Child care study examines whether kids eat healthier when mealtimes are positive

Jasmin Smith, wearing an orange shirt, stands in front of a colorful mural inside of Carolyn Pope Edwards Hall and smiles for a photo.
Graduate student Jasmin Smith is exploring the impact of mealtime emotional climate on child care providers’ feeding practices and children’s dietary outcomes.

Child care study examines whether kids eat healthier when mealtimes are positive

20 Mar 2023     By Chuck Green, CYFS

As any parent knows, children and vegetables aren’t always a natural match. Research shows preschool-aged children are not meeting dietary recommendations, particularly when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables.

Dietary preferences are set early in life and carry throughout the lifespan, and poor diet is a risk factor for obesity, cancer, type II diabetes and other chronic diseases.

The good news: Eating habits can be changed.

Positive mealtime emotional climate is created through communication, warmth, nurturing and group enjoyment. When children are at home, positive mealtime emotional climate has been associated with improving dietary intake, while a negative climate may translate into higher consumption of unhealthy foods, such as cookies and sugary sodas.

However, mealtime emotional climate has not yet been examined in child care settings. With more children spending a significant amount of time in child care, research in such settings is needed to ensure children get the nutritional and emotional support they need to thrive.

“Through our systematic review, we found that positive mealtime emotional climate is linked to positive child outcomes, including healthy weight status, healthful dietary intake and lowered disordered eating behaviors,” said Jasmin Smith, graduate student in Human Sciences–Child Development/Early Childhood Education at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “However, children can consume up to five meals and snacks in the child care setting, so it is important to also focus on the impact of emotional climate on child outcomes in child care.”

Smith and her faculty mentor, Dipti Dev, Betti and Richard Robinson associate professor of child, youth and family studies and Nebraska Extension specialist, are leading a project to explore the impact of mealtime emotional climate on child care providers’ feeding practices and children’s dietary outcomes. The team will pilot Mealtime Emotional Climate in Childcare Observation Scales (MECCOS) to assess mealtime emotional climate in family child care homes (FCCH) — licensed facilities in providers’ own homes, which are prevalent in rural areas.

“Compared to larger, traditional child care centers, the owner of a family child care home serves as the facility’s teacher, cook and business manager,” Dev said. “Along with teaching and caring for the children, they are cooking, serving the food and feeding children ranging from infants to age 5. So the mealtime environment in FCCH has structural barriers compared to a center-based child care facility. And as business owners, FCCH providers don’t want to waste food.”

Nebraska has about 1,830 licensed FCCH providers and 902 large child care centers — ratios that are similar nationally, Dev said.

Data will be gathered through video recording of two mealtimes for each of about 100 rural Nebraska FCCH sites before participation in the Ecological Approach to (EAT) Family Style program and two mealtimes after completion. Providers’ feeding practices will be measured through surveys and observation, and data collectors will monitor children’s food consumption.

Dev led development of the EAT Family Style program that has improved feeding practices and children’s diets. After participating in EAT Family Style, providers also reported that mealtimes were more pleasant, providers were less stressed during mealtimes and children were more engaged — a surprising outcome to researchers, who aim to determine whether EAT Family Style can improve mealtime emotional climate in child care settings.

“Above all, we want to find whether changing mealtime emotional climate can be an agent of change in improving children’s diet,” Dev said.

Researchers will use findings to develop a toolkit for researchers to measure mealtime emotional climate in child care settings, and create videos for students and researchers to guide them with analyzing observations and data. Dev also hopes to develop a mealtime emotional climate certification at UNL for researchers and students nationally.

“In addition to sharing with researchers, I want to use these tools to train child care professionals and show them, ‘Here is what positive mealtime emotional climate looks like, here is the work we have done in actual child care settings and here are the tools you can use given the limitations you have, such as budget and resources,’” Dev said. “We want to provide realistic tools and professional development that can be used within each provider’s environment.”

The CYFS-housed project is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-Administration for Children and Families, and the Buffett Early Childcare Institute. Statewide stakeholders supporting the project include Nebraska Extension, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Nebraska Department of Education, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and Early Learning Connections.

Along with Smith and Dev, other research team members include Saima Hasnin, doctoral candidate in the Department of Child, Youth and Family Studies; and Carly Hillburn, EAT Family Style program manager. Dev’s research lab students will help recruit and collect data.

“I’m excited about bringing providers a clear picture of what positive meal emotional climate can look like,” Dev said. “We want to show them how to develop a positive mealtime climate that can help children eat better and establish positive eating habits that last a lifetime.”

Family child care providers interested in participating in the project may contact the research team.

Learn more about this project in the CYFS Research Network. The project aligns with the UNL Grand Challenges of early childhood education and development and health equity.

College of Education and Human Sciences
Child, Youth and Family Studies

Thriving Young Children