I developed during dietetics school aimed to get kiddos to accept more veggies into the diet using food art. Food art is a fun way to make veggies seem less scary to kids, and research suggests that preschoolers exposed to vegetables via sensory play show greater acceptance of these vegetables at later meals. (2)
I first tested this activity about 18 months ago with my daughter’s class of four and five-year-olds. First, we talked for just a couple of minutes why vegetables are so important to our health. We discussed how the fiber in vegetables helps keep our tummies working their best, and about how the different colors in vegetables help keep the cells in our bodies healthy.
Then, we read one of my favorite kids’ nutrition books, What I Do With Vegetable Glue by Susan Chandler. The book is a silly, whimsical picture book about a young girl who prefers cake to vegetables. Because she does not eat enough vegetables, her body parts fall off at random. The book describes how the vegetables in our belly come together to serve as the glue that holds our bodies together.
After our story, I provided each child with a plate, a baggie full of washed and chopped veggies, and a sample picture and instructed them to create a person from the veggies in the bag. I told the class that their person did not have to look just like the one I made in the picture, because we are all different, and encouraged them to have fun and be silly.
They did a really great job!
Finally, I offered each child some healthy dip options and encouraged the class to taste the veggies. As we nibbled, we talked a lot about which ones were our favorites. Most of the children reported that they had tried a veggie that was new to them on that day, which is a huge victory!
I suspected the children would enjoy the lesson, but I was very surprised by some of the reactions. I received several emails from parents, who told me that their children had come home and requested a new favorite vegetable. And even now, more than 18 months later, my daughter’s classmates stop me in the hall at drop-off and pickup and ask if I’ll come back to read the silly story again! Yes, yes I will.
I repeated the lesson with a different group at a different school with similar reactions.
You can easily recreate the activity from this lesson in your own home! Any variety of vegetables will work, but for our veggie people, I provided shredded carrots for hair, cucumber for a face, radishes and olives for eyes, red bell pepper for a mouth, broccoli florets for hands and feet, and green beans, snap peas, and celery for the body.
If you really want to maximize the impact of the activity:
- Take a couple of minutes to talk about veggies with your child.
- Feel free to use fun names for the vegetables in addition to their given names, as research shows that calling vegetables by names like “X Ray Vision Carrots” increases acceptance among kids (3).
- TASTE THE VEGGIES YOURSELF! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a parent decline a healthy food item with a disdainful expression. If a parent makes a nasty face when she is offered broccoli, what do you think the kid does?
- If you feel like your child responds well to food art, do a quick search on Pinterest for thousands of other healthy food art ideas!
I hope you enjoy the activity!
1. "Progress on Children Eating More Fruit, Not Vegetables." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 05 Aug. 2014b. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
2. Dazeley, Paul, and Carmel Houston-Price. "Exposure to Foods' Non-taste Sensory Properties. A Nursery Intervention to Increase Children's Willingness to Try Fruit and Vegetables." Appetite 84 (2015): 1-6. Web.
3. Wansink B, Just DR, Payne CR, Klinger M. Attractive Names Sustain Increased Vegetable Intake in Schools. Preventative Medicine. 2012;55(4):330-332. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2079831.