Teaching Children To Make Smart Food Choices

Share the Health: A statewide 4-H program teaches children and their parents how to live healthier lives.

Delaware is fat and getting fatter. Small wonder, when you hear stories like the following from a child who participated in the 4-H Food Smart Families program last year: “My dad drinks a lot of soda and was drinking one when I got home. So I pulled out our sugar handout and showed him how much sugar there was in the soda. He didn’t believe me.”

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So, just how much of the sweet (fattening) stuff is found in soda? Kathleen Splane of the UD Cooperative Extension, which runs the Food Smart program, explains in visual terms. “We tell children that if they consume a 20-ounce soda every day for a year, they are going to consume the equivalent of 13 bags of sugar,” she says. “We actually bring the empty bags of sugar for them to see.” Another child who took part in the program didn’t realize that super-sizing a meal at a fast-food restaurant was not the wisest choice.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of children in the United States ages 6-11 who were obese grew from 7 percent in 1980 to close to 18 percent in 2012. During that same span, the percentage of adolescents ages 12-19 who were obese increased from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent. And, as you’ve likely heard, childhood obesity leads to adult obesity. According to the CDC, in Delaware, 31.1 percent of adults are obese. That number increases to 37.3 percent for African-Americans. Health conditions related to obesity include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

In order to combat the state’s “growing” problem, the Cooperative Extension—the outreach arm of the university—and Delaware 4-H combined last year to form the 4-H Food Smart Families program to teach Delawareans young and old about better nutrition, cooking skills and grocery budgeting tips. The program was created by a grant from the ConAgra Foods Foundation through the National 4-H Council. ConAgra has re-upped its support for a second year.

During its first year, the program reached 2,344 youths during an eight-month period. The children learned lessons about the foods they should eat every day, what makes a balanced diet, why it is important to eat a healthy diet, how to cook healthy meals and how to shop on a budget. Many of the lessons are basic. For example, if you must satisfy your French fry craving at a fast-food restaurant, it is wiser to order the small serving, which contains two teaspoons of fat, as compared to the large size, which has five teaspoons of the bad stuff.

The children also participated in visual nutrition activities, like measuring the amount of sugar in Gatorade or measuring how much fat is in a Big Mac. “We all know fast food is here to stay,” says Splane, “but there are healthier choices at those places. It makes a big impact when they can see the visuals like that.”

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The program’s five lessons
focus on the following:

  • Making healthy fast-food choices.
  • Drinking low-fat milk and water instead of sweetened beverages.
  • Filling your plate with a rainbow—eat more vegetables and fruit.
  • Making half your grains whole.
  • Powering up your day by eating breakfast.

Through the program’s youth-adult partnership, adults help train teens in the nutrition curriculum so that the teens, in turn, can teach 8- to 12-year-olds. “We understand that an 11-year-old is much more likely to change their behavior if a 16-year-old is suggesting they do it, versus a 40-year-old,” Splane says.

The program culminated with a series of seven events resembling health fairs that were held from Wilmington to Dagsboro. More than 581 family members took part. The events target underserved, low-income families who, among other things, learn how to read a label to see whether the food has enough fiber. Adults experienced many of the lessons that their children learned, plus they were served dinner and were given groceries to take home to prepare the same recipes their kids made during the lesson.

“The parents and caregivers are the gatekeeper to what the children eat at home,” Splane says, adding that an impact report showed that the program indeed helped children change their behaviors. The report cites a 68 percent increase in the number of children who eat breakfast almost every day and says more than 50 percent added fruit to their diet. There was also a 15 percent increase of those who now choose a smaller serving of high-fat foods.

“If we eat lots of high-fat, high-sugar, calorie-dense foods, that’s going to take the place of eating healthier things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy,” Splane says. “One of the things we convey to the kids is try to have five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Then, if you still need more, go to the other items.”

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For more information or to have the program brought to your group, contact Splane at ksplane@udel.edu

Photograph By Carlos Alejandro

From left: Faith Wallace, Anna Wallace, Carmella Johnson (wearing eyeglasses), Riane Bailey and Christopher Bailey participated in the 4-H Food Smart Families program.

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