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Teaching Nutrition Concepts to Preschoolers
By Keecha Harris

Preschool learning environments offer prime opportunities for establishing healthful attitudes and knowledge about food and nutrition. Often, however, more emphasis is placed on flavor than on the teachable attributes foods offer like colors, shapes, food origin, texture, and smell. When introducing nutrition concepts to preschoolers, it is important to build upon their pre-existing knowledge and integrate nutrition education into other activities.

Let the following ideas inspire you to incorporate nutrition education into all areas of the curriculum.

One of the basic nutrition concepts for preschoolers is identifying new foods. “Smelly Socks” is an excellent way to teach the identity of various foods. Begin by presenting five fruits: an apple, an orange, a banana, a kiwi, and a pear. Then ask the children a variety of questions, such as “What is this?”

“Did you know that fruit can grow fur?”

“What color is this?”

“What shape is this fruit?” After each item has been identified and described, proceed with “Smelly Socks” as a small group activity. Place each piece of fruit in a clean sock. Allow each child to take turns smelling, touching, and describing the contents of the sock. No peeking. See if the children can guess what’s inside the sock. This activity can also be done with carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, corn, and tomatoes.

Foods and mealtimes can also be used to reinforce colors, shapes, numbers, social skills, language, and motor skill development. A menu consisting of cheese pizza, tater tots, tossed salad, melon medley, and milk, for example, presents a number of learning opportunities. Ask the children the following questions:

“What colors do you see?”

“What is the shape of the pizza?”

“What is in the salad?”

“How many tater tots do you have?”

When these items are offered again, challenge the children to remember the shape of pizza and the colors in a salad.In addition to mealtimes, nutrition education can be expanded to other areas of the curriculum. Making fruit juice, for example, provides an opportunity to reinforce the science of nutrition. At this age, many preschoolers have not connected juices with the fruit or vegetable the juice is made from.

Allowing the children to make their own juice helps them to make the connection. To make orange juice, have each child place an orange half in a zip-topped bag. Zip the seal closed. Allow each child to squeeze the orange to produce juice. Take the orange half out. Open the seal of the bag wide enough to pass a straw through. Voila! Orange juice. This activity can also be supplemented with questions like

“Where did the juice come from?” and “What other juices do we drink?”

While children learn to identify and try new foods from the activities above, nothing is more important than sitting and enjoying meals with the children. Eating with the children gives you a chance to participate at mealtime and to explore teachable moments. A simple question such as, “What is this new green stuff on my plate?” can be expanded beyond the meal to include stories about gardening and accepting new foods (Oliver’s Vegetables by Vivian French and Growing Vegetables by Lois Ehlert are two wonderful examples).

Sharing meals with children also allows you to model behavior. If children see you eating broccoli and spinach, chances are that they will attempt to eat it, too. In addition, you might want to participate in family-style meal service. Family-style meal service promotes self-help skills, develops fine and gross motor skills, and encourages language development as the children participate in conversation and use table etiquette.Throughout the day, there are innumerable opportunities for formal and informal nutrition activities, not all of which require food. As with teaching any group of concepts, begin with the basics and advance as other developmental milestones are reached.

Keecha Harris, RD, LD, is a nutrition coordinator for JCCEO Head Start in Birmingham, AL, and a consultant for Head Start Region IV Training and Technical Assistance Service.