Study finds variety, cost can be barriers to children’s vegetable consumption

· 5 min read

Study finds variety, cost can be barriers to children’s vegetable consumption

Saima Hasnin, assistant professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois — and a recent University of Nebraska graduate — explored family child care home providers’ preparation and serving of vegetables to better und
Saima Hasnin, a recent University of Nebraska graduate, explored family child care home providers’ preparation and serving of vegetables.

Getting children to eat their vegetables is a common, longstanding challenge for parents and child care providers alike.

While some kids simply dislike the taste of veggies, a recent study sheds light on some other obstacles that prevent children from reaching their recommended daily nutritional needs.

Saima Hasnin, who recently completed her doctoral program in child development and early childhood education at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, led her doctoral dissertation project to better understand family child care home providers’ preparation and serving of vegetables, and their influence on children’s vegetable consumption. The project was funded by grants from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and the Administration of Children and Families.

Beginning in spring 2022, Hasnin and her team traveled throughout Nebraska to gather data, observing 136 children at 46 participating FCCH sites in both rural and urban settings. Participating providers were recruited with the help of Nebraska Extension as part of a larger statewide research intervention: The Ecological Approach to (EAT) Family Style project, led by Dipti Dev, associate professor of child, youth and family studies, and childhood health behaviors Extension specialist.

All providers were participants in the Child and Adult Care Food Program, a federal project that provides reimbursement for nutritious meals and snacks to eligible children and adults enrolled at participating child care centers, day care homes and adult day care centers.

At each site, researchers observed lunchtimes for two days to collect data on what food children were served and how much they ate, then calculated an average children’s nutritional intake. They gathered data using a Veggie Meter, a portable device that measures carotenoid antioxidants, which protect the skin from sunlight-induced oxidation effects.

The measurement, or skin carotenoid score, is a reliable biomarker for dietary consumption of carotenoids, which are found in colored vegetables such as broccoli, butternut squash, carrots, green beans, peppers, spinach and tomatoes. These carotenoid-rich vegetables tend to have higher protective factors against obesity, certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases.

If children’s overall consumption of colored fruits and vegetables is low, their skin carotenoid is also low.

Providers and parents provided additional data via online questionnaires about their dietary preparation and serving processes.

Hasnin used data from the Veggie Meter, along with information from day care providers and parents, to examine how the skin carotenoid score changed based on children’s fruit and vegetable consumption, both at home and in the child care setting.

“We found that at home, children’s overall diversity of what fruits and vegetables they consume is not very diverse,” Hasnin said. “Children are missing out on important nutrients from the carotenoid-rich vegetables. Veggie Meter will help us to identify children who have low consumption of variety of fruits and vegetables in their households, the children who are at increased risk of having obesity, so that we can help their families with appropriate resources.”

She noted that research shows children’s vegetable consumption has been consistently lower than the national dietary guidelines for Americans.

“That has been linked to a higher prevalence of obesity — an ongoing public health problem that afflicts children from low-income and minority families in rural areas disproportionately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Hasnin said.

Hasnin pinpointed two barriers to providers serving children a variety of vegetables: lack of food preparation time and children’s dislike of vegetables.

In rural areas, providers tend to live farther from markets than their urban counterparts, and are unable to buy fresh produce as frequently.

“Some providers are only able to shop once a week, so they buy in bulk,” Hasnin said. “But you can’t give a child raw spinach every day. They’ll stop eating it and the food will go to waste.”

Providers expressed frustration, she said, over being required to serve vegetables, but children not eating them.

“Fresh produce tends to be expensive, so when it goes to waste, it’s not cost-effective,” Hasnin said. “These child care providers are shopping for groceries, then cooking and serving the food. So when vegetables go to waste, it’s discouraging.”

To avoid wasting food, providers typically served only the vegetables children would eat, which limited the variety of vegetables consumed.

In October, Hasnin began as a tenure track assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois, where she plans to continue her work to protect children’s health and nutritional well-being.

“Being part of the Nebraska Extension system helped us with the study recruitment,” Hasnin said. “This unique experience with Extension also improved my knowledge about community-based participatory research and the importance of Extension for promoting child nutrition.”

She aims to use her findings from this project to help child care providers streamline their vegetable preparation and serving practices to make vegetables more appealing to children.

“Early childhood is when a person’s dietary habits are developed, and those habits continue into adulthood,” she said. “However, to make that happen, we need to provide more streamlined professional development materials for FCCH providers, including strategies to serve carotenoid-rich vegetables, and how to improve children’s overall vegetable consumption.”

Dev noted that the mission of the Dev Research and Extension Lab is to give students opportunities for hands-on experience in research and Extension as part of their graduate training.

“Being involved with the Extension helps students to understand how to build sustainable community systems, as well as how to close the gap between research and practice,” she said. “It’s an invaluable experience for their future career and our society.”

Learn more about this project in the CYFS Research Network.

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