On a day that is usually all about candy, children from the preschool at the Douglass Psychology Child Study Center at Rutgers will be spending Halloween morning learning how to cook healthy food.More than 30 toddlers and preschoolers will make applesauce and learn how to bake pumpkin muffins as part of a program aimed at helping children make healthy food choices, which will set the stage for a healthier lifestyle as they grow. These lessons matter far more than the Halloween candy they might eat that night, Rutgers health experts agree.
“I might tell parents not to give their kids too much juice, but I won’t tell them to skip Halloween,” said Daniel Hoffman, director of the Center for Childhood Nutrition Education and Research at the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “The problem is not the holiday. It’s everything in between, that’s what we have to be worried about."
The institute – located on the Cook Campus – opened its doors last year and is bringing together researchers, policymakers, parents, children and students to help build a culture of good health in New Jersey. The Center for Childhood Nutrition Education and Research – an important research component of the institute – is focusing on ways to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity.
“If you look at the recent data on childhood obesity in New Jersey, it suggests that overall the state does all right,” said Peter Gillies, founding director of the institute. “But when you dig into the data, we find that low-income families in New Jersey are among those nationally that are having the worst childhood obesity problems which is immediately relevant for New Jersey.”
That is why the institute, as part of its multidisciplinary research collaboration, is conducting community-based research and expanding its healthy eating programs to young children and students in its teaching kitchen. Youngsters, including those from the Douglass preschool, make regular visits and learn where their food comes from, how to cook it and why it will make them healthy.
“It is extremely important to focus on these behavioral issues at an early age,” said Peggy Policastro, director of behavioral nutrition at the institute. “By the time people come to college their eating habits are pretty much set.”
Jennifer Manuola, director of the Douglass Psychology Child Study Center, said when the children at the preschool get involved in what’s going on in the kitchen at Rutgers they become engaged in the entire process. “We have found that when children are involved in the preparation of food, they are more likely to eat it because there is a sense of individual ownership,” she said.She and Rutgers experts believe educating young children and teaching them about healthy choices will set the stage for a healthier lifestyle as they grow. “Addressing the bigger picture instead of concentrating on one food or one holiday is what is important,” said Policastro.
The takeaway for parents, Hoffman said, is that if healthy eating habits throughout the year were to become the norm, parents wouldn’t have to worry about candy on Halloween, an overdose of carbs on Thanksgiving or a combination of the two on Christmas and New Year’s.
“Parents shouldn’t put undue pressure on themselves,” said Hoffman, himself a parent. “What is most important for parents to remember is that it is the lifelong habit of eating a healthful diet that is the main goal, not candy or sweets during a few celebrations."
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