Changing Childhood Eating Behaviors

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Changing Childhood Eating Behaviors

education, technology combine to help parents and kids

Interview with Dipti Dev Alexandria Lundvall

More than 75 percent of young children are cared for in child care or other non-parental settings. Research shows that early childhood is a formative development period for impacting children’s eating habits and setting them on a path of a lifetime of good health. Focusing on early childhood behaviors is critical in Nebraska, because the state ranks fourth in the United States in childhood obesity.

“They carry forward these healthy behaviors in adolescence and adulthood. Early childhood is a time when we can really make an impact to prevent obesity,” according to Dipti Dev, who is Betti and Richard Robinson Professor of Early Childhood in Extension at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Her research focuses on improving feeding practices for children in child care settings. Dev earned her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Nutritional Sciences, with her focus on improving the healthy eating behaviors of young children.  

“If we are able to improve children’s dietary intake and physical activity behaviors in early childhood, we can prevent obesity in adulthood,” Dev said.


Children in child care settings may eat most of their meals there, Dev said, so helping children, child care providers and parents understand the basics of healthy eating will benefit the child into adulthood.

Dev has developed an online curriculum for child care providers called “Ecological Approach To (EAT) Family Style Dining.” The EAT Family Style Dining curriculum includes seven lessons for child care providers. Each lesson includes short videos, pictures, practical strategies and examples of various situations related to improving childhood eating behaviors. The seven lessons are: Role Modeling; Peer Modeling; Sensory Exploration; Supporting Children’s Self-Regulation; Children Serving Themselves; Using Praise and Rewards Effectively; and Family Engagement.

Dev said the EAT Family Style Dining program translates her research into engaging videos that resonate with participants.


What if a plate could measure a child’s food intake in a child care setting? Dev collaborated with Santosh Pitla, assistant professor in the university’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering, and Ashu Guru, assistant professor of 4-H Youth Development, who has additional expertise in computer science in Extension to develop such a plate. 

Dev explained to Pitla the difficulty she was having measuring each child’s food intake. He suggested they automate the process and put sensors on a plate. Dev obtained $40,000 in grant funding; together they gathered an interdisciplinary team of researchers to work on the plate. 

Since the fall of 2016, Dev, Pitla and Guru have mentored students at the university’s Raikes School of Computer Science and Management to develop a plate that accurately weighs the portions of the food consumed. The prototype of the plate was launched in the summer of 2018.


Currently, Dev works with a team of undergraduate and graduate students to collect data that measure the impact of the research, Dev said. The team measures food acceptance and consumption. 

“Vegetable consumption is a big issue for children. Specifically, eating fewer vegetables has been linked to obesity. Yet, 9 in 10 children don’t eat the minimum recommended amount of vegetables (1.5 cups/day) and most of the vegetables eaten are fried potatoes. Therefore, improving children’s vegetable consumption is critical to improving dietary quality and preventing obesity,” Dev said.

“Professional development curriculum for child care providers, such as EAT Family Style Dining, targets children’s vegetable preference and consumption. We show children pictures of different fruits and vegetables and ask about their knowledge, familiarity and whether they think ‘yummy, yucky or just okay,’” she added. Then, after the child care setting has completed the curriculum, Dev measures again to see if the children have improved their food acceptance and dietary intake. Dev said the goal is for the interactive plate to weigh and measure consumption and hopefully, improvement – and then to transmit the data to a mobile app on a smartphone. 


Children eat approximately four to five meals each day in a full-time child care program, including breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, and mid-afternoon and late-afternoon snack. Child care programs can be reimbursed for the money spent on food, but to qualify for the reimbursement, they have to meet certain nutrition standards from the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). The goal is for children to have a well-balanced diet, Dev said, so CACFP requires child care providers to serve healthy meals, snacks and beverages to children and places emphasis on serving fruits, vegetables, whole grain and low-fat dairy. 

“If child care providers are following these standards, they are concerned that children will not like the taste of healthy foods and will waste most of the food,” Dev explained. “So how do we bridge the disconnect from serving children all these healthy foods but children don’t like the taste of some foods, especially vegetables?”

The goal of this EAT Family Style curriculum is to bridge the gap between serving healthy foods and children’s preferences while meeting child care providers’ challenges and requirements, all the while making mealtime more enjoyable.

“They want to improve children’s healthy behaviors, but the curriculum will empower them in how to do so,” Dev said. “So these are some ways to impact providers, but most importantly, the children, because that’s our ultimate goal.”

For example, the third lesson of the curriculum is about sensory exploration, Dev said. Children at this age love to explore everything with their senses. They want to touch, feel and smell everything. Through this curriculum, providers will have the opportunity to incorporate strategies at mealtime that will engage the children’s senses. The providers will ask questions such as, “What do you see? What color is this? What do you think will be the texture of the apple versus the pear?”


The curriculum is being piloted for one year across Nebraska to eight counties, reaching 600 children and 100 child care providers. The Nebraska Extension educators meet with the child care providers every other week to discuss their goals, challenges and areas for improvement. Based on the results of the first year, the EAT Family Style curriculum will be improved and disseminated to child care programs across Nebraska. 

“We want to be able to provide the best resources and address needs of Nebraska child care providers and families to encourage healthy eating habits in children,” Dev said.

If child care providers are interested in participating, Dev can be reached by email at