URBANA, Ill. – The preschool age marks a key developmental time period for children to develop food-related behaviors, and getting kids involved with meal planning and preparation can positively influence those behaviors long-term.
Participating in cooking is associated with healthier dietary intake for school-aged children, adolescents, and adults but new research from the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois shows a relationship exists for preschool-aged children, as well.
Food involvement at age 3 predicts healthier dietary intake at age 4 and could set the stage for healthier food behaviors, according to a new a study authored by Jessica Jarick Metcalfe, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the U of I.
“‘Family food involvement’ describes the parent’s report of how much their child participates in meal planning, grocery shopping, and meal preparation [cooking],” Metcalfe explains.
In the study, kids who had high levels of food involvement at age 3 ate more fruits and vegetables and less fast food at age 4. “This finding lends support to the notion that food involvement can act as a causal factor to affect positive change in dietary intake,” Metcalfe says.
The study, recently published in Appetite, and co-authored by Barbara Fiese, director of the Family Resiliency Center and professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the U of I, examined the relationship between “family food involvement” and dietary intake of 3- and 4-year-olds.
The study analyzed data from waves 1 and 2 of the Family Resiliency Center’s STRONG Kids 1 project, a comprehensive study that examines how genetics, environment, and dietary intake contribute to the development of childhood weight, obesity, health behaviors, and health beliefs.
Researchers performed cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses to see if family food involvement at age 3 predicted healthier dietary intake at age 4. “We wanted to see if family food involvement was concurrently related to healthier dietary intake at age 3, as well as age 4,” Metcalfe says.
The study found that 3-year-olds who had higher levels of food involvement—participating in meal planning, shopping, and cooking—also ate more fruits and vegetables. The study found similar results for 4-year-old participants but also found a decreased consumption of fast food among those participants.
“Perhaps most importantly, food involvement at age 3 predicted healthier dietary intake at age 4. Kids who had high levels of food involvement at age 3 also ate more fruits and vegetables and less fast food at age 4,” Metcalfe says.
Data also shows an association with children’s age and gender. Girls were more likely than boys to have high levels of food involvement, and older children tended to have slightly higher food involvement than younger children.
The researchers involved in the study say some successful interventions and programs exist to increase food involvement and cooking skills among older school-aged children but more efforts should be made to develop programs for preschool-aged children that focus on increasing food involvement and introducing children to age-appropriate food preparation skills and activities.
The paper, “Family food involvement is related to healthier dietary intake in preschool-aged children” is published in Appetite and is available online [DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2018.03.021]. Co-authors include Jessica Metcalfe and Barbara Fiese.
This research was funded, in part, by grants from the Illinois Council for Agriculture Research to Kristen Harrison (PI), the University of Illinois Health and Wellness Initiative to Barbara Fiese and Sharon Donovan, the United States Department of Agriculture (Hatch 793-328) to Barbara Fiese (PI), and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture as part of the AFRI Childhood Obesity Prevention Challenge (Grant Number: 2011-67001-30101). The STRONG Kids Team includes Kristen Harrison, Kelly Bost, Brent McBride, Sharon Donovan, Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, Juhee Kim, Janet Liechty, Angela Wiley, Margarita Teran-Garcia, and Barbara Fiese.
Jessica Jarick Metcalfe was supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture under the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program grant (2011-67001-30101) to the Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois.