A lizard gets preschoolers to eat more fruit and vegetables

12/18/2013  |  Dr. Gail C. Roberts, Ph.D.

Despite what mom said, sometimes, it is OK to play with your food. In fact, a new Minnesota-developed nutrition program encourages preschoolers to explore foods and create snacks that look like mice, stoplights and silly faces, all in an effort to introduce new fruits and vegetables and develop good eating habits at a young age.

Learning About Nutrition through Activities, or LANA, is a comprehensive, 24-week in-school nutrition program created by the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota.

Learning About Nutrition through Activities, or LANA, is a comprehensive, 24-week in-school nutrition program created by the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota.

Lana the iguana helps young children learn to love fruits and vegetables through hands-on activities, storytelling and games. The LANA program, which introduces eight core vegetables and fruits in a 24-week program, focuses on having fun and experiencing color and taste rather than saying, “We eat it because it’s good for us.”

LANA introduces children to eight fruits and vegetables, like broccoli, snap peas, apricots and cherry tomatoes; foods that children may not have tried before but are easily accessible. The program, made possible by a grant from the National Cancer Institute, teaches young children how to establish healthy eating patterns early in life. But instead of the teacher or a parent introducing the foods, it is Lana the Iguana, a green hand puppet who encourages fruit and veggie exploration with games, stories and activities in math, reading, art and tasting. And evidence has shown that after completing LANA, children are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables than they were before starting the program.

Jessica, an early childhood teacher, reports, “The kids can’t wait until Lana comes out and talks to them. She’s the hit. She plays a big part in the center.” Deb, a family childcare provider, echoes Jessica’s enthusiasm. “Sweet red peppers and the sweet potato smoothie are favorites. Who would have thought? If the children can be open about eating fruits and veggies, they can be open to anything.”

Concern about childhood obesity and improving early childhood nutrition has increased across the nation. Parents, teachers and caregivers struggle to help more than 12 million obese children and teens who are at increased risk of developing type two diabetes and other health problems. Since healthy eating habits develop at a young age, it is important to find effective ways to encourage and support healthy food choices by young children.

Early results from the program showed positive results in the following areas:

  • 67 percent of children were more likely to eat fruits and 78 percent were more likely to eat vegetables
  • 76 percent of childcare providers offered fruits and vegetables more often during snack time
  • 81 percent of parents increased eating of fruits and vegetables at home
  • A decrease in the “pickiness” and fear of trying new foods; 92 percent more likely to try new foods

How did they do it? The LANA program uses the following strategies that can be used in any early childhood setting:

  • Create a calm and pleasant experience with meals and snacks.
    When mealtime and snack time are positive experiences, children are more likely to try new foods.
  • Eat meals and snacks with children.
    It is important for children to observe adults eating the same foods they do and responding honestly with comments such as, “Maybe I’ll like it the next time I try it.”
  • Offer vegetables and fruits first at meals.
    This provides increased visibility and value to the featured fruits and vegetables. A new food must be offered multiple times for children to try it and learn to like it.
  • Serve or offer age appropriate portions to children.
    An appropriate portion size of fruits and vegetables is approximately one tablespoon per year of age. A smaller amount to try or taste something new is appropriate.
  • Understand “normal” childhood eating behavior.
    Learn to accept some spills and messes, irregular eating habits and some food waste.
  • Involve children in food preparation.
    Children who help create a meal or a snack are more invested in, feel more positive about and are more likely to eat the food being served.

And LANA’s momentum is building. In 2012, the LANA program saw its highest participation rates among Minnesota children than ever before. The program has been adopted in various schools nationwide and this fall will reach thousands of preschoolers in Newark, New Jersey.

Dr. Gail C. Roberts, Ph.D. is an Early Childhood Consultant.
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