Family-Style Meals Can Help Daycare Kids Combat Obesity
January 14, 2014

Family-Style Meals Can Help Daycare Kids Combat Obesity

[ Watch the Video: How Can Family-Style Meals Combat Childhood Obesity? ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Sitting down at a table to eat, serving themselves and passing food to the person next to them can help children recognize when they are no longer hungry, more than they do when meals are placed on a plate for them, researchers from the University of Illinois claim in a recently-published study.

Lead author Brent McBride, director of the university’s Child Development Laboratory, and his colleagues analyzed the feeding practices of children between the ages of two and five at more than 100 child-care centers.

A paper detailing the study team's findings – “Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Benchmarks for Nutrition in Child Care 2011: Are Child-Care Providers across Contexts Meeting Recommendations?” – appears in the October 2013 edition of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Family-style meals give kids a chance to learn about things like portion size and food preferences,” McBride said. “When foods are pre-plated, children never develop the ability to read their body's hunger cues. They don't learn to say, okay, this is an appropriate portion size for me.”

Among the research team’s findings are that Head Start centers were found to be significantly more compliant with this and other Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics benchmarks than other educational facilities, including those participating in the US Department of Agriculture’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) supplemental nutrition assistance program, as well as non-CACFP state-licensed centers.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics issued those benchmarks three years ago in order to help combat the issue of childhood obesity. According to the university, 25 percent of all preschool children are overweight or obese, and over 12 million preschoolers eat upwards of five snacks or meals each day at US child-care facilities.

The organization recommends that caregivers eat with their children so that they can model healthy eating habits, and the study authors report that Head Start staff members are required to do so.

Furthermore, teachers are also advised not to pressure children to eat an additional bite or finish a serving before being offered another food item or activity. The study authors note that care providers should make an effort to help youngsters recognize their feelings of being hungry and being full.

Dipti Dev, a University of Illinois graduate student in nutritional sciences who is in the process of creating a packet of best feeding practices to give to caretakers, said that teachers should ask children if they are “full” instead of if they are “done,” or should make sure that they can have more food if they are still hungry. “Asking the right questions can help children listen to their hunger and satiety signals,” she added.

“The Illinois research is the first study to evaluate whether child-care providers are adhering to the academy's guidelines for feeding practices,” the university said. “Most providers did promote healthy feeding by serving nutritious foods and not pressuring children to eat or restricting them from eating.”

The researchers found that Head Start programs were the ones that were best at adhering to the Academy’s recommendations and instituting family-style feeding practices. In fact, the Head Start teachers who used these methods to feed their students were found to be strong supporters of the practice.

“Teachers who don't do family-style meals have all these reasons that they don't: there's too much waste, it's messy, young kids don't have the developmental skills – the fine motor control – to do that,” McBride said. “But Head Start teachers were telling us ways you could help develop those fine motor skills: for instance, using scoops in the sandbox or pouring water in the water table.”

“When you first do easel painting with a two-year-old, it's really messy because they don't have fine motor control, but you still do it even though it's messy,” he added. “The same thing is true for family-style meal service. It may be messy at first until they develop the appropriate skills and learn to pour the right way or hold the cup as they're pouring. It's a developmental progression.”

Finally, McBride and his colleagues recommended not urging children to eat if they seemed unwilling to do so. While a teacher might be concerned that a youngster might get hungry prior to the next snack or meal, the study authors said that forcing kids to eat when they don’t feel hungry causes them to ignore their biological signals. Even if they don’t eat at a given time, kids will make up for it over the course of a 24-hour period.