In the study, published in the Journal of Education and Behavior, researchers asked 125 10- to 12-year-olds, with parental consent, at five schools in the Netherlands to watch 10 minutes of a Dutch public television cooking program designed for children, and then offered them a snack as a reward for participating. Children who watched the healthy program were 2.7 times more likely to choose one of the healthy snack options (an apple or a few pieces of cucumber) than one of the unhealthy options (a handful of chips or a handful of salted mini-pretzels).
"The findings from this study indicate cooking programs can be a promising tool for promoting positive changes in children's food-related preferences, attitudes, and behaviors," said lead author Frans Folkvord, PhD, Tilburg University in the Netherlands.
Preparation and familiarity with healthy foods play an important role
Although other studies have shown that actual cooking classes are useful in positively modifying food-related preferences, attitudes, and behaviors of school-aged children (since they are actually involved in preparing the dish), this study showed that a televised cooking show was also useful in improving children's eating behavior. However, this only applies to cooking programs presenting healthy foods.
The study indicates the visual prominence of healthier options in both food choice and portion size on TV cooking programs leads young viewers to crave those healthier choices then act on those cravings as watching cooking shows featuring fruits and vegetables increased a child's familiarity with how to cook and prepare the food.
However, researchers pointed out that a child's food choices are strongly influenced by their existing attitudes towards healthy foods. For example, children who don't like new foods are less likely to show a stronger desire for healthier choices after watching a TV program featuring healthier foods than a child who does enjoy trying new foods. As they grow older, though, they start to feel more responsible for their eating habits and can fall back on information they learned as children. Researchers believe this may indicate watching programs with healthier options can still have a positive impact on kids eating behavior, even if it is delayed by age.
"Increased cooking skills among children can positively influence their consumption of fruit and vegetables in a manner that will persist into adulthood," Dr. Folkvord added.
Nutrition education at schools
The study was conducted at the kids' schools, which could represent an effective alternative for children learning healthy eating behaviors through positive peer and teacher modeling which can encourage students to try new foods which they previously exhibited dislike for.
"Schools represent the most effective and efficient way to reach a large section of an important target population, which includes children as well as school staff and the wider community," Dr. Folkvord commented. "Providing nutritional education in school environments instead may have an important positive influence on the knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors of children."