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Health systems

Children learn to ‘Eat Smart’ at child care


Children in child care are learning more than just shapes and colors these days. Now they learn how to eat smart.

At 48 child care centers across the state, children are learning healthy eating habits through the Eat Smart program. In partnership with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, University of Missouri Extension provides nutrition and health specialists to help child care centers meet the Missouri Eat Smart Guidelines.

Nearly a third of children ages 2 to 5 are overweight or obese, according to Robin Gammon, at the time an MU Extension nutrition and health specialist. According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has doubled in the past 30 years.

By the time children reach kindergarten, they have already developed eating habits that can carry into adulthood, so it’s important to influence eating habits early, Gammon said.

Since 2010, MU Extension nutrition and health specialists have been working on the Eat Smart program to help child care centers make snacks and meals more nutritious. They also conduct nutrition workshops for the staff and teach them how to incorporate nutrition education into lesson plans.

Photo: Children eating healthy lunches at a daycare

“Thousands of kids are eating healthier food and developing healthier habits because of the program,” Gammon said. She added that it takes an average of 18 months for child care centers to move from processed, fried and canned foods to made-from-scratch foods, fresh fruits and vegetables. Gradually, children become interested in trying new foods such as broccoli or cauliflower once they see their fellow classmates and teachers enjoying the food.

Gammon called it the “herd effect” and she hopes that students will then influence their parents and other family members to eat healthier by asking for foods they have tried at day care.

Shelley Gifford, director of Little Einstein’s Learning Center in Blue Springs, said she had child development training but didn’t have a background in nutrition, so she was grateful for the coaching and hands-on technical training from MU staff.

With patience and persistence, teachers at Little Einstein have helped children make better choices. Gifford has incorporated food discussions into everyday learning activities, such as planning and growing a garden at the center.

MU Extension nutrition specialist Susan Mills-Gray said meals are served family style, with children serving themselves at the table from common platters, so they control what and how much they eat. They also learn manners and social skills by helping set the table and clearing dishes when the meal is finished.

Outside food is not allowed at Eat Smart centers, so cupcakes, cookies and cakes are not permitted. “We don’t always have to celebrate with cake, cookies or candy,” Gray said.


The Eat Well Be Well with Diabetes program helped Missourians with diabetes learn strategies and habits to improve their quality of life through programs delivered across the state. Participants learned about changing their diet to keep blood sugar levels in check, monitoring blood sugar levels, making healthier food choices and preparing healthy meals.

The Health Insurance Education Initiative (HIEI) delivered 230 workshops reaching over 3,000 Missourians through face-to-face programming. HIEI’s media efforts — through TV, radio, newsprint, public service announcements and website hits — reached approximately 400,000 Missourians.