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News

Toddlers who take part in nursery fruit and veg games more likely to have healthy diets in later life

Young children who take part in fun fruit and vegetable games at nursery, are more likely to have a healthy diet later on in their lives, according to a new study.

New University of Reading research looked at children in six nurseries in Berkshire and found toddlers who had drawn, smelled and poked unusual vegetables, including sweet potato and pomagranates, were 32 per cent more likely to taste them over other vegetables at a mealtime.

Fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with lower levels of obesity and a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancers of the mouth, lungs and stomach. The earlier healthy eating habits begin, the greater the health benefits. Yet, only one in five children eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, with vegetable consumption being especially low in young children.

According to a recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey, pre-schoolers eat on average 74 g of vegetables per day, less than one adult portion. In some parts of the UK, 40 per cent of pre-schoolers eat no vegetables at all.

Dr Carmel Houston-Price, from Reading University's School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, led the study. She said: “Fruit and vegetables are the cornerstone of a healthy diet. By developing a fondness for a wide variety of healthy foods toddlers stand the best chance of having a ‘five a day' diet later in life.

“But getting toddlers to try something new is not an easy task. Most parents will have experienced frustration, and a messy floor, when encouraging their toddler to try different foods - especially when it isn't a high fat or sugary treat. Our study showed that introducing new foods through fun familiarisation activities such as letting children poke their fingers inside foods, smelling them and drawing pictures of them, increased toddlers' willingness to touch and taste them at mealtimes - especially the vegetables.”

The study involved ninety-two children from six nurseries, aged between 12 and 36 months. They were separated into a control group and a study group which took part in sensory activities with unfamiliar foods, such as sweet potato, broad beans, rhubarb and pomegranates, every day for four weeks.

The researchers then conducted a mealtime taste test to see whether exposure to the fruit and veg made any difference to children's choices.

Straight away, the researchers noticed that most children chose to touch and taste the fruit and vegetables that had been used in the activities first, before they considered whether to taste the foods they had not seen before.

Dr Houston-Price added: “At around the age of two years, children become more cautious about what they will eat - which is sensible because as they become increasingly mobile they encounter lots of things that are not safe to eat. This means that toddlers, like many of us, like to know exactly what it is they are eating.”

The research comes after health leaders called for an emergency taskforce to be set up to tackle childhood obesity in England earlier this year. The group called for better co-ordination of obesity treatment services so that all children can be encouraged to eat healthily from a young age.

The research was conducted as part of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership between the University and Ella's Kitchen, and jointly funded by Innovate UK, the Economic and Social Research Council and Ella's Kitchen.

The paper ‘Exposure to foods' non-taste sensory properties: A nursery intervention to increase children's willingness to try fruit and vegetables’ was published in the journal Appetite.