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Head Start makes healthy eating a family affair

Head Start makes healthy eating a family affair

You are born with about 10,000 taste buds. Your tastes change as you age. As you grow older, you may begin enjoying foods that you once didn’t like. Sweets might not taste as good to you as they did when you were a kid. You might begin eating—and even preferring—salty, spicy and bitter foods. Coffee may taste good. Brussels sprouts too.

But a lot of our flavor preferences are also rooted in our early experiences with food. As adults, we gravitate towards the foods we ate when we were children.

It’s something Elizabeth Valentine, nutrition specialist for Great Lakes Community Action Partnership, takes into account when she reviews menus, meets with parents and educates children and families in GLCAP’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

“Our families are making better food choices, and I think it’s because of the education and because of programs like ours where you can actually sit down and talk with parents and point them in the direction of what they can afford and what they might enjoy,” Valentine said.

In Valentine’s experience, parents are much more conscious about the foods that they should be eating. But some parents may be unfamiliar with how to incorporate healthy foods into a meal, especially if they’ve never prepared or used certain fruits or vegetables before in their cooking.

However, it is mostly the affordability of food that is of primary concern with low-income families who are on tight budgets, and may rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds for assistance. Unfortunately, the cost of eating fresh, unprocessed foods instead of less healthy options is typically more expensive, averaging about $1.50 more per person, per day, according to a 2013 Harvard School of Public Health study. A household of four would spend roughly $2,200 more per year just to incorporate fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats and other good nutritional choices into their diets. While this cost can ultimately be cheaper than the adverse health conditions associated with a lifetime of poor eating habits, families may still gravitate towards less healthy options to save money.

One way that Head Start programs can help families embrace healthy eating habits is by introducing children to new fruits, vegetables and other nutritious foods in the classroom. When grocery budgets are limited, families may be less inclined to take a risk on purchasing foods that children and other household members may not eat and enjoy, and ends up getting thrown away and wasted. Knowing that their children will eat and enjoy healthy foods alleviates this risk.

“The kids surprise their parents when they go home and tell them that they’ve tried certain things,” Valentine said. “Parents think, ‘Oh, I never thought my kids would like that.” So parents try and incorporate it in their diet at home.”

Early Childhood centers also coordinate with other organizations such as county Ohio State University Extension offices for SNAP education programs for children in the classroom. Valentine also conducts family education throughout the year during parents’ nights and other outreach events at GLCAP Early Childhood Centers. Connecting with parents on healthy meal options can help change family eating habits, and give children a taste for healthy foods that will stay with them as they continue to grow.

“If their parents eat a certain food, children are more likely to try it as well,” Valentine said. “If you’re trying it, your child is more likely to eat it.”

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