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Getting kids involved in preparing food develops lifelong habit, study finds

Guelph Family Health Study’s research shows kids under six can be less picky after participating in the kitchen
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Families can get their kids involved in food preparation by having them clean lettuce and fruits for their school lunches.

When Jess Haines’ children were in elementary school, they were involved in packing their lunches. She always told her sons to include “two things that crunch," whether they be fruits or vegetables.

Her children are now teens in high school, and on the first day of school this year, she overheard her son being disappointed in only having one crunchy item in his lunch bag.

Haines is a dietitian and the co-director at the Guelph Family Health Study (GFHS). GFHS looks at ways families can develop healthy habits and continue them into adulthood. Her team recently completed a study that shows getting children under six involved in packing lunches can create healthy eating habits and help divert picky eating.

Her children have shown that involving little ones in packing school lunches leaves a lasting impact when it comes to developing a healthy relationship with what we eat. But the study conducted shows concrete evidence children are less likely to be picky when they take the time to make their own meals.

Along with fellow dietitian Julia Brod, Haines discovered the food you eat in adolescence plays a prominent role in what you eat in adulthood and can lead to a healthier life.

“If we established healthy habits over time, that can reduce our risk of chronic disease,” Haines said. “Getting kids to be excited about, and willing to try and eat healthy foods early in life can have those long term effects.”

For especially young ones, Haines recommends getting them involved in a grocery shop – but not necessarily the big weekly trip. She also said that timing of the trip is crucial.

“Like many things we do with our kids, we're thoughtful about when's the best time to do it, right,” Haines said. “So, after their nap or something, that might be the best time to take them.”

She shared a tip from a father involved with the GFHS, who said he makes shopping in the produce section like a treasure hunt where his kids can pick one fruit or vegetable of their choice.

“It got them kind of excited to pick something that they've never tried or something novel and that was also way to get them involved that was kind of fun,” Haines said. “Those are just some ways that get them directed into the kind of tasks you want them to do, as opposed to, you know, sort of asking for less healthy options that you don't want them to have.”

Once you’ve shopped for the items, you can get young children involved with simple tasks like tearing and washing lettuce, snapping beans and cleaning fruits – which is where curbing the picky eating comes in.

“We're thinking about ‘What are simple ways I can get them involved so that they are getting more familiar with how it's prepared so they can start to learn some of those skills’,” Haines said. “But then also, they were sort of proud of what we were preparing so would be more interested in trying to try out some of those.”

The study was directed at children under six, but Haines said developing food literacy can happen at any age. For older kids, it doesn’t necessarily have to be lunch prep they’re involved in.

“This is something that older kids can set certainly be a part of and can take more independence and some of the prep for either lunch or dinner,” Haines said.

She added it’s never too late to start eating healthier and developing better habits.

Haines and her team are continuing their research among families with preschool aged children. To learn more or to sign up, families can visit