Study Develops Strategies to Help Young Children Enjoy, Choose Healthy Foods

Researcher Says Food Preferences Develop Early in Childhood

What parent isn’t familiar with the attitude and turned up noses that greet vegetables at mealtime? Convincing young children to eat healthy foods can be a challenge, but a new study from the University of Houston Department of Health and Human Performance (HHP) aims to teach parents strategies to encourage young children to choose healthy offerings. 

“Habits, behaviors, preferred foods—these are instilled and developed early in life, before the age of five,” said dietician and HHP assistant professor Tracey Ledoux. “We’re seeing how influential that time period is. It’s a critical and sensitive period for eating-behavior development.”ledoux

The effort, funded by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation, will survey parents of children age two to five years old about mealtime habits and challenges. From those responses, training videos will be developed to depict positive parenting strategies for dealing with such issues as picky eating, resistance to trying new foods, begging for food between meals and poor table manners. A survey given to parents before and after viewing the videos will examine if the strategies assisted in behavior changes. 

“It’s a mistake to think kids are born liking something or not liking it,” she said. “Children have to be exposed to healthy foods—like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats—over and over again, in different ways, prepared in different ways. They have to see their parents enjoying these foods, and then, over time, they’ll come to accept and like them.”

The videos are intended to be a tool used in conjunction with counseling or other programs. They also will be available on platforms such as YouTube and other websites.

Ledoux, also a researcher with the UH Texas Obesity Research Center, said the parenting strategies will help parents support their children in eating in response to hunger.

“That means helping kids to eat only when they’re hungry and to stop when they’re full. Babies are born with these kinds of signals, but by the age of four they’re overridden by things like school routines or home practices of eating for reasons other than hunger,” she said.  

Ledoux said the study will provide measurable data about instilling healthy eating habits in very young children, a population for which there is not a great deal of obesity research.

“If you can intervene with parents at that time, and prevent the development of unhealthy eating habits and promote the development of healthy eating habits, it will be something that children take with them for their life,” she said. 

For more information on the Department of Health and Human Performance, visit

For more information on the UH Texas Obesity Research Center, visit