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Fun with Fruits & Veggies: A Child-Led Approach to Nutrition

September 8, 2022
Updated June 24, 2024

Early care and education programs across the country differ in many ways, from structure and size to location and more. But one thing nearly all programs have in common is the use of nutrition program standards to support children and families in promoting healthy development.

A nutrition-rich diet early in a child’s life is key to long-term positive health outcomes – and there is increasing evidence that children themselves may have an important role to play in overall family nutrition, thanks to something called pester power.(1)

Pester power is children’s ability to influence their families’ food purchasing decisions by repeatedly asking parents and caregivers for foods that might not be routinely purchased. A 2020 study by Swindle et al., found that while this degree of influence varied based on setting, food and family characteristics, pester power did relate to changes in fruit and vegetable intake, along with parental nutrition practices. (1)

At Educare New Orleans, teachers, families and students are soon to witness pester power firsthand, thanks to a new pilot program called We Inspire Smart Eating.

Foodie-Friendly Classroom Curriculum & Data Measurement

We Inspire Smart Eating (WISE) came to Educare New Orleans as a three-year pilot program, launched in August of 2022 in collaboration with Louisiana Technical University. Aligned with Head Start nutrition guidelines and approved by the USDA, WISE is a classroom-based nutrition education program that provides teachers with the tools and training to promote healthy eating behaviors in preschool-aged children. Through classroom curriculum, educator training and parent outreach, this program delivers developmentally appropriate food experiences with the goal of increasing children’s fruit and vegetable consumption both in the classroom and at home.

Integrated into eight preschool classrooms at Educare New Orleans, WISE features hands-on food experiences and a weekly healthy snack menu created with the assistance of Chartwells, the school’s food provider, that is heavy on fruits and veggies. Thanks to Louisiana Tech’s partnership with Vitamix, every preschool classroom also has a blender, opening the door for even more creative snacks. From learning to make smoothies and soups to tasting applesauce and kale chips, children will have the opportunity to encounter both new and familiar foods.

Classrooms will track students’ fruit and vegetable intake by conducting a hand scan measurement of their carotenoid levels. Carotenoids, a type of plant-based antioxidant beneficial to overall growth and immune system support(2), must be consumed via diet, after which they are deposited into the skin. Higher consumption of fruits and vegetables is typically associated with higher amounts of detectable skin carotenoids, which can be measured and quantified by reflection spectroscopy(3) – like the WISE program’s hand scan.

One classroom will dive even deeper into students’ development by measuring height, weight and dietary intake, thanks to collaboration between the WISE program and students’ pediatricians with permission from the parents.

Educator Training & Support

In addition to classroom curriculum, educator training is another hallmark of the WISE program. Ongoing coaching for teachers and supervisors began with a full day of training to kick off the school year at Educare New Orleans, and will continue for the duration of the pilot to support teachers with incorporating the program into their weekly planning.

“I’m excited about implementing the WISE program into my classroom!” says teacher Annette Williams. “We’ve introduced unfamiliar fruits and vegetables in the past, but this program gives us the language and supplements to make [it] more intentional and fun. When your little ones observe that you’re excited about something new, it piques their curiosity and willingness to try it.”

Education supervisors Giselle Scott and Kimora Johnson agree.

“I feel that [this program] will introduce a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to our students that they may not have otherwise had the opportunity to experience,” says Scott.

Johnson adds, “WISE encourages teachers to talk to students about math, science, geography, farming and gardening, [and] emphasizes trying healthy foods. I am elated about the program.”

Parent Outreach & Engagement

The third and final piece of WISE’s plan to increase fruit and vegetable intake is parent outreach and engagement. At Educare New Orleans, that starts with family meetings, where partner organizations from around the community will share nutrition best practices and offer small cooking sessions with the goal of encouraging families to do more with fruits and vegetables at home.

Educare parent K. Butler is looking forward to seeing the program come to fruition in the classroom.

“We all know positive learning experiences strengthen a child’s development and passion for learning,” Butler says. “I love hearing that healthy food choices through real world experiences [are] heading into the classroom. My kids are foodies, so I cannot wait to hear about the fresh fruits and vegetables they learn about and taste.”

School director Angie Belisle is also excited about the WISE program’s potential.

“This is such a great program to bring here,” says Belisle. “The parent engagement piece especially is huge. We can provide as many healthy snacks as we want in the classroom; it’s what happens once children are at home that’s most important. That’s what we’re hoping for: excitement, engagement, and real buy-in.”