Place fresh vegetables in a bowl on the kitchen counter and keep the soft drinks in the cellar. These are two of the simple tricks that public health and nutrition suggested by researcher Margrethe Røed.
“Eating habits established before the age of 2 can be lasting”, says Margrethe Røed, assistant professor at the University of Agder (UiA).
She recently defended her doctoral thesis at the University of Agder (UiA) entitled Fostering healthy dietary habits through targeting toddlers' food and eating environment: The Food4toddlers study.
Røed has followed the PhD programme at the Faculty of Health and Sport Sciences and been affiliated with the Priority Research Centre for Lifecourse Nutrition.
In her doctoral work, she explored whether it is possible to influence the eating habits of toddlers with the help of an information page on the internet, aimed at parents.
The short answer is yes.
Røed emphasises that one must not force children to eat healthy food. The trick is to offer it to them many times. If they say no the first time, they may say yes the second or fourth time they get the offer.
“A simple trick to creating good eating habits is to keep healthy food within reach and make unhealthy food options more inaccessible. Put the soft drinks away and place vegetables, neatly cut, in a clearly visible bowl”, says the researcher.
It is no coincidence that it is important to get kids used to eating healthy foods while they are still young. That is when they are still open to new tastes.
“Before the age of 2, children will taste most things, but between the ages of 2 and 6, they become more sensitive to new tastes and changes in their food. They become more sceptical and notice that vegetables can be both sour and bitter. Therefore, it is a good idea to teach them to eat vegetables before they are 2 years old”, Røed says.
In collaboration with students and colleagues at UiA, Røed developed a website with advice and tips on good and healthy eating habits. 300 parents were recruited for the experiment.
Half of the parents had access to the website; the other half did not. Thus, Røed could see whether there was any difference in how the two groups developed their eating habits.
This was what she wanted to know more about: Is it possible to influence the eating habits of children in a positive way if you influence their parents via a well-considered website with easily accessible information?
“86.5 percent of the parents who had access to the website used it actively and were satisfied with the content. They tried the recipes and followed the various training programmes we provided about nutrition and good eating habits”, says the researcher.
The parents gave good feedback on the website. They said among other things that the information was suitable for children aged 1 to 2.
The children of the parents who had access to the website ate about half a carrot more each day than those who did not have access when the children were 18 months old.
Or in the researcher's own words: “They ate 0.40 units more vegetables than the control group which did not have access to the website”.
The researcher says that small changes may be important for good eating habits in the long term.
“The website had little effect on the intake of fruit and unhealthy food, but the intake of vegetables. It is especially important to get them to eat more vegetables, since children don’t eat enough of them. Vegetables contain many vitamins the children need”, says Røed.
The website and project also focused on aspects other than the healthy food in itself.
“Good eating habits are also about creating a good environment, pleasant surroundings and food traditions”, says Røed.
The website intervention lasted 6 months. Parents with access to the information were given a reminder to use the website every week and received 20 reminders in total. They were also followed up after 12 months, at age 18 months, 2 years, and with a new follow-up when the child was 4 years old.
The experiences with the website are now being used in a research and development project in Arendal. The project there targets both public health centres and nurseries.
“My conclusion is that it is possible to influence parents of young children via a well-planned website. The success factor is to facilitate for the age group and make the site user friendly for parents”, says Røed.
The researcher wants an even more heterogeneous group of parents for the next research project.
“It often turns out that people who are highly educated are the ones who participate in various research projects. Most of them were also mothers. Only 4 of the 300 participants were men”, says Røed.
She thinks the somewhat skewed recruitment may also be because more women than men use Facebook, the social media channel used for recruiting parents to this research project.