Sensory-based food education encourages children to eat their fruit and vegetables, study finds

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31 May 2018 --- Sensory-based food education given to 3-5 year-old children increases their willingness to choose vegetables, berries and fruit, according to a study from the University of Eastern Finland. The study, published in Public Health Nutrition, points to a role for sensory-based food education in promoting healthy dietary habits in early childhood education and care (ECEC).

The researchers used the sensory-based food education method Sapere, which makes use of children's natural way of relying on all of the five senses when learning new things. In the Sapere method, children are encouraged to share their sensory experiences. Sensory-based food education is well suited to the everyday life of kindergartens, where children eat several meals every day and participate in pedagogically oriented group activities.

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Kaisa Kähkönen, Nutritionist.

“There are several different ways to do this. However, it always starts from sensory-based learning, child-orientation and child engagement. Doing and experiencing things together is also an important aspect,” says Nutritionist Kaisa Kähkönen from the University of Eastern Finland, one of the researchers involved in the study.

Kindergartens can employ different methods when delivering food education, such as involving children in baking and cooking or growing their own vegetables in the kindergarten backyard. Food-related themes can also be included in books and games, the researchers note.

The researchers compared children in different kindergarten groups. Some were offered sensory-based food education, while others weren't. Children were provided a snack buffet containing different vegetables, berries and fruit to choose from, and the researchers took photos of their plates to analyze their willingness to choose and eat these food items.

The findings show that sensory-based food education given in kindergarten increased children's willingness to choose vegetables, berries and fruit, especially among children whose mothers have a lower educational background. 

“Families with low socio-economic status have been found to consume less vegetables, berries and fruit, and are therefore less likely to provide them to children at home, which reduces their children’s familiarity with these foods. It is not clear why children from lower socio-economic families chose vegetables, berries and fruit more willingly [in the study],” Kähkönen tells NutritionInsight. “Earlier findings indicate that high-quality ECEC might be more beneficial for children from families with a lower socio-economic status compared with their peers with a higher socio-economic status. It is possible that children of mothers with lower education levels benefit more from sensory-based food education than children of mothers with a higher education. More highly educated mothers are probably more aware of healthy eating for children and offer a wider variety of vegetables and fruit at home.”

“Another interesting finding is that the Sapere food education method also seems to improve the eating atmosphere in kindergarten groups. This encouraged children who, according to their parents, were picky eaters, to choose a more diverse selection of vegetables, berries and fruit on their plate," Kähkönen explains.

Positive and personal food-related experiences gained in the kindergarten can help modify dietary preferences in a direction that is beneficial for health. Dietary preferences learned in early childhood often stick with a person all the way to adolescence and adulthood.

When asked about the role food and beverage companies could play in encouraging the consumption of fruit and vegetables, Kähkönen tells NutritionInsight that a good strategy would be to develop products and packages that ease the use of vegetables, berries and fruit at ECEC and homes and can also be consumed as snacks on-the-go. 

“And also, industry could encourage healthy eating by making packaged products containing vegetables, berries and fruit more appealing to children. The sense of sight is the very important when we consumers make decisions of buying and eating – so the appearance of a package and product plays a big role,” she says.

By Lucy Gunn

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