Just a Few Quick Visits to the Garden and Kitchen May Help Kids Eat Healthier

New research shows that just a couple of cooking classes can have a long-term impact on diet choices.

(Photo: Vyacheslav Osokin/Getty Images)

Dec 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Endless are the tricks that adults use to get kids to eat vegetables. Derek Hersch has found a winning one in his Superhero Salad, which has the power to persuade kids to eat spinach.

Judging by a recent review of studies published in the Centers for Disease Controls’ Preventing Chronic Disease: Public Health Research, Practice and Policy, authored by Hersch, the #ThanksMichelleObama hashtag accompanying teens’ lousy photos of their healthy school-cafeteria lunches might never have taken off had someone just served those eaters one of his super-powered salads when they were still in kindergarten. The gist of the review? You gotta get ’em early.

Hersch analyzed studies of in-school cooking programs for kids ages 5 to 12 and found that they may make children more likely to choose healthy foods. He said the findings suggest that such programs might help children develop long-lasting healthy habits. That might not sound like such a big deal; Hersch expected to see some benefit to these programs, given how many schools use them. What was surprising was how little instruction it takes to change the way kids approach their leafy greens.

“Very little exposure and minimal contact with cooking education had an impact,” Hersch said. After just two sessions, children were more willing to try new fruits and vegetables—an outcome that was observed in kids who’d completed a two-year program, which raises questions about how long kids need this sort of exposure to see an impact.

Before doing this research, Hersch was a volunteer at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation’s Food Explorers program, where he introduced kindergarteners to the aforementioned Superhero Salad, fruit kebabs, and the rather delightful ceremony of wearing a chef’s toque in the classroom. Food Explorers has tried to move the education outside Twin Cities classrooms by gathering parent volunteers as well as schools’ food service staff into the fold. Food service manager Cheryl Rosa included jicama and spinach in the cafeteria after the vegetables were introduced in the Food Explorers program.

“If we start with our kids young, when they get to middle school, they’re not going to say ‘Yuck,’ ” she told the Star-Tribune.

Knowing both sides of this work, Hersch explained that the research was conducted with the aim of identifying best practices that could be turned into a replicable model at places such as Food Explorers.

“We really want to establish this strong base of evidence that these types of programs are effective, and with that evidence base hopefully drive some policy changes for cooking education in schools across the country,” he said. “How can we design a program that uses minimal resources and can be packaged and transferrable? That way schools—regardless of neighborhood and resources—will be able to implement such a program. That’s what public health programs aim to do: increase access to these programs for everyone.”

The latest figures available from the CDC show an 18 percent childhood obesity rate for kids ages 6 to 11—more than double what it was in 1980. The rising obesity rate has been attributed in part to fewer meals prepared and eaten at home.

Hersch thinks that seeds grown in school gardens could be another reinforcing measure in getting kids to eat. “That’s one direction that really needs to be looked at: Should school gardens play a role in these cooking programs?” he said. One study Hersch examined featured a school garden, but the study wasn’t able to parse whether the garden or cooking program had influenced the students’ behavioral changes for the better.

“Everyone is looking for the best way to get everyone to eat healthier,” Hersch said. “Cooking programs really get at that by engaging children while they’re developing some of these habits. Going through school, having these values reinforced so that when they’re on their own they have these skills and these values established. They’re planting the seed.”

But perhaps two programs with proven efficacy could be even more successful when implemented in tandem. Multiple studies have shown that school gardening programs lead to kids eating significantly more fruits and vegetables, having better health, and actually liking their vegetables more.

Whatever success happens at school, experts agree that the cooking needs to continue at home. A new study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition proves what many of us have suspected anecdotally—home cooking makes for better health.

Hersch’s own sign of success is pretty simple. He keeps a printout from a parent survey on his desk from a mom whose daughter now requests spinach, the secret ingredient in Superhero Salad.