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Nurseries could use fruit and vegetable themed games to inspire children in their care to eat a healthier diet as they grow up.
A selection of Berkshire nursery children were surveyed by The University of Reading and toddlers were given the task of drawing, smelling and touching unusual vegetables such as sweet potatoes and pomegranates. The results revealed that the children were 32 per cent more likely to try them over other vegetables with a meal.
Dr Carmel Houston-Price, from the University of Readings School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences led the study and said: "Fruit and vegetables are the cornerstone of a healthy diet. By developing a fondness for a wide variety of healthy foods toddlers stand the best chance of having a ‘five a day' diet later in life.
"But getting toddlers to try something new is not an easy task. Most parents will have experienced frustration, and a messy floor, when encouraging their toddler to try different foods - especially when it isn't a high fat or sugary treat. Our study showed that introducing new foods through fun familiarisation activities such as letting children poke their fingers inside foods, smelling them and drawing pictures of them, increased toddlers' willingness to touch and taste them at mealtimes - especially the vegetables."
One in five children eat the recommended number of portions of fruit and vegetables each day, and consumption is recognised as being low in younger children.
Eating a healthy diet, including consuming high levels of fruit and vegetables is linked with a reduction in levels of obesity as well as reducing the risk of cancers of the mouth, stomach and lungs and cardiovascular diseases.
Dr Houston-Price added: "Poor diet in childhood is associated with obesity and increases the risk of a range of life-threatening illnesses in later life. Our research could help parents to introduce more vegetables into children's diets, and encourage children to make healthy food choices and actually enjoy eating healthily as they grow older."
In a recent study on National Diet and Nutrition, conducted by Public Health England, it was revealed that pre-school aged children eat less than the equivalent of one adult sized portion of vegetables per day. Furthermore, forty per cent of pre-school aged children eat no vegetables at all in the UK.
The National Diet and Nutrition study, surveyed 92 children across six nurseries between the ages one to three. The survey was conducted daily for four weeks and required the children to be separated into a controlled group and a study group.
The study group participated in activities involving fruit and vegetables that may be unknown to them, including sweet potato, pomegranates, broad beans, rhubarb. A further test during mealtimes was carried out to test whether exposing the children to a range of previously unknown fruit and vegetables made a difference to the choices that children made.
The research proved that children opted to taste and touch fruit and vegetables that they had used in the activities in the previous days before considering the fruit and vegetables that weren’t part of the study.
Dr Houston-Price said: "At around the age of two years, children become more cautious about what they will eat - which is sensible because as they become increasingly mobile they encounter lots of things that are not safe to eat. This means that toddlers, like many of us, like to know exactly what it is they are eating."
The publication of the survey results coincides with the decision by health leaders to establish an emergency taskforce to combat childhood obesity in England.
The group of health professionals has called for better management of obesity treatment services and for all children to be encouraged to eat healthily from a young age.