Jan 12 2021

If you’re the parent of a young child, you’re probably no stranger to mealtime battles over trying new foods. Many parents use bargaining, bribery, and threats and still find that they can’t get their child to eat a wide array of healthy foods, which isn’t good for the child’s nutrition or parent stress levels. That’s why finding a different way to tackle picky eating is so important.

The Haring Center FEAST team has received a grant in support of their program Food Explorers, a school-wide intervention plan designed to address selective eating in children through repeated exposure to healthy foods and fun, developmentally appropriate food activities.

The interdisciplinary FEAST (Feeding, Eating and Supporting Together) team at the Haring Center consists of researcher Yev Veverka (PhD ‘18), nurse Susan Ramage (BSN ‘91, MN ‘92), occupational therapist Christy Baker (BA ‘08), speech language pathologist Kelsey Milne (BA ‘09, MS ‘12), and Emilie Dupont (MEd ‘12), head teacher in the infant toddler program. (Degrees from the University of Washington are noted in parentheses.) The team’s goal is to provide mealtime support to children, families, and staff to address challenging mealtime behaviors that families of young children are likely to experience.

“I want people to know that . . . we don’t have to just wait and see while we let mealtime challenges intensify,” Veverka said. 

Veverka, whose doctoral research at the College of Education centered on mealtime behavior and selective eating, has found that selective eating often goes unaddressed because parents are told that it’s normal or their children will grow out of it. While it is difficult to measure the prevalence of selective eating, one study found that 50 percent of children were perceived as picky eaters by their parents at age two. Selective eating is more common in children with disabilities, particularly those on the autism spectrum. 

Some children grow out of their selective eating habits over time, but many do not. This can have significant consequences for a child’s health, parents’ mental health, and the important language and social skills that are developed during mealtimes.

“Sometimes selective eating just goes away and sometimes it doesn't,” Veverka said. “And you don't know in a three year old until it's kind of too late. This wait and see approach is not working for our kids.”

Food Explorers aims to address selective eating at the preschool level with its “Eating Through the Rainbow” curriculum. Each month, children participate in a series of activities using foods of a certain color. For example, during one red month activity, preschoolers receive apples cut into donut shapes and top their “donuts” themselves with sunbutter and sprinkles. With this curriculum, trying a food can simply mean touching it or bringing it to the lips and children are free to put foods they don’t like on a “learning plate”.

At home, parents and young children often fall into a negative feeding cycle where the argument over trying a new food creates stress and leaves parents feeling anxious about introducing the food again. Food Explorers’ helps families break away from this cycle by creating a fun, low-pressure environment where trying new foods feels like play and children are exposed to new foods multiple times. 

“The more a child is exposed to a certain food (and there’s research specific to vegetables), the more likely they are to up their intake of it,” Veverka said. “What sometimes happens without this low-pressure scenario is that parents are like, ‘Well, my kid doesn’t like green beans so I’m never going to present that again,’ so there’s no chance.”

The FEAST team ran a six-week pilot program with color-themed weeks in 2019. This year, the team began running a full-length two-year Food Explorers program, but was forced to press pause when remote learning began in March. With their current funding, the FEAST team plans to replicate and adapt Food Explorers in different preschools and work on organizing their curriculum into a manual.

The FEAST team’s ultimate goal is for early childhood settings around the country to be able to adopt this curriculum. “We want this to be something that early childhood settings can just pull from a book and easily implement within their existing routines to take away the stress and pressure of mealtime,” Veverka said.

Funding comes from the Rubenstein Foundation, an organization based in Boston. Foundation trustee Jey Auritt learned about the Haring Center after her grandson was diagnosed with autism. Auritt connected with the Haring Center’s mission and recognized the need for a project like Food Explorers as her grandson struggles with picky eating. Auritt commented that “the foundation has a history of ongoing investment in early stage research to organizations when there is potential for wide applicability.”

Story by Gabriela Tedeschi, marketing and communications student aide.

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