Nov. 6 (UPI) -- A mindfulness-based training program that includes games can guide preschoolers toward healthier food choices, a study published Friday by the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found.
Three- and 4-year-olds who participated in the five-week program reported increased "liking" of fruits and vegetables compared to those who did not participate, the researchers said.
Delivered by teachers at two Head Start centers with a total of 39 children, the program included food-centered meditation activities, cooking activities, games and physical activities, according to the researchers.
The approach fostered high levels of child engagement in the program, they said.
"It's important to develop healthy eating habits in early childhood because these dietary behaviors set the stage for later health and well-being," study co-author Sara A. Schmitt told UPI.
"Research suggests that dietary behaviors, such as liking of fruits and vegetables, in preschool children predict subsequent food preferences, consumption of healthy foods and weight status," said Schmitt, associate professor of human development and family studies at Purdue University.
Nearly one in five children and adolescents in the United States is obese, including 14% of 2- to 5-year-olds, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Research suggests that, nationally, children eat two to three servings of fruit and vegetables daily, or less than the recommended five servings.
For this study, Schmitt and her colleagues worked with preschool teachers to develop a five-week program -- with up to 25 lessons or activities -- designed to increase interest in, and liking of, fruits and vegetables among children.
The program included meditation exercises meant to encourage children to appreciate the taste and smell of fruits and vegetables, as well as classroom cooking activities -- in which teachers and the preschoolers made tomato and arugula salad -- and various games, the researchers said.
Based on commonly used behavioral measures, children who participated in the program had higher levels of fruit and vegetable "liking" than those who did not, according to the researchers.
Children in the program also were more likely to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption, the researchers said.
Although this was a pilot study, and more research is needed to confirm the findings, the results "suggest that there is great promise in using this approach to support growth," Schmitt said.
Another expert agrees.
"Repeated exposure of young children to fruits and vegetables is key to getting them to like them and eat them," Lorrene Ritchie, a specialist in nutrition at the University of California for Agriculture and Natural Resources, told UPI.
"It can take up to 20 times -- and for some kids even more -- of exposure to a new food before a child learns to like it, especially true for vegetables and other things that are not sweet, salty or high fat," said Ritchie, who was not part of Schmitt's work.