Kiwi kids told: eat your words

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Auckland, New Zealand

The Sanitarium Nutrition Service (SNS) is delivering a vegetarian education program in New Zealand schools that’s having some success in changing the minds of children who say they don’t like eating vegetables. 

It’s a promising start for a country where about one-third of children are overweight or obese.

School children in Manurewa take part in the vegetarian education program. [Photo courtesy: Anna Kirdman]

The “Eat Your Words” program is named after a fun activity where students cut up veggies and arrange the pieces to spell out their names . . . and then eat them. The philosophy behind the program is that if children become more familiar with plant-based foods—the seasons when they grow, how they’re prepared and how they taste—they’ll be more likely to include these foods in their diet as they grow.

The three-hour workshop held in seven New Zealand primary schools last year began with a 20-minute interactive nutrition session explaining the importance of vegetables, grains, legumes, fruit, nuts and seeds, followed by knife-handling training. Then it was on to the signature “eat your words” activity, after which the children watched a cooking demonstration and then had a go at preparing their own lunch: chickpea patties and coleslaw. 

To evaluate the program, the SNS team used questionnaires before and after the workshop and found that there was a 22 per cent increase in knowledge about what plant-based foods are and their health benefits. The questionnaires also showed that on average across the 13 foods surveyed there was a 28 per cent shift in the children’s preference towards liking those foods. 

These dishes have the students’ names written all over them. [Photo courtesy: Sanitarium Nutrition Service]

This year the SNS team is exploring different ways of presenting the workshops and trialling a longer series of three workshops that cover extra topics such as the four food groups, the importance of a healthy breakfast, a healthy lunch box, and reading food labels—all done in a fun and interactive way to ensure children stay engaged. 

The next challenge is connecting with parents. So far a key finding has been that providing parents with a cookbook containing cheap, healthy, plant-based recipes is likely to be a beneficial way to engage them and facilitate change.