If you're not, you're among legions of moms, dads, grandparents
and others who know that some of the youngsters in their lives
should eat more of these good-for-you foods, but don't.
Help may be on the way.
And it's coming from a perhaps unlikely source: your smartphone.
"We're creating a fun, science-based video game that gives parents
of preschoolers a quick, easy way to learn some of the best
approaches for getting their kids to eat more veggies," says Tom Baranowski,
a psychologist at the Agricultural Research Service's Children's Nutrition
Research Center in Houston, Texas, and a
professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, also in
Houston. The college operates the nutrition center in cooperation
"Kiddio: Food Fight!" -- the lively, upbeat video game that Baranowski's
team is creating -- will offer users a series of short, interactive episodes that
they can play on their smartphone. The engaging, fast-paced game features "Kiddio," an appealing
preschooler who doesn't like vegetables.
Each episode will give users several choices of what to do to
improve the balky youngster's eating behaviors. Importantly, parents
can customize the game so that Kiddio's temperament matches that of
their child. "That way, what parents learn can help them reshape
their own child's eating habits," says Baranowski. "We want the game
to be relevant to the real-world food-choice issues of their
In the course of each episode, parents will be able to select -- with
a quick touch on the smartphone screen -- multiple options for
influencing Kiddio. For example, after deciding whether to offer
Kiddio a serving of broccoli, carrots, corn or peas, players next
select what to say to him to increase the chances that he will at
least taste the veggie.
Some of these options, says Baranowski, "create effective,
'teachable moments,' such as when the parent says, 'That's a really
tasty veggie.' Other options may express a perhaps-ineffective,
'firm discipline' approach in which the parent tells Kiddio, 'You
will taste it before you leave the table!'"
"Each of the options is based on a parenting practice that we've
studied in our research," Baranowski says. "And Kiddio's responses to these
options -- whether to take a bite or to say something like 'Yuk!' -- are
based on what we've learned so far about kids' reactions to these
By working their way through the various options, "parents can learn
which tactics succeed," says Baranowski. "The point is to give them
a safe, low-risk, nonthreatening way to sharpen their parenting
skills and to boost their confidence in their decisions.
"We plan to make the episodes increasingly difficult, so players
won't become bored or complacent. We hope parents will want to play
each episode several times and that they'll learn something new
Baranowski says that by limiting each episode to just a few minutes,
the team will "make it convenient for on-the-go parents to play and
learn in spare moments, such as when they're waiting for their kids
at the dentist or at soccer practice."
The video-game project, funded by ARS and a grant from the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development, will draw upon five
studies that the Houston scientists have conducted over the past
decade. These investigations, involving thousands of parents, kids
and nutrition-related professionals, are examples of "behavioral
nutrition," a comparatively new scientific discipline that has roots
in both psychology and nutrition.
The field is "all about exploring -- and explaining -- the internal and
external factors that influence our food choices," says Baranowski.
His work, and that of his Houston coinvestigators, has helped make
the CNRC an international leader in behavioral-nutrition research
geared to understanding -- and helping solve -- the most urgent
nutrition-related problems of America's children and adolescents.
How do veggies fit into this picture?
Increased vegetable consumption helps kids get the recommended
amounts of several vitamins and minerals and is thought by some
experts to help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as
diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
Peer-reviewed articles by Baranowski and colleagues about the use of
video games to improve kids' eating habits have been published in
the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and the Journal of
Diabetes Science and Technology.
Survey reveals some parenting practices
Among the studies that are helping shape the new "Kiddio" series is
an investigation that drew upon the real-life experiences of more
than 700 Alabama and Texas parents and their preschool-aged
children. "Kiddio" collaborator Teresia O'Connor, M.D., an assistant
professor of pediatrics at the CNRC and at Baylor College of
Medicine, led this study, analyzing -- from a different
perspective -- data collected as part of an earlier, larger
investigation headed by CNRC colleague Theresa Nicklas.
Unlike some previous studies, this one didn't focus on just one
category of parenting practices. Instead, O'Connor's team looked at
an array of categories and at combinations of specific tactics from
within each category.
"Parents don't do just one thing when trying to influence their
child's eating behaviors," says O'Connor. "Rather, they do a
combination of things. So, we attempted to investigate this by
looking at data pertaining to five different types of behaviors that
parents in our study reported using when trying to get a child to
eat a veggie or a fruit.
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"These categories were 'teachable moments,' such as telling your
son or daughter to try a couple of bites of a vegetable or a fruit,
but that he or she doesn't have to eat all of it; 'practical
methods,' such as adding something to make a veggie or fruit taste
better to the child; 'firm discipline,' like preventing your child
from having sweets if he or she doesn't eat the veggie or fruit;
'restriction of junk foods,' such as not keeping any junk foods in
the house; and 'enhanced availability and accessibility,' such as
keeping a container of ready-to-eat carrots on a lower shelf of your
fridge that your preschooler can easily reach.
"We then grouped parents into three clusters according to their use
of tactics that are within these general categories of practices,"
O'Connor says. "On average, no matter what group their parents were
in, kids ate less than the recommended number of daily servings of
veggies and fruits. But children of the parents who used less of the
reactive 'firm discipline' tactics and showed a preference for the
proactive 'teachable moments' and 'enhanced availability and
accessibility' approaches ate slightly more veggies and fruits than
children whose parents were in the other two groups. The finding was
Using combinations of proactive practices "appears to be more
effective than using combinations of other parenting tactics," she
says. "So, we now want to determine which specific combinations give
the best results."
This study was "one of the first to look at how parents use
combinations of parenting practices and how these combinations are
related to children's vegetable and fruit intake," O'Connor notes.
She plans to use this research as the starting point for a longer
study. "We looked at one time period -- essentially, three days in the
lives of our volunteers. Now we want to look at how parenting
practices influence children's intake of vegetables and fruits over
a longer period of time, such as one or two years."
The findings were documented in a 2009 issue of Public Health
Nutrition, a peer-reviewed journal.
Lessons from home and abroad:
Pros share their insights
Other parent-and-kid-focused research led by O'Connor has yielded a
globe-spanning glimpse of parenting practices pertaining to fruits
and veggies. Her Houston team, and several university researchers
based in the United States and abroad, designed, conducted and
analyzed results of an Internet survey that tapped the expertise of
nearly 900 doctors, nurse practitioners, registered dietitians and
other health care specialists, mostly in Australia, Chile, Mexico,
Spain and the United States.
Survey participants were asked to rate the long-term effectiveness
of nearly 40 different parenting practices.
"The people who took
part in this survey have firsthand experience counseling parents
about their preschoolers' eating habits," says O'Connor.
"In general, those surveyed agreed that it's more helpful for
parents to be proactive than reactive in getting children to eat fruits and
vegetables. Proactive actions, such as creating a home environment in which kids
are likely to see and be served fruits and vegetables, to see their parent
enjoying eating fruits and vegetables, and to have the chance to help a parent
select and prepare fruits or veggies, were believed to be more effective
techniques, in the long term, for getting children to eat these foods.
"On the other hand, being reactive by pressuring, scolding or
punishing the child who's not eating fruit or vegetables was
believed to be ineffective -- or even counterproductive -- in the long run."
According to O'Connor, these consensus opinions "can be useful for
parents who are trying to find new ways to encourage their child to
eat more fruits and vegetables, and also for public health and
health care specialists who are developing strategies to promote
increased fruit and vegetable intake among young children.
"At Houston, we're using what we learned from this study, and
others, to develop food-based strategies for doctors and other clinicians to use
as a first-line treatment of obesity among their younger patients."
O'Connor and colleagues reported their findings in a peer-reviewed
article published in 2010 in the Journal of the American Dietetic
"Today, most kids in this country eat less than the recommended
amounts of veggies and fruits," O'Connor says. "We hope that
findings from our studies will help change this for the better."
news release by MARCIA WOOD, Agricultural Research Service
This research supports the USDA priority of improving children's
health and nutrition and is part of Human Nutrition, an ARS national
program (No. 107) described at
Tom Baranowski and Teresia M. O'Connor are with the USDA-ARS
Children's Nutrition Research Center, 1100 Bates St., Houston, TX
77030; phone 713-798-6767 for Baranowski and 713-798-6782 for
"Getting Your Kids to Eat More Vegetables: Scientists Scrutinize
'Parenting Practices'" was published in the
July 2012 issue of
Agricultural Research magazine.