Children are eating healthier foods and improving their gross motor skills thanks to two programs developed at CSU.
Convincing a preschooler to eat healthier foods can often be challenging. With more than a third of preschoolers overweight or obese today, strategies need to start early to stem the alarming rise in obesity rates. Preschools and elementary schools are now becoming involved by offering healthier food choices for snacks and meals as well as educating children about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity.
Thanks to two new research-based programs developed by Colorado State University, preschool parents and teachers and family childcare providers are making eating and being physically active fun for kids ages 3-5.
“Research shows that children begin to develop their lifelong eating habits as early as three years old,” said Jennifer Anderson, Ph.D., founder of Food Friends Inc. “Our research began in 2000 and shows we can change picky eating behaviors and increase gross motor skills when the Food Friends programs are offered in the classroom or day care home.”
Food Friends® Inc. is a successful startup company developed at the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University, and its mission is to “CREATE HEALTHY KIDS.” That is exactly what they do through the Food Friends: Fun With New Foods® and Get Movin’ with Mighty Moves® programs.
The Food Friends consists of educational programs and teacher trainings and are one of the first research-based programs to successfully address key indicators of early childhood obesity. Fun With New Foods is a 12-week classroom program that encourages preschoolers to try new foods through dynamic and hands-on learning, using character puppets, placemats, puzzles and food tasting. Children become more willing to try foods they may not normally eat, which ultimately leads to improved dietary variety and quality.
The second program, Get Movin’ with Mighty Moves, is an 18-week classroom program designed to get children moving and help develop gross motor skills. Developing gross motor skills in preschoolers enhances physical activity. Children with stronger motor skills tend to be more physically active, which promotes and instills lifelong physical activity habits. This program provides both imaginative play and structured activities that boost gross motor development.
Anderson says she and her team have received high praise from both parents and teachers. “Parents tell us that Food Friends is often a great topic at dinner time. Teachers are telling us how much the kids enjoy the characters and their super powers. Even the teachers are trying foods they’ve never eaten before,” she said.
To date, more than 300 hundred Head Start classrooms in 11 different states have participated in the Food Friends programs. Research has shown that these programs demonstrated positive behavior changes in children. A $2.8 million grant from the Colorado Health Foundation is making it possible to spread the Food Friends curriculum across Colorado with great success. The grant enables 950 preschool classrooms and 600 family childcare homes in Colorado to receive these beneficial and educational programs.
Recently, Anderson and her team applied for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II grant to develop bi-lingual storybooks. They also plan to explore the possibility of developing books and materials for stay-at-home parents – a new audience who also identified picky eating as a central issue for their children.
“We would also like to ramp up marketing efforts to others outside of Colorado,” she added. “New products, training options and electronic applications are being discussed if we’re awarded the grant.”